“We are really serious about changing the way education works” -

Grading Strike at the UvA

By Céline Zahno | Campus | June 10, 2022

Cover Illustration: University of Amsterdam Roeterseiland Campus. Frans Ruiter / Unsplash

Campus reporter Céline Zahno gives a run-down of the ongoing grading strike at the UvA, detailing the complaints and demands of staff members on temporary contracts at the University and throughout the Netherlands.

Update: This article was written before the 7th of June, when the grading strike was officially suspended by Casual UvA. The junior lecturers decided to release all grades of Block 5 in response to the announcement of a new HR policy. The policy will take immediate effect and has the potential to improve the demands voiced by Casual UvA, especially the working conditions of those on a temporary contract. However, the policy does not alleviate all of Casual UvA’s concerns and they will thus monitor the implementation and outcomes of the policy closely. 

The relief of finally feeling familiar with the hallways of the University of Amsterdam does not last long for freshly hired junior lecturers. Their contracts last a maximum of only three years – the same length as a regular bachelor’s program. Just as they get the hang of teaching their courses, they already have to think about leaving the university and finding a new job. This on top of their intense workload.

Currently, junior teachers at the UvA can only get temporary contracts. According to Dutch law, the contract can only be renewed twice, for a total of three years. This regulation is meant to force employers to give people permanent contracts. Anna Salden, a junior lecturer at the political science department explains: “You are supposed to give people insecurity for three years maximum. The university is misusing this to just discard people after three years and rehire new people because it’s cheaper”.

Salden considers herself part of the more ‘mature’ faculty members, even though she has only been at the university slightly longer than two years. She is aware that she and her colleagues are doing well at their jobs, yet they need to look for new employment as their contract will come to an end soon. The situation becomes more difficult due to the extremely high amount of work the university assigns to junior lecturers. “I am working nights and weekends”, Salden says. “On top of all the work I am doing, I do not have time to think about my next job.”

The junior lecturers of UvA’s various social science departments have been on strike since April 2022. They have not been releasing their students’ grades in order to pressure the university’s Executive Board to introduce changes. Three joint demands form the core of their purpose: addressing the systemic overwork and exploitation of junior lecturers, promoting the visibility of issues of those employed on a temporary contract and demanding improved working conditions for temporary workers.

Liam Rhatigan is a junior lecturer of Political Science and an active member of Casual UvA, the collective of employees on temporary contracts organizing the grading strike. He explains that the current situation not only creates personal struggles for junior lecturers, but also a precarious environment for education at the University.  “We improve as teachers over time, and we can help improve the courses we teach once we have experience. But due to this very fast turnover of staff, there is a completely different set of teachers every three years. This affects the quality of the courses.” Rhatigan calls this a “brain drain.” A lot of the more experienced colleagues would like to stay, which would benefit the quality of education greatly, but they are forced to leave.

Lecturers had been voicing these concerns for years to no avail before Casual UvA took the initiative to mobilize junior lecturers to embark on a path of collective action. Salden explains: “It’s nice to have someone directing our demands more effectively now. Before, we always got redirected by the university.” Rhatigan reiterates: “This strike has not come out of the blue. The problems we are facing have been vocalized for months during department meetings. We were always met with the same response, that this is outside of the department’s competence. Eventually, we found this to be an unacceptable answer.”

According to Rhatigan, a few advances have been made since the start of the strike. “We are happy to see that the Executive Board seems to take our problems seriously. They have given many positive verbal signs about their recognition of our demands, and they also accelerated the development of a new HR policy.” HR director Robert Grem mentioned that soon, at least 50% of junior lecturers should be employed on permanent contracts. The other half will receive a four-year entry-level job, which still takes the form of a temporary contract. As a signal that Casual UvA is content with the direction of these developments, they have decided to release the grades of Block 4. 

However, the strike continues, and the grades of Block 5 are still on hold: “The reason we are continuing striking is because there is not sufficient concrete detail for us to be confident that these changes are going to happen. So far, there has not been enough guarantee that the announced changes will be implemented, especially in ways that are actually going to change the current situation substantially.” 

Casual UvA is still waiting for an agreeable response from the Executive Board. What such a response entails is determined in an ongoing collective discussion. Rhatigan elaborates: “There is no time limit or formal set of conditions that we have sent to the Executive Board; it is more of a pragmatic approach where we are constantly seeing what is on the table, what is being offered to us, and whether that is acceptable.”

However, Casual UvA is also conscious that the UvA does not operate in a vacuum. The conditions of higher education staff are determined by the Dutch collective labor agreement. This is settled yearly by education and employee unions. “We are also relying on unions and universities to listen to us and take up these demands,” says Rhatigan.  

Many of the current circumstances can be traced back to policy at the national and governmental levels. During the last years, there have been cuts made to financing university education, specifically for social science and humanities departments. Furthermore, UvA has grown substantially in terms of student numbers during the past years. “The University tries to achieve the same standard of education with fewer resources. They try to compensate for this by putting more pressure on the staff.” 

The current grading strike is not only directed at the UvA as an institution, but hopes to have a wider impact. “We are really serious about changing the way education works at an institutional, and ideally at a national level. We see this strike as a first small step for a more large-scale transformation”, Rhatigan states. “We absolutely hope that the government recognizes that if they are serious about having a high-quality education system, they need to make changes”. As it stands, Casual UvA hopes that the University takes their demands as far as they can within the institutional setup and given their available resources. They are aiming at an example for the national level of how things can be different.

Until then, however, some current students worry about their education. Many have not received concrete feedback for assignments and exams dating back several weeks. “I still have no clue how I am performing in this course, even though it has already ended”, says one student. Students that need final grades for scholarships, internships or master’s programs are being put in an especially difficult position. 

In response, Rhatigan assures students that “no one should be put in a position where they lose out on something personally. If there are circumstances where there is an immediate dependence on grades, a dialogue with teachers and study advisers should be opened and there will be a way to accommodate the situation.”

The ongoing strike seems to be a stepping stone for a larger transformation in the Dutch education system. As such, this is an issue that concerns all parties involved at the university: junior lecturers, permanent staff but also students, policymakers and the government. Rhatigan concludes: “There are far wider conversations to be had about how education works. For Casual UvA, our payment conditions and the temporary nature of the workforce seem like a good place to start and get the ball rolling.”

Céline Zahno is a student at the University of Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer. 

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