Dijkgraaf’s ‘Starters grant’ leads to dichotomy among academic staff

The starter grants that Minister Dijkgraaf wants to use at the universities are only intended for newly appointed lecturers. According to David Peeters and Juliëtte Schaafsma, this leads to an undesirable division among academic staff.

Image: Jason Goodman / Unsplash

It seems like a great start to the academic year. Universities can look forward to additional incentives, for example in the form of so-called ‘starter grants’. All newly appointed university lecturers will receive a starter package of no less than 300,000 euros. They can use this amount at their own discretion to spend 80 percent of their working time on research, to appoint a PhD student or postdoc or to fund research facilities. Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf (Education, D66) invests 156 million euros annually over a period of ten years.

It is wonderful that the minister is prepared, after years of structural underfunding, to allocate extra resources to the universities. Since 2000, the government grant per student has decreased by 25 percent, while the number of students has more than doubled. Scientists were responsible for the rising shortage, resulting in an irresponsible workload and an undesirable growth in the number of temporary appointments in frantic efforts to keep education up and running. However, the long-awaited multimillion-dollar investment threatens to end in disastrous failure.

Result: less solidarity within departments and even more competition

Most painfully, a start-up grant leads to an unfair disadvantage and further demotivation of those who have suffered the blows for years: they have to watch how their new colleagues, on a very arbitrary basis – the date of their employment – receive money and opportunities that they themselves can only dream. The inevitable result: less solidarity within departments and even more competition. The so-called incentive grants for assistant professors and professors that the minister has also promised do not alter this: they only represent a fraction of the starter grants. Those who fall outside the scope of the starter grants have no choice but to write grant applications, inevitably in the evenings.

Temporary contracts

And the starter’s grant does not lead to a reduction in workload or to an end to the many temporary contracts. If starting university lecturers (including those appointed through the minister’s so-called ‘sector plans’) choose to spend 80 percent of their time on research, their teaching must be taken over by others: the colleagues present or newly recruited. Appointing another university lecturer is not obvious, because he too can ‘buy out’ from education with a starters grant. It is obvious that more teachers will be hired with a temporary contract, who will mainly be given teaching tasks. If the lucky ones on their starter grant appoint a PhD student or postdoc, this leads to even more PhDs with little prospect of a permanent appointment.

This creates an undesirable dichotomy, in which a select, new group is given a gold-edged position.

This creates an undesirable dichotomy, in which a select, new group is given a golden-edged position and the burden is borne by overworked colleagues or by temporary teachers without perspective. Recruiting for that thankless task becomes a hopeless exercise. But it can also have consequences for the choices that universities make when hiring new university lecturers themselves: the generous starter package with the possibilities it offers means that they will raise the bar much higher.

Such a position threatens to become unattainable for PhDs with mainly educational experience. For already permanently appointed university lecturers, it is becoming attractive to apply en masse elsewhere in the country: the only way to still qualify for a starter grant. The consequences of such a carousel are incalculable.

Sigh of relief

It seemed so nice when Minister Dijkgraaf announced that he wanted to make work on the necessary and overdue investments in higher education: a sigh of relief went through the academic community. There are now serious concerns about his plans. Dijkgraaf was made aware of this and did some tweaking, but not with effect. A minister who keeps his back straight in the face of criticism, you would wish that elsewhere.

It would be profoundly sad if the intended investments miss their target and, above all, lead to new problems. And that while the alternative is obvious: to divide the available money for starters and incentive grants among all scientific staff members in the form of a personal research budget. Then they decide for themselves how best to reduce the workload and how to increase research time, also in collaboration and consultation with colleagues. That is a real, just and structural solution.

David Peeters is associate professor and chair of the Young Academy at Tilburg University and Juliëtte Schaafsma is TiU professor of Humanities and Digital Sciences. This opinion previously appeared in NRC.

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The article is in Dutch

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