“When do we get our grades back?” is probably one of the questions heard most often by any teacher. And from my experience, the teachers at the university of Amsterdam are usually quite fast to provide a satisfactory answer. Not this term though. The director of the College of Communication, Bas van den Putte, has sent a rather mysterious e-mail, informing students that grades will not be released any time soon – because our teachers, more precisely Casual UvA, are striking. Striking because of unfair working conditions, the precarity of temporary contracts and the lack of support the university offers its teachers.
The UvA likes to take pride in being one of the most renowned universities world-wide, yet it seems that the university headboard may have forgotten whose support has been pivotal to getting the reputation of academic excellence in the first place: the teachers. I had the chance to interview one of our junior lecturers in Communication Science, Mark O’Neill, who explained to me the importance of Casual UvA and this grading strike.
To provide some background information, Casual UvA is a group of employees on temporary contracts from different university departments. Casual is derived from the word ‘casualisation’, a shift in which universities focus more on being “efficiency-driven business models”, rather than academic institutions focused on learning. Mark explained how the strike is necessary to make temporary workers’ voices heard.
“On Monday, a few colleagues and I met to discuss concerns about our working conditions. On Wednesday, our department was ranked number one in the world, again. On Friday, we voted to go on strike.”
Casual UvA announced its strike on April 1st. Being frustrated with the heavy workload and pressure to grade final exams, the Communication Science department decided to join the strike a few days later – after UvA had so proudly announced its ranking success on their Instagram account. Yet, no traces of the demands made by Casual UvA.
This year, once again, the University of Amsterdam has been awarded the first place on the newest QS rankings in communication and media studies, making it the best university worldwide in this domain. Among students worldwide, this is one of the main reasons to study Communication Science at the UvA.
Now, if you filter all other factors out, and only look for best universities based on employer reputation, the university of Amsterdam suddenly does not look so appealing anymore, ranking merely #50 on the list.
The ranking is made of multiple indicators, one being ‘employer reputation’. Now, if you filter all other factors out, and only look for best universities based on employer reputation, the university of Amsterdam suddenly does not look so appealing anymore, ranking merely #50 on the list. One of the reasons may be that the university has started to give out more and more temporary contracts, to the dismay of many teachers. While we as students often complain about how much work there is to complete, we often forget the other side of the medal – teachers work hard to prepare courses and grade assignments for hundreds of students on a weekly basis. And it is not difficult to imagine the mental pressure that results from not knowing whether your contract will be extended, or in other words, how long you will be able to keep your job.
“We would also like to be employed on the same footing, so we can develop lasting relationships with one another.”
Another question I asked Mark was why UvA gives out temporary contracts if they tend to rehire their teachers once their temporary contracts end. The answer is: flexibility. Less students may enrol to study at the university next year, which would require less teachers – so far that sounds quite logical. But should workforce flexibility really be the first priority of a university?
Apparently, the university fails to appreciate its structural building block without which its function as providing a learning experience to students cannot be carried out.
“Teachers with temporary contracts can only be rehired three times before the UvA is obliged to offer them a permanent contract under Dutch law, but rather than rewarding veteran teachers with a longer contract, the UvA hires brand new temporary teachers and the cycle continues.”
Admittedly, when I first came to hear about the strike, my first thought was rather selfish: Why do we, as students, have to bear the consequences of something we have no influence over? But I realised soon enough that these thoughts are too short-sided. If our teachers are not treated with enough respect and their workload is too high, it is quite evident that they will not be able to upload their teaching quality in the long run.
“With better training and development opportunities, we can lead better workgroup lessons and prepare our students best for the future too. But none of this is possible unless our workload is brought under control.”
This collective action sets a better precedent for democratisation.
I also wanted to know what Mark personally hoped the strike would be able to achieve. Not only should the strike result in short-term improvements, but structural changes in work policies over time ought to be achieved as well, signalling that teachers are finally being heard. Furthermore, hopefully, “this collective action sets a better precedent for democratisation”. A university should not work like a hierarchical company with managers imposing their wills on employees. Both students and teachers should feel the freedom to voice their opinion and know that their claims are taken seriously. If this strike is successful, it can help inspire others in the future to defend their positions.
“This cultural shift, to me, is the far greater potential of the strike to have lasting impacts on our entire community.”
To show your solidarity, you can reach out to teachers you care about to share a message of support, write to the Dean and CvB, talk to your student leaders, pledge support, and follow @casualuva on social media to learn about their platform and other ways to help.
For more information, please visit https://casualuva.carrd.co/.
Edited by: Emma Chiaratti
photo: Martin Lopez of Pexels