Photo: Hansfoto

I cannot help it. I am writing this column while students have occupied the administration offices in the “Maagdenhuis”. I need to say something about it. The problem is that I have always thought myself to be left wing. And somehow, this makes me think that I should agree with these students and the faculty members that have supported them. But basically, I don’t.

Let’s start with the objections that these activists have to the “efficiency criteria” (my translation of “rendementsdenken”) that the university board uses to guide policy making. For example, this way of thinking led to the decision to stop offering bachelor programs in small languages like Norwegian. There are simply not enough students interested in pursuing them in Amsterdam (perhaps because those really interested in the Norwegian culture and language go to Oslo). The students are really mad at our board for making this decision. I, however, see the logic. Of course we need to consider how much our programs cost and what benefits they offer. Universities in the Netherlands are heavily subsidized by Dutch tax payers. Most of these tax payers do not benefit directly from the university system. It is a moral obligation to use this money wisely.

This is not to say that every program should be profitable (in fact, most are probably not). There are obvious externalities to higher education and this benefits all tax payers. But it does not mean that anything goes. I would be willing to stand up in front of the first shift at some factory in the Netherlands and argue that university programs in science, economics, history, Latin, and English (to name a few) have added-value to society as a whole. I would not be able to do so for many other programs, including Norwegian. I seriously doubt that the students active in the Maagdenhuis would be willing (let alone able) to do so.

Another objection to the efficiency criteria is the alleged pressure to finish your studies quickly. This argument is absurd. The criterion used at the UvA is that 70% of the students must finish their bachelor program in FOUR years. We are talking about three-year programs. Who in a healthy state of mind can seriously consider this to be an efficiency demand? We have evolved to a situation where the average student spends around 25 hours per week on programs that have been developed for 40-hour weeks. The problem of not finishing in three years lies not in the teaching, not in efficiency, but in student efforts. This is partly because students feel that they should use the college years to develop in more ways than just academically. That’s fair enough, in principle. The only problem is that you can only make this kind of decision fairly if you take into account all costs and benefits. It’s like buying a car when someone else is paying for most of it. You might end up with a Ferrari while you would have settled with an Opel had you been required to pay full costs.

The second major theme adopted by these students is democracy. They feel that students and faculty ought to have more say in university policy. There is a lack of memory here. We’ve had this democratic system in the past. Effectively, students tend to say “no” and talk about procedures a lot. This makes sense. Students have a short-term horizon, most of them will leave after a few years. Moreover, most students are not yet at a stage in life where they have gained the knowledge and experience needed for many managerial decisions (remember, these are the same students who feel that one should use the years in college to develop into ‘useful members of society’).

Faculty participation in decision making has problems of its own. Past experience shows that there is a high willingness to do managerial tasks by those who have too much time because they spend little time on class preparation and research. They tend to lack the knowhow needed, precisely because they do not invest enough in knowledge development. Those who do spend time on the primary tasks end up coming to meetings unprepared and unmotivated. Both types are terrible decision makers. Of course, many fall in between these two extremes, but the basic tension between keeping up with the field and having time for management exists. The transition to more professional management at Dutch Universities a decade-and-a-half ago was a good idea.

Does this mean I think our board and management are doing a good job? No! There are many problems related to financial transparency, real estate, budget allocation, bureaucratic overhead, etc. A fundamental change is needed. But bad management means that managers need to change policies or be replaced, not that we need to go back to a system that has failed in the past.