W ith an election looming on 15 May, Next Wave Netherlands has been asking party decision-makers what scientists can expect from their manifestos. This week, we hear about D66's plans to open new career avenues for young talent.
Academia is under siege, but it is also in a period of major change. The period of underfunding is behind us in the Netherlands, but universities are about to be hit by a wave of retirements as the baby boomers hang up their gowns. Whereas some universities and faculties are actively preparing for the transition, others are adopting a "wait and see" approach. They are failing to grasp the challenges offered by the introduction of the bachelors-masters model to modernize the education system, or to use financial incentives to increase diversity in research, excellence in science, or renewal of human talent.
Checks and Balances
My party, D66, is concerned about the vitality of the academic community, because a knowledge-intensive society requires a thriving academic climate, innovative and inspiring research, and education that fosters talent and creates opportunities. Therefore, more than any other party, we have allocated funds in our manifesto to invest in higher education and research. However, extra funding is made conditional on institutional reform and gives a central responsibility to the faculties.
In order to do this, checks and balances must be restored. D66 considers that the Modernization of University Management law has reduced the accountability of management. As long as universities and faculties are well managed this may be acceptable, but students and junior staff have too few instruments with which to exert pressure when faculties are badly managed. Unfortunately, badly managed faculties certainly do exist, and often it is the underfunded and ailing humanities that suffer under bad management.
Prospects for Talent
Our second proposed reform is to strengthen the position of junior researchers and postgraduates as well as postdocs. When it comes to starting an academic career, the problem lies less in the difficulties of the Ph.D. process and more in the limited prospects for an academic career once the Ph.D. is complete. In terms of the financial and legal status of its participants, the Dutch Ph.D. system has few competitors. In terms of its success rate, the academic climate, and the chances of continuing an academic career, the track record is less enchanting (and badly documented).
In our manifesto, we make a plea for better supervision of Ph.D. researchers. A first prerequisite is to separate funding from supervision. A second prerequisite is to change the system by which Ph.D. researchers are assistants to the professor, carrying out research projects defined by them. D66 favors creating real graduate schools with a real training element and a good orientation on possible subjects and thesis supervisors. The individual interests and talents of the researcher should be the driving force behind the Ph.D. process, rather than the researcher being forced to fit within a preestablished research program. The system of master and apprentice is outdated and should be supplanted by a system of collective supervision and examination, in which the supervisor cannot also be the examiner. Last but not least, the funding system should give a real bonus to departments producing good research. The current "Ph.D. bonus" should be a real bonus for good thesis work and good supervision, and so it should be split between the supervisor and the successful researcher.
Preparing for the Generational Shift
The final concern is the objective of the Ph.D. process. Some see it as a deepening in academic training and the acquisition of autonomous research skills; others see it as a collection of articles produced in collaborative research; a few uphold the idea of a "magnum opus." Its purpose needs to be defined, not least because many Ph.D.s never pursue an academic career, either by choice or necessity, but find that their training has done little to prepare them for a career in business or the civil service. Others go for an academic career but get little training in teaching, which is increasingly the core business of universities (although the prevailing view may be otherwise).
We have therefore proposed an increase in the budget for postdocs and tenure-track positions. We have also increased the budget for Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek-funded positions in order to increase the number of research positions that are not tied to a particular chair at a university. Last but not least, we have adopted the recommendations of the Vucht Tijssen Expert Group, to prepare for the change of generations. Developing the Van der Leeuw chairs for young professors and increasing the Aspasia budget for bright women staff is part of this package. Overall we have argued for a more flexible retirement age.
Fostering Independence and Diversity
D66 is not against more funding flowing from companies into universities. In our opinion, the threat posed to academic freedom by business funding is limited. Evidence has shown that it is government-commissioned research that creates most infringements in academic freedom and most conformism in research. We have therefore argued for a reduction in the consultancy and commission research budgets of ministries. This should be replaced by increased funding for programmatic research for universities, and by an increased research budget for political parties to allow them to commission their own research. If research is objective, it does not need civil servants as commissioners or supervisors. As for political research, it is better that it is overtly embedded in a political ideology instead of being given technocratic and apolitical attire.
The academic community deserves political attention; it also deserves room to manoeuvre. With the introduction of the bachelors-masters system, the reform of the Ph.D. system, and the investment in research, more diversity may emerge in the academic landscape. Strategic alliances with high schools and across borders of regions and countries are important avenues for repositioning, specializing, and fostering excellence. Although access and funding for all students must be guaranteed, the academic community deserves to be freed of its social-democratic uniformity.
Michiel Scheffer studied in Utrecht, London, and Brussels and holds a Ph.D. (cum laude) in human geography (Utrecht, 1992). He is currently chair of the D66 Manifesto Committee and D66 candidate for Parliament.