The ideal university?

On Thursday February 20th, PNN president Lucille Mattijssen took part in the panel discussion at the presentation of Floris Cohen’s book “The Ideal University”. Prior to the discussion, she was given the opportunity to briefly discuss how Floris Cohen had revised the promotion system at the Ideal University. Her critical speech can be found below:

Floris Cohen asked me to answer the following question: “Suppose you would have to complete your own PhD trajectory in accordance with my renovation proposal, would you hate it, love it, or something in between?”

The short answer to this question is: I would hate it. Very strongly. And I have several reasons for doing so.

Let me start with the simpler, practical reason: in the Ideal University, a PhD trajectory would take only three years. Well, I’m already in my fourth year, so in practice it would mean that I would be out of a job. Even if my entire PhD trajectory would have taken place in the Ideal University, I don’t think I would have been able to finish within three years: I wouldn’t have gotten more research time in the Ideal University, actually I would have gotten less. So, it would be a problem for me personally, but but probably also for many other PhDs. Because if the requirements for successfully completing a PhD trajectory remain the same (which I assume for now, as it is not discussed in detail apart from the time spent on research and teaching), three years will be too short. At this moment, the average duration of a PhD trajectory is five years, so the current four years most PhDs get now is already quite tight. Imagine what it would be like in three years. When the PhD defence then should also take place within those three years, meaning that within those three years the dissertation also needs to be checked by a reading committee and a replication bureau, only two and a half year max remain. That’s just not doable.

But apart from these practical objections, I would also hate it because of a more fundamental reason. In the Ideal University, the PhD trajectory is “the closure of your education at the highest level.” PhDs are therefore hired on a scholarship, and are therefore student, just like at the bachelor’s and master’s level.

I fundamentally disagree,

Every PhD will agree that the work carried out during a PhD trajectory fundamentally differ from following a bachelor’s or master’s degree. While bachelor’s and master’s students mainly process and acquire existing knowledge, are PhDs responsible for the largest share of research done at Dutch universities – something that is stated by Floris himself as well. In addition, they also contribute to teaching, also in the Ideal University. To put it in more economic terms: PhDs contribute to the production of the university. We produce knowledge.

In the current system, this is, in most cases, valued with an employment contract that offers PhDs employment protection and a reasonable salary. The fact that PhDs are indeed in training, and therefore are less productive than scientists who have already acquired their PhDs, is already reflected in a lower salary. Taking away employment protection, while they contribute to production, is therefore unjust.

Personally, I consider promotion as something that Floris also mentions in the book, an occupation-specific specialization. I do not quite understand why Floris believes that the occupation-specific specialization for becoming, for example, a doctor and lawyer can take place in a job, i.e. with a salary and employment protection, while the occupation-specific specialization to become a scientist results in student status. The fact that there are students walking around at universities does not mean that you should also reduce that occupation-specific specialization to a student status.

However, Floris is not alone. In the Netherlands, and especially in the north, there are many forces that strive to reduce PhDs to students. It’s usually professors and administrators who argue in favour of such a system, because they benefit from it. Even if the promotion premium is abolished, which Floris proposes, the university continues to benefit from cheap labour that carries out the largest share of research.

These professors and administrators ignore the fact that they are downgrading the most precarious group in science, which PhDs also are if they have employee status, even further. The worst thing is that they get away with this, exactly because PhDs are driven and have a passion for science, have this ‘urge to know’, which the book also refers to. This ‘urge to know’ makes these PhDs vulnerable to abuse, and as a consequence they are shamelessly abused. In addition, PhDs are very dependent from their supervisors, which makes it difficult for them to stand up for themselves: arguing with your supervisor usually means the end of your PhD trajectory.

I think it is extremely wicked that scientists, who themselves also have that ‘urge to know’, abuse that same urge to exploit the most vulnerable group for their own advantage. A Board of Appeal will also not be able to protect PhDs against this.

But apart from the fact that PhDs are the victims of this scholarship system, I also think that the Ideal University ultimately shoots itself in the foot. Floris already fears that the most talented of the youngest generation will turn their back on the university. By deteriorating the employment conditions for PhDs, well, actually removing them altogether, there is a good chance that more and more talented people will turn their back on science. Because that ‘urge to know’ might be valuable, it does not pay your rent (a mortgage does not apply anyway, because you can’t get one with only a scholarship). I know Floris proposes salary moderation to keep the intrinsically motivated, but intrinsic motivation is not equal to talent. You actually only keep the people who can afford to be in a precarious situation for another three years, for example because they have the support of their parents, and those who are really willing to do anything just to get their doctorate, which again is not the same as having the most talent for science.

The less privileged talents will, at some point, simply want to generate an income, reap the benefits of their accumulated human capital. The flexibilization of the labor market already leads young people to postpone many important life events, such as purchasing a house and starting a family, let alone what happens if you add a precarious situation that is not even a temporary contract. I think many talents will cut their losses and leave Ideal University. To make this a bit more personal: I would have left the Ideal University. And I currently work on an NWO research talent grant.

Ultimately, it all comes together in the core concept of appreciation: how much value is assigned to the contribution that PhDs make to the university? Apparently, there is little appreciation for PhDs within the Ideal University, because they are the only one of the six types of people in the Ideal University who do not get an employment contract. The Ideal University is therefore far from ideal for PhDs. And to be honest, being told that some people think that the work that I and other PhDs do every day is not worth an employment contract, is not a real job, that just hurts.

And the best part is that Floris also expects PhDs, who are not even worthy of an employment contract for the work they do, to further develop the Ideal University. Sorry, but we don’t get paid for that.