‘We’ve won a battle’
15 million extra to combat work stress
The money will be added to the annual five million the board already outlined in the Strategic Plan, which broadly describes the administrative course the university will be sailing over the next five years. Starting in 2021, one million euros will be added to that budget every year.
That means next year, there will be six million euros available, and it will accumulate to ten million by 2025.
‘Normally, we’re not overly self-congratulatory, but we celebrated a little this time’, says Antoon de Baets with the Personnel Faction. ‘Especially since the board’s approval was so unexpected.’
During university council meetings, it became clear that the solutions the board of directors came up with in the Strategic Plan to alleviate work stress were a hot-button issue for the personnel faction.
‘I pushed on that, because I felt the board kept hammering on the same issues’, says De Baets. Initially, the board staunchly held on to the figure of five million a year, the same amount that has been spent the past few years.
The board also described how student-assistants, embedded experts, and attracting newly graduated PhD candidates as well as those who were still working on their degree to help with education would help combat the pressure.
But the Personnel Faction said a structural increase of the budget is needed. ‘We also feel we should be looking at the methods to alleviate work stress differently’, says De Baets.
To that end, in addition to the amendment, he came up with ten principles the board should be basing its work stress policies on for the next few years. These principles include making a difference between ‘hard’ action (addition FTE) and ‘soft’ action (any other solutions), as well as counteracting ‘staff creep’ by making clear plans when hiring new employees.
This should prevent personnel from getting saddled with extra tasks even after they’ve passed on their own tasks, which wouldn’t do anything to combat the pressure on them.
During the university council meeting, the board of directors was initially willing to only adopt part of the Personnel Faction’s amendment. This would make ‘managing work stress a top priority’ but wouldn’t lead to the structural budget increase.
De Baets’ ten principles would be passed on to the work group in charge of alleviating work stress. ‘Apart from the principles about budgeting and sabbaticals, since they have financial implications’, says De Baets.
But then something remarkable happened: after a long discussion during which it didn’t look like the board would change its mind, De Baets proposed a vote on the strategic plan.
The council chair called for a short break to get everything in order for the vote. ‘The board returned after the break and to everyone’s amazement announced that they would be adopted the amendment in its entirety. We were completely taken by surprise’, says De Baets.
A feeling of euphoria came over the council after the unexpected decision. One day after outgoing education minister Van Engelshoven announced that she would allocate an extra 2.5 billion euro for higher education, the Strategic Plan and the amendment were unanimously adopted.
‘Perhaps the board was feeling benevolent because of the ministry’s concessions’, says De Baets. ‘I don’t think that was the main reason, though. The addition of the amendment means the Strategic Plan was approved unanimously, almost by acclamation. I think the board really wanted the plan to be passed unanimously, which would explain this shocking change of heart.’
Professor Barend van Heusden, who often spoke up about the work stress issue through WOinActie, is less cynical about the decision. ‘The extra funds are a great development. Sure, we could all ask ourselves how exactly they’ll do it, but I think it’s important to focus on these first steps. Things are in motion. We do of course have to keep a close eye on how the money’s being spent.’
Rector Cisca Wijmenga kept repeating during the council meetings that the Strategic Plan is ‘an outline’. The exact manner in which the money is spent will be determined from year to year. ‘I do hope they’ll consult with the actual employees’, says Van Heusden.
‘I felt the plan was lacking the necessary intention to talk to lecturers, staff, and students about what could be done to solve the issue. Sure, you could hire more people, but that’s not the only solution. We should really be having a much more fundamental discussion about how to function as a university.’
One of the reasons the board appointed a work group is to make an overview of the issues and their best solutions. The group will be apprised of De Baets’ ten principles. ‘This Thursday, we won a battle that we fought for our personnel’, he says.
‘The ball is now in the board’s court, and they have to transform their promises into policies. It’s up to us as an advisory body to maintain constant vigilance. We have to make sure the board keeps its promises. This isn’t happening in leaps and bounds. We have to be realistic. This requires determination and vigilance.’