Why I support Alarm Day and the call for a 1.1 billion Euro structural investment in academic research and education

Today, Tuesday April 6 2021, is ‘Alarm Day’; a day on which the teaching and research staff, students, administrators and alumni of all 14 Dutch research universities will be congregating to call on the new government to structurally invest 1.1 billion euros in academic research and education. Since 2000 student numbers have doubled, while government funding per student has decreased by 25%. In addition research funding has not kept up with the growth in student numbers and increasingly has to be obtained via competitive research grant applications. Hence, there is a structural lack of time and financial means for high-quality research and high-quality teaching. As a result of underfunding, students no longer receive the education they deserve, while teaching and research staff are struggling to cope. So on Alarm Day we address this situation and propose to work towards a Normal Academic Standard. For more information, please check https://normaalacademischpeil.nl/ (or https://normaalacademischpeil.nl/english for the English version).

One of the activities the organizers of the Alarm Day ask us to undertake is to share our personal stories. That is what I will do in this blog, thereby also expressing my support for today’s Alarm Day and the call for a structural investment in university research and education.

Why I support Alarm Day and the call for a 1.1 billion Euro structural investment

I was appointed as Chair and Professor of Rural Sociology at Wageningen University in November 2004. Within our university system, being chair means that you are responsible for the financial situation of your chair group. Due to the way the funding of education has been organized at Wageningen University, our education income does largely keep up with growing student numbers. However, the downside is that there is hardly any funding for research. Annually our chair group gets approximately k€ 330 basic university funding (formally labelled as research funding), yet our costs for accommodation, materials, travel and overheads are equal to or exceed that, hence there is no funding for research. So to make sure that the annual operating result of my group is not negative, there are basically two options: we only teach (and make sure that the revenues from teaching plus basic funding cover the salary costs and other costs) or we obtain external funding for research (including PhD projects). We have continuously focused on the latter option (also because the first option de facto means that the key characteristic of academic education, i.e. the link between research and teaching, ceases to exist) and have been quite successful at that, BUT:

  • Over the years grant schemes have become increasingly competitive, and thus our success rate has gradually declined from approximately 50% 10-15 years ago to less than 25% at present (while the quality, based on evaluation scores, has only improved). This means that an increasing share of our research time is spent on writing proposals that do not get funded.
  • A lot of the grant writing has to be done in the evenings, weekends and holidays, simply because a) a 40 hour working week is not enough to do everything I need or am expected to do, and b) most deadlines for submitting proposals are just after the Christmas and summer holidays.
  • Due to the continuous financial pressure of obtaining external research funding I am almost permanently busy with grant writing and actually do not have enough time for the projects I did manage to get funded. And the time I have available is largely spent on project coordination, not on research;
  • A lot of our research projects are funded by the European Commission. In the EC’s framework programs (e.g. Horizon 2020, Horizon Europe) we see a gradual shift in funding focus from understanding problems and challenges to developing and implementing solutions, in other words from research to innovation and (societal) impact. Funding for curiosity driven and risky research has to come from personal grants (ERC, VENI/VIDI/VICI) or grants for training networks (e.g. Marie Curie Training Networks), and these schemes are even more competitive (with success rates between 2 and 10%).
  • Until recently I was ‘promotor’ (main supervisor) of >25 PhD projects and it is simply impossible to be sufficiently involved in all. Most of the supervision is done by daily supervisors (assistant and associate professors), who all do a great job at this, but for me PhD supervision was way more interesting when I only had a few PhD students. Yet, for financial reasons it is important that within our group we have 4 to 5 PhD graduations per year. Therefore we still have 25 to 30 PhD students, but as a few colleagues have ius promovendi (the right to award a PhD) I no longer have to be the promotor of all. So this helps to reduce my workload a bit, but doesn’t change the perverse incentive that a steady inflow and outflow of PhD students is important for financial reasons.

Will 1.1 billion Euro of structural funding solve all problems?

Unfortunately the answer is ‘no’. It will certainly help to reduce the reliance on external research funding and reduce work pressure if we can appoint more staff members who can carry out their teaching and research tasks and activities within their work week. But we also need to address a few other issues:

  • In addition to this structural investment a large share of the research funding that is now distributed via competitive grant schemes (NWO and EU for example) should go directly to academic staff: so less time wasted on proposals that do not get funded, less work pressure and more funded time for curiosity driven research;
  • A new recognition and reward system that once and for all gets rid of the publish or perish culture (or generally speaking the output performance culture) that has dominated academia in the last 25 years. Especially the current publication and PhD supervision criteria that our Tenure Trackers need to comply with only contribute to more publications and more PhD students to be supervised.
  • The time and energy consuming bureaucracy that we need to work in and which is largely based on institutionalized distrust, as if endless procedures, evaluation rubrics, assessment forms, and checks and balances will help us to become better lecturers and researchers.
  • Related to that is the time that we are spending on writing self-evaluation reports (and to that we add mid-term self-evaluation reports) for peer review committees (peer reviews of our BSc and MSc programs or of our research program). Don’t get me wrong, I really value getting feedback from peers if we can also honestly and openly share our struggles and challenges and then get constructive feedback on how to do things better. However what we are actually asked to do is to write marketing brochures to boast about our excellence, so that university management can show to the outside world how many ‘top programs’ and ‘world leading’ research units it has. And this also means that a negative evaluation (which is basically anything below ‘excellent’) will haunt you until the next peer review.

What have I decided to do to reduce my work pressure?

In addition to keep on addressing the structural causes of work pressure I have decided to do the following:

  • I will not write any project proposal until the current Horizon 2020 project I am coordinating is finished and I have the time and energy to write a new proposal;
  • I will no longer write research grants for financial reasons, but only because I want to (for curiosity reasons, because it allows me to hire PhD candidates and/or postdocs, because it enables me to collaborate with colleagues in other countries, et cetera).
  • I will not accept new PhD students until the number I am responsible has dropped below 10 and that will remain the maximum number.
  • I will publish less and review no more than two papers per paper I have submitted as (co-)author (and review no more than 3 research proposals per proposal I have submitted for review).

I realize that I am in a privileged position (permanent contract, no Tenure Track criteria to comply with and chair of a group that does really well in teaching and research) to take these decisions, but hopefully it is seen as leading by example.

75th Anniversary: 24) Rural Sociology and the making of the Health and Society Group

The inaugural lecture by Maria Koelen upon taking up the post of Professor of Health and Society at Wageningen University on 10 March 2011 (source: Health and Society website)

By Maria Koelen (Professor Emeritus of the chairgroup Health and Society)

Belief it or not, but the young Health and Society Group has its origin in the 75 years old Rural Sociology of Wageningen University. In fact, Professor Evert Willem Hofstee, the founder of Rural Sociologie (1946) as has been mentioned often in this blog, started to pave the road to it. The Agricultural University (at the time Landbouw Hogeschool) developed a lot of scientific, technological and economic insights for farming practice, which was transferred to the farmers through agricultural extension educators employed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. The prevailing idea was that farmers would appreciate these insights and, from a kind of self-interest, would apply these insights into their daily practice. However, as Hofstee argued in 1953, just transferring these insights to the farmers would not suffice. He advocated an additional, sociological approach and to pay attention to social groups and culture. This idea caught on with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. To operationalise the idea, in 1955 the Ministry seconded its employee Anne Van Den Ban to the Rural Sociology group to advance this type of research. With his appointment, the foundation has been laid for a new interdisciplinary field “extension education”, in Dutch “Voorlichtingskunde”. In 1963 Van Den Ban obtained his PhD under supervision of Professor Hofstee and in 1964 he was appointed to be the first professor in this field. Continue reading

75th Anniversary: 21) Geographies of power and rebellious social sciences

Garfagnana, Italy – picture by Jordan Treakle

by Jordan Treakle

My path to WUR’s Rural Sociology Group (RSO) differed from most of my fellow Masters students when I first arrived to Wageningen in August 2015. As a second-year student in the International Masters in Rural Development (IMRD) programme[1], I had spent the first year of my programme nomadically exploring the academic halls of the University of Ghent (Belgium), Humboldt University (Germany), and the University of Pisa (Italy) with my 27 fellow IMRDers. This unique and fast paced academic tour of Europe gave me a range of academic lens on agricultural economies and cooperative development in food systems that were enriching and informative. But these perspectives generally had not touched on the complex geographies of power and agency that I found most compelling. Luckily WUR’s small but worldly campus, with all of its contentious influences of corporate agribusiness research and rebellious social science scholarship, offered a critical forum to both intellectually digest the lessons of the other academic institutions I had visited during the first year of my programme, as well as dive into rural sociological concepts that reconfigured my relationship to place and later guided young career in farmer advocacy and agricultural policy. Continue reading

75th Anniversary: 20) Boerengroep

Boerenprotest tegen melkprijs- ongedateerd, archief Boerengroep

Het is al weer 50 jaar geleden dat de Boerengroep[1] werd opgericht in een roerige tijd van grootschalige boerenprotesten. Een Europese demonstratie van boeren in Brussel op 23 maart 1971 liep uit op een confrontatie met de politie. Er gingen tientallen auto’s in vlammen opgingen en één boer vond de dood (klik op deze link voor een nieuwsverslag over deze betoging uit 1971)[2]. De demonstratie maakte duidelijk dat er onder boeren en boerinnen grote ontevredenheid was over het gevoerde Europese landbouwbeleid. Continue reading

75th Anniversary: 19) The Boerinnengroep Wageningen: looking back

In the 1977, we, a group of women students and graduates, mostly in Rural Sociology, founded the so-called ‘Boerinnengroep’, which translates as ‘farm women’s group’[1]. The Boerinnengroep has contributed to new agendas of farmer and rural women’s organisations, agricultural policy and academia. It has also put, in a way, a strong imprint on our lives and careers. In this blog we look back. Continue reading

75th Anniversary: 17) Multifunctional farming in development: education at the care farm

Multifunctional farming (an umbrella term to indicate a combination of agriculture and services to society, wur.nl) has been a research subject for the Rural Sociology Group for decades, as multifunctionality is one of the diversification strategies employed by farming to sustain their farms and connect with various groups in society such as consumers or tourists. The first multifunctional activities were nature conservation, agritourism/recreation, care farming, farm shops/short chains, farm education and agricultural day care. These activities, however, are subject to constant change. This leads to new research topics and new collaborations for the Rural Sociology Group. Continue reading

75th Anniversary: 15) Marquetalia: Tegen de stroom in, maar met de beweging mee


In 1979 verscheen het eerste nummer van Marquetalia, een tijdschrift over landbouw en politiek. Tot de oprichters van het tijdschrift behoorden Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, de latere hoogleraar en hoofd van de vakgroep Rurale Sociologie RSO, maar ook anderen die de rurale sociologie in de jaren tachtig en negentig weer op de kaart zetten, zoals de agrarische socioloog en voormalig RSO collega Jaap Frouws, die later een spraakmakende politiek-sociologische studie over mest en macht schreef (waarover later meer in een blog), en Jan Schakel, de latere onderwijscoördinator van RSO. Na zes nummers hield het tijdschrift op te bestaan. Het redaktiekollektief sprankelde nog van nieuwe ideeën, maar men woonde en werkte te ver van elkaar – verspreidt over drie continenten – en nieuwe carrières boden nieuwe netwerken en kansen. Een deel van het kollektief ging de kern vormen van RSO. Continue reading

Thesis/stage: Effect van onderwijs en zorg op de boerderij

Er zijn te veel leerlingen die uitvallen in het onderwijs. Het aantal zogeheten ‘thuiszitters’ blijft de afgelopen schooljaren stijgen. Om deze leerlingen niet in de steek te laten zijn in het land vele initiatieven ontwikkeld om op een (zorg)boerderij naast zorg ook onderwijs te geven. Uit enquêtes en interviews die het afgelopen jaar zijn gehouden blijkt dat de ervaringen vaak positief zijn. Bij meer dan 90% van de leerlingen leidt de plaatsing op de boerderij tot een positieve ontwikkeling. Het aantal leerlingen dat na enige tijd weer naar school gaat ligt boven de 50%. Continue reading

75th Anniversary: 9) De Toga: overleefde hiërarchie of dalend cultuurgoed

Professor Kooij met toga, bef en baret

Parallel aan de democratisering van de universiteit in de jaren zestig en zeventig, met de voor die tijd kenmerkende opkomst van vakgroepsbestuur, in plaats van de almachtige hoogleraar, en inspraak door studenten, kwam ook universiteitssymboliek onder vuur te liggen. Een van die symbolen was de toga, het kenmerkende gewaad dat de hoogleraar draagt bij plechtigheden. De sociologen Gerrit Kooij en Rien Munters openden de discussie over het aan de wilgen hangen van de toga. Continue reading