“We give you multiple choice questions because we don’t have time to grade anything else.”
In February, we introduced you to Casual Leiden, a movement against casualisation – the shift from permanent contracts to short-term ones – and structural overwork at Leiden University. A semester later, I reached out to them again to discuss the progress that Leiden University, and specifically the International Studies programme, has or has not made. I also interviewed an IS tutor (who prefers not to identify themselves), who has been adamant about making students aware of the conditions in which they and many of their colleagues work under. Together, we revisit the topic of casualisation in academia, exploring why tutors taking extremely long to grade those finals might not be entirely to blame and why multiple choice questions in the last finals might not be your best friend.
Casualisation makes teaching in academia hard, intense, and stressful
Casualisation, most simply defined as a way of employing staff under temporary contracts, is argued by Casual Leiden to lead to structural overwork. Though there are many examples that can illustrate this, the recent finals (and current resits) offer a concrete one.
Perhaps, like me, you waited many stress-filled days for the results of your finals. Perhaps once you finally received them, there was little feedback or explanation of your grade. Although this seems quite ridiculous, it is not the teaching staff, but rather the system of casualiation that is to blame. Tutors employed under part-time contracts often have a similar amount of students as tutors employed under full-time contracts, putting them under immense pressure to do more work than they have time for – and so it takes longer to get it all done. Or maybe your tutor, like mine, was forced to leave the University at the end of May already, because that is when their contract ended, leaving the workload of other tutors significantly increased as they take up grading the finals of the students of their former colleagues.
But overwork occurs outside of exam season, too. The interviewed tutor explained: “My contract is for teaching. But research is a very important part of education. The University doesn’t pay me to go to conferences, it doesn’t pay me to study. Of course, they pay me to prepare for classes. But the preparation requires much more than me sitting down and reading the texts that you’re going to be reading.” And that’s not all – according to Casual Leiden many other tutors have admitted to answering more emails, engaging in more office hours, and just generally putting in more time and energy than they are paid to do.
As if that isn’t yet enough, part-time contracts come with a lot of insecurity too. Casual Leiden explains on their website that part-time contracts lead to staff members postponing starting a family, because they do not know if they will still be able to provide in a few months. Or they might have to commute many hours a week, because they do not dare to move to a city for a job they might lose soon. Additionally, they have to be constantly on the lookout for other jobs. As expressed by the tutor during the interview: “With a permanent contract, I would get to enjoy my teaching instead of having to wonder and worry about what is going to happen in a few months.”
Casualisation also threatens the education you and I receive
If how our teaching staff is treated did not yet make you boil with rage, maybe the fact that their teaching conditions also negatively affect your education will. Remember that our teaching staff is not paid to prepare for class outside of strict syllabus descriptions. This means that if you’re “unlucky” and you don’t have a tutor who does extra research, your education is at risk of getting too standardised and outdated.
I here also turn to the multiple choice questions in the Philosophy of Science (although I’m told they were present in several other midterm and final exams as well) that might have had many students rejoicing. When I admitted during the interview that originally, the statement “we give you multiple choice questions because we don’t have time to grade anything else”, sounded like a joke, the tutor was quick to assure me that it was not: “It’s true. Giving you a final with only essay questions is just brutalising ourselves. At some point, there is just way too much work, more than we can do. That’s how the multiple choice questions came into the final.” And if you thought it was a good thing for your education, allow me to quote the tutor again as they tell you that it is not: “Now, making a mistake is almost a sin, a sign of failure. This is the problem with the multiple choice questions: there’s only one chance. Learning is supposed to accommodate the making of mistakes and not making them again the next time. But now there is no time to learn.” Multiple choice questions have to be answered correctly right away and essays need to be well-written and well-researched right away. Tutors have no time to assign us papers twice and grade our progress, and so we have less time and opportunity to make that progress.
Progress is occurring, but “The bar is low”
Since this article was first initiated, the interviewed tutor and some of their colleagues have been offered permanent contracts. Additionally, Casual Leiden revealed that all lecturers in IS performing structural work were given a permanent contract. These are positive steps that will certainly help alleviate some of the problems noted above. But, as the tutor reiterated, the bar is low: “They are treating us decently and I’m happy about that. The IS programme is making positive progress. But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be pressured for the things that they don’t (yet) do.”
The sentiment is shared by Casual Leiden, who told me that the provision of permanent contracts was one of the demands they made to end casualisation and an appreciated recognition of the problems at hand. But the struggle continues. “Several colleagues on temporary contracts are currently fighting for renewal, or pursuing legal action. New positions are open for only six months, and there is a lack of transparency in hiring practices.” And, “the agreed pay increase of four percent, per the new [national] CAO, is way below inflation.” The current state of the economy actually suggests that the four percent increase will be experienced as a pay cut.
This last example also proves that the issue is not confined within the borders of Leiden University: in reality, the casualisation of academia has been systemically normalised throughout the last ten, fifteen years. The interviewed tutor added a similar note to our conversation: “It is important to highlight that [the difficult working conditions] are an overarching problem of Universities in the Netherlands (and maybe the world), where it seems often the wrong things are being prioritised. Instead of making investments in elements that would clearly advance the education process, such as investing in teachers, the focus on empty mechanisms of standardisation and measuring student satisfaction are turned into the benchmark (not to say anything about how much is spent on marketing or surveillance). Leiden University, and more specifically the BAIS program, reproduces this logic, but it is not its source or the only place where it is present. In this sense, it is important that students be attentive to the workings of university as it directly affects their education. In this manner, the issues of financial security mentioned before are not disconnected to issues of academic freedom, for example. They fit into a larger movement to ensure that teachers are allowed to educate properly.” Without relieving the pressure on the IS board to create better working conditions, it is therefore important not to forget the bigger picture.
What can students do?
Thankfully, not all seems lost – even if some causes lie beyond LU’s direct sphere of influence. The progress made within the IS programme proves that protests against the conditions do help – and so Casual Leiden invites you to join them. Additionally, students are encouraged to write letters to their respective programme boards. As for the interviewed tutor, they urged students to look at the numbers and to think for themselves. Altogether, it is, as we are so often told, important to be critical and to ask ourselves the questions that they asked me: “When you went to the open days, did universities tell you about the fun internet pub that they have, and their great gym? Or did they tell you about how much their teaching staff gets paid? But what’s going to influence your education more: that your university has a gym, or the fact that your teachers work in decent conditions?”
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