Ghent University aims for greater academic freedom

An eye for quality and trust, less paperwork … Last year, Ghent University implemented a radical change in its assessment policy for researchers. What are the initial experiences? ‘Every change in culture is associated with teething problems’, says Rector Magnificus Rik van de Walle. ‘But I am already receiving many signals that people are happy with the new method.’

Credits: Van Santen & Bolleurs

Text: Merijn van Nuland, photography: Van Santen & Bolleurs

‘I did expect that this move would reach the regional press, but not that our change in policy would receive so much response from outside Belgium too.’ The new evaluation and progress model for researchers at Ghent University is quite revolutionary in the academic world. The university has opted for a considerable simplification with less need for paperwork. The intended outcome: less bureaucracy and, therefore, more time for education and research. With this “fundamental change in culture”, Ghent University wants to “give the university back to its staff”.­­­­­­

Researcher determines own role

Whereas many universities assess their personnel against quantitative indicators, such as the number of scientific publications in top journals or the number of PhDs, Ghent University has opted for a more qualitative approach. The researchers (from assistant professor to professor) determine at the start of a five-year period which role they want to play within their department and within the university as a whole. How does the lecturer wish to serve the university? How can the university best support him or her in that? The so-called “integration text” forms the basis for the later assessment. This also means that at the end of the period, a lecturer indicates what he or she is most proud of and is subsequently assessed on that. That could still be about publications or PhDs, but the researcher may also choose to give outreach or educational activities more weight. A five-member HR committee supervises the lecturer in this period but does not impose any quantitative objectives.­­­­

Evaluator becomes a coach

Rik van de Walle

Ghent University is now several months further into the process and Van de Walle feels confident enough to say that the new career model has radically changed the university. ‘We are still very much in the rolling out phase, but I already notice that people are positive about the new method. First of all, of course, the professors [in Flanders an umbrella term for all lecturers], who can enjoy more academic freedom. But interestingly enough, younger researchers and even support staff have asked for this policy to be implemented for them too. I saw this career model as an endpoint, but now it only seems to be the beginning.’ So is the mission successful? We have not got that far yet, warns Van de Walle. ‘Each change of culture has its associated teething problems. I notice that the evaluators of our professors still find their task somewhat difficult. After all, they are switching from an evaluating role to more of a coaching role. In the past, you could hide behind forms. If a professor scored unsatisfactory for too many items, then “the system” said that that person was not performing well enough. Now, as an evaluator, you are the one who has to substantiate why somebody is not doing well enough, and that is more difficult. People are not afraid of doing that, but they find it hard to find the right words. In the coming period, we need to ensure that we do not effectively return to the old system because we do not want that.’­­­­

Part of the rat race

Furthermore, it remains to be seen what will happen if the rest of the academic world continues to attach a lot of value to quantitative indicators like impact factors and h-indices. Outside the walls of Ghent University, researchers continue to be part of the rat race for the limited number of grants, appointments and prizes. Now that Ghent University is using a different assessment system, it could be that our staff produce less research output. Does that make Ghent University as a whole less competitive? The executive board does not think that will be the case. ‘We are confident that the intrinsic motivation […] will safeguard that nobody needs predetermined objectives to perform superbly’, stated Ghent University in an earlier press release.­­

Tips for the Netherlands

In the Netherlands, lively discussions also take place about how researchers can be assessed and rewarded differently. Various organisations – including NWO – will enter into a dialogue this year with researchers to explore alternatives. Van de Walle also held talks with academics for months before he could clearly formulate the new policy and he strongly advises his Dutch colleagues to do the same.

We have run the universities as a company for too long

‘Talk with your people! You will hear that we have run our universities as a company far too long and how fatal that has been for academic freedom. Subsequently, do not base your arguments on your management principles, but on your core responsibilities such as research, education, and service to society. Only by doing that, can you give the university back to the researchers. I would be surprised if Dutch academics do not want that.’­­­

Rianne Letschert: value education, impact and teamwork too

Rianne Letschert

Rianne Letschert is rector of Maastricht University, and on behalf of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), she is looking for different ways of assessing and rewarding university personnel. She follows developments at Ghent University with interest.

‘All around me, I can see the frustration increasing about the bureaucracy and the uncertainty of their perspectives for young researchers. There is also too much emphasis on individual research output, as a result of which there is less room for education, impact and teamwork. We need to transition to a system that works for everybody, even if education is closer to your heart than research. Now we mainly serve the people at the top of the scientific pecking order.’

Now we mainly serve the people at the top of the scientific pecking order

‘From this perspective, I think what they are doing in Ghent is fantastic. This is also helping us to get the discussion going in the Netherlands. We are experiencing a lot of resistance from people who would prefer to leave things as they are. There is one important difference with Ghent: our VSNU workgroup wants to tackle this problem integrally. Of course, as the rector, I can tweak things at Maastricht University, but ultimately, you want to change the entire sector. We would really like to see those changes recorded in the university collective labour agreement and the university job classification system.’­

‘Together with Frank Baaijens, rector of Eindhoven University of Technology, I am working on an action paper to discuss with various target groups: researchers, administrators and research funding bodies. We hope to publish the final version in September and after that to present it at an international conference. There is at least one speaker I definitely want to invite: Rik van de Walle.’­

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