Last year, all Dutch universities under the umbrella of the VSNU published a paper in which they proposed a new system for recognising and rewarding academic staff. Not only the number of publications or the H-index is important, there will be more appreciation for talents such as teaching, leadership tasks and impact-driven research.
Prof. Dr. Rutger Engels, rector magnificus until January 2021, talks to Prof. Dr. Victor Bekkers who is the academic lead of the Recognition & Reward project at Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR), project leader Bianca Langhout and associate professor and representative of the Young Erasmus Academy Dr. Daphne van de Bongardt.
Rutger Engels says: "It is essential for the future of modern universities that we start rewarding differential career paths. That doesn't happen enough until now. Implementation across the disciplines of Erasmus University requires a systematic long-term approach."
"It is essential for the future of modern universities that we start rewarding differential career paths"
What exactly does this Recognition & Reward project at EUR entail?
Rutger Engels: "The aim is to develop a new system for recognising and rewarding academic staff. In November 2019, all Dutch education institutions and research funders (VSNU, NFU, KNAW, NWO and ZonMw) presented the joint position paper 'Room for everyone's talent: towards a new balance in the recognition and rewards of academics' to the Minister of OCW. In this paper all parties explain how they wish to recognise and reward the work of their scientific staff more broadly. This means: less emphasis on numbers of publications, more emphasis on quality, and more attention for the other domains in which the scientist works, such as education and impact. In addition, there needs to be more differentiation in career paths for academic staff."
Bianca Langhout: "For the introduction of this new way of working, the Recognition & Reward project team has been established. We are going to develop an EUR-wide vision, organise events and create a toolbox that ultimately contributes to a real system change for the broader recognition and reward of academic staff. One example: ESSB is now running a pilot with different career profiles. Scientists at the level of assistant- and associate professor can express their preference for a teaching profile, a research profile, an impact profile or a leadership profile. The idea of this pilot is that people are given the opportunity to choose what they are good at, and then get recognised for it."
Why is it so important for the university to take this step?
Victor Bekkers: "Researchers now all have to be the five-legged sheep, and as a result they get squeezed. The researcher has to be very good at research, very good at teaching, create social impact, sometimes fulfil leadership roles and, in the case of Erasmus MC, also provide good clinical care. However, one researcher may feel more comfortable teaching, another may be more interested in writing publications. Sometimes a certain role also suits a certain stage of life better. As a university, we no longer want to embrace one form of talent and exclude the other. What I find attractive about this plan is that it gives room for differentiation, in a way that does justice to the different roles of the university."
"As a university, we no longer want to embrace one form of talent and exclude the other"
What is your role in this project?
Victor Bekkers: "When I started as dean of ESSB three years ago, we already started thinking this way. From round table sessions with the staff, the need for more differentiation clearly emerged. The national recognition and reward movement fits in seamlessly with the process we had already started. That's one of the reasons I think it's interesting to look at this for the entire university. I am the academic lead of the project. I want to create space to start looking at career developments in a more differentiated way, and to look at team performance rather than individual performance. This requires a cultural shift."
What did your own career look like?
Victor Bekkers: "The combination of societal impact and research naturally fits well with public administration. I followed a 'normal' scientific career, I started as a PhD-student, but I was also working in the corporate field. That helped me think about how to connect scientific knowledge with societal issues."
How important is this cultural shift for young researchers?
Daphne van de Bongardt: "I agree with Victor, the current system has too little attention for the diverse talents, also of young researchers. This is not only detrimental to individuals but also to the university as an organisation. People do not function optimally because of this. We see senior academics sometimes slaving for years in a position that doesn't suit their interests or qualities, even though they are judged on it. And we see young, talented academics sometimes decide immediately after their promotion that university is not for them. If that's because there are too few opportunities within the university to do justice to their diverse talents, that's a huge shame."
Is it important to you personally that it is no longer just about the publications or H-index?
Daphne van de Bongardt: "My academic career path started twelve years ago, at the time when the Research Masters emerged, which actually formed a new bridge between studying and obtaining a PhD. The pressure within those Research Masters has increased enormously in recent years, and the competition among young, aspiring researchers is fierce. For myself, I can say that I have been able to find my way in the old-fashioned system reasonably well, but I am also sometimes less content with the choices I had to make in the current system. For example, what I spend my time on and how much time, such as the many attempts to win external research grants, regardless of the low success rates, at the expense of valorisation activities, among other things.”
"Quality should always come first. In the SEP protocol, quantity is also no longer a criterion, however, in many rankings it still is"
It's quite a big step – to change a system. Where do you start?
Bianca Langhout: "It starts with having the conversation. The VSNU position paper is a good starting point. Internally, we hold discussions on questions such as: what do we mean by impact, by leadership, by a team? We have to coordinate between faculties, between departments and between universities. Of course, we want to avoid a situation where someone who does a PhD here can no longer work at another university because we have chosen a different approach."
Rutger Engels: "What is very important, is that we are going to vary by stage in career of academics. You cannot ask everything from young researchers who are in a PhD trajectory. In my view, scientific training is paramount there, focused on research and partly on gaining teaching experience. However, as academics move up the career ladder, impact becomes increasingly important. I can well imagine that for senior professors, leadership and generating and securing social impact are especially important."
Should publications or the H-index become less fancy?
Victor Bekkers: "The most important thing is to stop putting one type of competence or skill on the throne. We need multiple thrones. It certainly does not mean that excellent research or publishing will become unimportant, but we want to value all the complementary competencies that you need as a university. Erasmus University's strategy is about societal impact, so there must be time, space and appreciation for that. Within the faculty of ESSB we strive to ensure that people can make a career within different profiles. In other words, if you choose a teaching profile, it actually allows you to become an associate professor."
Rutger Engels: "Quality should always come first. In the SEP protocol, quantity is also no longer a criterion, however, in many rankings it still is.
"Funders are also increasingly emphasizing the importance of collaboration and the importance of impact, and even education."
Is there support for this within the university?
Bianca Langhout: "Fortunately, everyone agrees that things need to change, and people within all disciplines are open to the conversation about a new system. At the moment, the process is still mainly taking place in the administrative layers, among deans and professors."
Victor Bekkers: "It is not only important within our university. The major financiers are also working on it, such as ZonMW and NWO. With the Venis and Vidis, for example, you are already not allowed to refer to your H-index."
Bianca Langhout: "Funders are increasingly emphasising the importance of collaboration and the importance of impact. And they are making grants available for innovating education."
Rutger Engels: "A committee of professors from all faculties, led by Pearl Dykstra, has been working for a year and a half on a new professorial policy plan. With attention to diversity in career paths, impact-driven activities and recruitment. I am very pleased that this plan is now in place and has support from the deans. In implementation, we will see changes to the formats now used to nominate professors for appointment. Less H-index and number of publications as the holy grail."
"With a different system, where education is rewarded more highly, you retain people who want to put their heart and soul into that education."
Is education the hardest part to get recognition for?
Daphne van de Bongardt: "You sometimes see young academics drop out because teaching is underappreciated. There are quite a few young academics who really enjoy teaching and want to invest in it, but because there is so little time, money and appreciation for it, they seek their happiness elsewhere. That is a pity, because teaching is one of the most important tasks of a university. With a different system, in which teaching is rewarded more highly, you retain people who give their heart and soul to education."
A system change is not arranged in one day?
Victor Bekkers: "It is a culture change, it is a long-term project. It also requires a commitment for the longer term."