Student participation is not enough

As long as the university fails to share the student’s concerns about the valorisation mechanisms employed in their faculties, the situation will only get worse for the humanities and social sciences.

Contrary to the belief held by some, humanities and social sciences researchers do not simply sit back in their armchairs and complain about the hardships they go through. Rather, the research carried out by scientists like Benneworth and Jongbloed (2009) suggests that these fields seriously lag in valorisation processes not because they simply aren’t trying hard enough. It is a complex issue, and it needs to be addressed by none other than the university leadership itself.

Supervisor, not initiator

The rising role of government as a supervisor rather than initiator of emerging cooperation between academia and industry is cause for concern for the humanities and social sciences stakeholders. As is written on the Dutch governmental website, ‘Universities will have to do more to present themselves than they do at present, scientific institutions must prove why they should continue to exist and more space and esteem will be given to researchers whose work focuses on education and knowledge application.’

While valorisation policies are being issued from The Hague and the Board of Directors of the university are implementing them, students are fighting for a bigger say in what’s going on at their campus. As such, the matter of whether students and employees should have more influence is a much debated topic at the moment.

Shared vision

Still, in my opinion, even if we increase student participation, the structural issues of how the university allocates starting grants or how stakeholders of affected disciplines are involved in inter-university decision-making won’t get tackled until they are recognised as issues by the board members themselves in the first place. These matters require a truly shared vision of how to alleviate the pressure on humanities and social sciences disciplines.

The student body and university employees argue that the vagueness of funding allocation and too little say in valorisation strategies are the main sources of trouble for the humanities and social sciences. The valorisation models applied across the university are mainly driven by the successes in physical and life sciences – models that are not easily transferable to other sectors. They are effectively one-dimensional, encouraging ‘simple responses with fast returns on investment over the longer term application of knowledge to more complex societal problems’, Barnett writes.

The university must also play a role in promoting the underrepresented stakeholders of the knowledge production, namely, the public sector. The university’s policy makers are already aware of the layered notion of valorisation processes, which are decentralised and slow to evolve.

Under their wing

Allowing for micro-changes can eventually lead to macro changes to the unsustainable way we use the knowledge production potential of the humanities and social sciences. For example, the university could experiment with certain policy changes, such as assigning more starting funds for the humanities and social sciences until the research provides more concrete evidence of what exactly needs to be done to calibrate the valorisation processes within different disciplines.

But in the current environment, students are not strong enough to tackle this one-dimensional valorisation processes taking place both at the level of the university as an institution and, more importantly, at the level of the humanities and social sciences in particular.

Focusing only on having more students participating in boards ignores the fact that the universities are no longer under the government’s wing but rather a part of market relationships where different stakeholders, such as the scientific community, politics, industry or the public sector exert influence on the university’s decision making.

Any bulwark against this should not consist merely of concerned students and their initiatives: their struggle needs to be recognised and endorsed by the board of directors itself.