Editorial / Just Words

Leiden University fails in putting talent first

My alma mater wants to lay off the only person of who’s been teaching Russian to the students of the International Studies and Liberal Arts and Science (LUC) programs in the past three years.

I met her in my last year at LUC, when the launch of the International Studies BA had motivated the university to finally hire a dedicated teacher for the Russian language classes the students had been promised long before. It was worth the wait, as Maria was a truly enthusiastic, well-prepared, and firm-but-fair teacher. She was barely older than us, having received her Master degree in Russian from Leiden University itself shortly before starting her teaching job.

Today I read that her job at the university is at risk. After working at the university for three years with a series of temporary contract, the university is now legally required to either hire her permanently, or to interrupt the work relation. A new employment law becoming effective from July 1, 2015 also states that the employer and the employee cannot work together for a period of 6 months following the contract interruption. Leiden University apparently does not believe that a teacher, alumna of their own institution, is worth offering a permanent contract to teach one of the most spoken languages in the world. Maria may be laid off for those six months, just to be welcomed back with a series of 1-year contracts – and perhaps do this all over again.

The Dutch law requires the employer to pay a transition fee to the employee they are laying off. This would be equivalent to 1/6 of her monthly salary for every six months she’d been employed. This should be worth in total a little more than a month of her salary – enough perhaps to sustain her through a job search period, but not enough to patiently wait to get her old job back.

Leiden University’s employment strategy is baffling. As a university, retaining the talent of their teachers and professors should be a top investment priority. Good teachers = well-prepared students = better jobs for students, better reputation for the university = more money. And it does not seem incidental that a language teacher is the one affected by this short-term approach to talent retention, as language and humanities departments have been particularly subjected to constant budget cuts, affecting the economic logic driving the management of Leiden and other universities – and not just in the Netherlands.

Dutch students have finally took notice of the universities’ poor management and staged protests and occupations last Winter. The Russian language student community at Leiden University is also protesting against the possible departure of their teacher. They set up a petition on Change.org. In their passionate effort, they have forgotten to address the letter to those responsible for the hiring and firing of the academic staff, but it will hopefully gain the attention it deserves anyway – not just because of Maria’s talent and the students’ best interests, but because this employment culture should not have a place at an institution who is supposed to give its students better prospects for the future.

Feel free to sign the petition if you agree.

**Correction: the article previously stated Maria had received a MA from Leiden University a few years before starting teaching. In fact, she had graduated just beforehand.


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