Jurisprudence on academic flex culture imminent

Ruling in case against Utrecht University expected on 3 August.
Vrouwe Justitia The collective labour agreement (CAO) stipulates that more detailed agreements must be formulated. The court ruling may influence that. Photo Unsplash

Utrecht University faced former lecturer Marijn Scholte in court yesterday. Scholte demands a permanent contract from the university. Several lecturers appeared in court to support him in his battle against the flex culture.

Scholte worked as a lecturer for Utrecht University’s Social Sciences faculty for four years. His contract expired in March, but he was not offered a permanent contract as the university states that requires research tasks to be done.

Scholte went on to apply for a new, temporary position at the university, but his application was denied, much to his surprise. The university claims that giving him a new temporary contract would make the institute appear to be a bad employer. Scholte decided to demand a permanent contract via the court.

Flex culture

With its many temporary contracts, the flex culture among universities has been the brunt of criticism for quite some time. Teachers demonstrated against it in May. The protests did not prompt new assurances in the CAO. Still, the collective labour agreement does specify that more detailed agreements are to be formulated. The jurisprudence from this court case may well influence these more detailed agreements.

Structural change

Various lecturers came to the courthouse in support of Scholte. Assistant professor Luzia Heu is one of them. She obtained a permanent contract at Utrecht University but states that the high number of temporary contracts causes a nuisance for everyone. ‘The repeated onboarding of new colleagues increases the work pressure on all lecturers’, she underscores.

Lecturer Steggink, whose situation is similar to Scholte’s, is also following the proceedings. He was given three temporary contracts in three years and also had to leave the university. ‘When I started and was given a temporary contract, I saw it as an opportunity. Now, however, I am aware that it is supported by a system and is a dead-end for me’, he says. Steggink hopes the court ruling will incite ‘structural change’.

Undesired system

Scholte’s lawyer argued that the university shows itself to be a bad employer. ‘A lecturer is happy to even have a job, and thus the system remains intact.’ The lawyer also states that the temporary contract Scholte was given is not justified by the structural nature of his work. ‘There is a permanent need for lecturers.’

The university’s legal counsel denied that the university is a bad employer. She claims that a pool of temporary teachers is essential to the university being able to accommodate fluctuations in student numbers. Moreover, the temporary staff replaces staff under permanent contracts having to contribute to research projects.

The judge summarised the claim: ‘Are the duties carried out structural in nature? One party says yes, and the other says no. That is how simple law can sometimes be.’ The judge will rule on 3 August.

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