Vote Dries en Ishka

As OAP reps for the UGent board of governors

Why we are running:

It has almost become a cliché: times are tough. Years of Corona, global warming, and war have left no one undisturbed. In scientific circles as well, problems are stirring. Stories of transgressive behavior, scientific fraud, and #metoo-complaints demonstrate that even scientists struggle to solve the structural issues plaguing the academy. The well-being and careers of young researchers are under pressure.

Times will likely stay tough. The challenges ahead of us are significant. That is why it is more important than ever that the voices of the OAP are heard and that the unique perspective of pre and postdocs is not forgotten. An election like this one might feel unimportant, but representation can make a difference. With an ear to the ground, a belief in constructive debate and the experience to turn ideas into reality, we want to take up this challenge.

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What we want to do:

1. Representation in times of austerity: 
UGent is going through austerity. In an effort to solve budgetary problems, the current board of governors has decided to raise tuition fees for PhD students. Negotiations on raised tuition are taking place at the inter-university level, because UGent cannot unilaterally raise fees themselves. Considering that a tuition increase means a de facto loss of income for PhD students in times when cost-of-living is already rising quickly, we want to take a stand against this austerity measure.

The discussion on tuition fees also exposes the differences across research labs and groups in who pays for the tuition increase. In some research contexts, the lab or group rather than the PhD student pays these tuition costs. We want to investigate if such policies could be implemented across the university.These types of measures are especially important for non-EU PhD students given that their tuition costs are higher.

We will advocate that any increase can only be implemented for new PhD students and that a tuition increase for the current crop of PhD students would be a breach of contract. 

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2. A renewed focus on transgressive behavior:
Stories of transgressive behavior are present at every Faculty. Recent news reports confirm that current university policies are insufficient to fully solve this problem and that many young researchers still have to endure hostile work environments on a daily basis. Recently the board of governors has voted to implement an external contact point for staff and students to help deal with this problem. Additionally, the university is creating a university-wide plan to help tackle transgressive behavior. We will actively follow-up on these plans and will participate in the development of these plans whenever possible to help ensure that true progress is made on this front. We consider this a priority for the coming years. Making sure that every young researcher feels safe and supported in the workplace is not only the humane thing to do, it is a necessary condition so that young researchers can reach their full scientific potential.



3. A preventive welfare policy
Young researchers are having a difficult time. Studies from ECOOM show that over 30% of PhD students are at risk to develop serious mental problems. That is twice the rate of similarly educated people in private industry. Currently, young researchers only seem to find their ways towards ombuspersons and trusted liaisons when problems reach a breaking point. We want to advocate for a thorough evaluation of current well-being policies and to start working on preventive policies as well. We support low-threshold alternatives such as mentors and coaches (perhaps through OAP-peers) to whom young researchers can address their questions on the work process, transgressive behavior or can talk about fears of failure in a more informal setting.

Additionally, we want to draw more attention to the relationship between supervisors and their PhD students. When PhD students don’t get the supervision they need, it must be possible to take concrete action and even switch to another supervisor. At the moment PhD students can rarely act upon their concerns, as the bureaucracy of our university makes it very difficult to take action when they are experiencing a bad working relationship. We need to do away with the stigma of terminating the working relation with a supervisor.

In general, we are convinced that we not only have a duty to support people who are suffering, We also need to proactively support young research before minor problems become insurmountable.



4. A proactive career model
The academic system is a pyramid scheme. Many young researchers cannot stay in academia, and yet the step to an alternative career path is still a leap in the dark. We advocate that the university takes a more active role in taking that leap. As a start, the university should monitor the outflow of PhD students and evaluate how quickly PhD students make a career transition and where they end up. The information obtained from this monitoring could be used to broaden the courses offered by the doctoral schools to ensure that those courses that best help students make this transition are on offer. 

Additionally, we want to investigate the possibility of having PhD students complete a (voluntary) short-term internship in the private or governmental sector as part of their PhD trajectory, if doing so makes sense in their field. Such internships could help PhD students transition to alternative career paths, but will also allow the university to strengthen the bond with other sectors, help those other sectors realize the added value of hiring PhDs and could occasionally help spur innovation by embedding academics in other sectors.
 
Relatedly, we want to evaluate whether the current distinction between “specialist” and “transferable” courses is helpful to PhD students. The division between two types of courses, along with a set limit for how many courses one is allowed to pursue within each category often leads to frustration in PhD students that want to take up a specific course, but are unable to when they have already reached the limit of the amount of courses they can take up from that type of course. We think PhD students themselves are best placed to decide for themselves which courses are most valuable to their unique career trajectory.

Finally, we want to investigate whether it is possible to open up the doctoral schools to postdoctoral researchers and allow postdoctoral researchers to participate in doctoral schools courses on a fully voluntary basis. While this would be fully voluntary, we believe this would be beneficial to postdoctoral researchers and could help them pursue certain career goals. Additionally, this might lead to higher engagement of postdoctoral researchers within the doctoral schools system so that they themselves are more likely to organize courses as well,  which, in turn, would help to broaden the number of courses offered to PhD students.



5. Representation from consultation.
We will continue the existing formats of OAP consultation and support university-wide OAP meetings to both brief and gather input from OAP members. If we are elected, our first order of business would be to contact all faculty representatives and have a discussion with these representatives to gain even more insight into the unique problems that each faculty faces. 

Moreover, in some circles of policymaking, pre- and postdocs are not represented. First, we want to work towards OAP consultation across universities, to ensure that OAP members of all universities can work towards common goals. Additionally, we want to lobby for a seat at the negotiation table of the VLIR (the Flemish Interuniversity council). Right now, the tuition increase for PhD students is being debated at this policy level. While students are represented in the VLIR, pre- and postdocs are not. We believe this oversight needs to be corrected. The only way to ensure that the greatest burdens are not borne by the most vulnerable is to make sure that pre and postdocs have a voice at the negotiating table. By listening to your concerns and with a constructive voice, we want to engage in dialogue with the central leadership.


6. Diversity as a strength.
UGent's diversity and internationalization policy is a double-edged sword. Although broadening internationalization is a goal, many structural problems make life at UGent harder for international colleagues. Most egregiously, all policy organs conduct their business in Dutch despite a sizable amount of non-Dutch speakers working at the university. While many Dutch-speaking representatives actively seek out the concerns of non-Dutch speakers, they simply do not have the lived experience of their non-Dutch colleagues. This undemocratic aspect of our governmental structure causes many of the concerns of non-Dutch speakers to go unnoticed which in turn leads to higher turnover for non-Dutch speaking colleagues and damage to the international reputation of UGent. We want the UGent to lobby the Flemish government to change the language policies at UGent, or alternatively, install an ad hoc policy organ with the express goal of giving Non-Dutch speakers some representation within the democratic structure of our university. 

Additionally, due to administrative policies, many international colleagues are considered as “students” rather than OAP members for UGent election purposes, meaning they cannot vote for the OAP reps that try to alleviate the problems they face. We want to rectify this problem.


7. Valuing non-research activities
Universities are vibrant research communities. However, they are not just about research. OAP members help to educate students, they support outreach programs, they provide valuable service in committees and boards. All these activities take up time, but not all of them are valued equally by the university or by funding organizations. Recently, the UGent has moved towards a new model for the evaluation of professors: one that explicitly takes into account the various ways that researchers can contribute beyond their publication output. We applaud this approach. In this regard, UGent is truly on the forefront of a new academic culture. However, the philosophy of these policies need to be applied to PhD students and postdocs as well. Many promotors still judge the success of a PhD by the number of publications that resulted from that PhD. Funding organisations still attribute a lot of attention to publication output when judging the quality of potential grantees, more so than that they assess the qualities of a potential grantee by the quality of the education that they have provided or by the service work they have done. 

Progress on this issue can be made in part by giving PhD students formal credit for the work they are doing. Teaching assistants are nowhere officially listed on the courses they teach in. Teaching assistants that want to obtain teaching evaluations (for instance, to provide to future employers) need to gather these evaluations themselves.

Relatedly, we want the university to actively monitor the teaching and service workload faced by pre- and postdoctoral researchers. All pre- and postdoctoral researchers have a contractual guarantee for a minimum amount of research time. Yet, this minimum is regularly ignored, and PhD students and postdocs receive insufficient time to conduct the research they were hired to do. Similar problems exist at the professor level, but for young researchers, the problem is existential. This system can be exploitative and somewhat paradoxical, given that funding is still mainly determined by publication output. 

Ironically, some OAP members also find themselves facing the opposite problem: teaching workloads differ a lot from faculty to faculty, to such an extent that some PhD students and postdoctoral researchers find themselves without any opportunity to teach. Given that such experience is valued on the job market, this can also be problematic. As a first step in alleviating these problems we want to advocate that the university starts to monitor workload more thoroughly. 
 

Our background:

We are convinced that we can represent the OAP with passion and a sense of responsibility. We aim to work towards the well-being of pre and postdocs in the broadest sense of the word. Both of us have extensive experience with service in administration.

Dries has several years of experience as an OAP representative. To date, he represents the OAP of the alpha sciences in the Research Council. In addition, he has been active for five years as a representative in the Faculty Council of Psychology and in his department. Over the years, he has served on the doctoral schools, the AAP committee, and several ad hoc committees within his faculty. During his PhD, he helped found the PhD community.

Ishka has been actively involved as a representative at UGent since her student days. She acted for two years as a student representative in the faculty council of the Faculty of Arts and Philosophy, and at the same time, she was also vice-president of the faculty student council StuArt. She always had a strong interest in the functioning of the university and as a former employee of the sustainability office, she also gained experience with policy work at the central level. As an AAP member, she now represents the alpha sciences on the Sustainability Committee.

We consider representation to be a collective endeavor stemming from open debate and dialogue. This implies not only that we will communicate transparently about the decisions that are taken, but that we will support representatives in all councils and committees in their mandate and will actively work to get input from OAP members. In this way we can give the OAP perspective a stronger and more consistent place in the university policy bodies.

If you have concerns, questions or would like to be involved, do not hesitate to contact us or send a message via dries.bostyn@ugent.be or ishka.desmedt@ugent.be.