By Madeleijn van den Nieuwenhuizen
A spectre is haunting The Netherlands: the spectre of diffuse debates. One moment the topic of academic pressure and excellence in Dutch higher education is discussed, the next we are talking about an unsatisfiable generation of over-achievers. The discussion has been an unguided missile that needs nuance and context. We should focus on its underlying key point: the hunger for measurability. Only then can we think of actual concrete measures that we as a society (yes, it is that big) need to take.
First of all, it seems wise to expand the focus of the debate on excellence and achievement beyond that of just our generation. Even though Jeroen van Baar, author of the book De Prestatiegeneratie, in his presentation at UCU was very keen on portraying ‘my’ generation as an insatiable cohort of over-achievers, this does not do justice to the complexity of the situation.
Yes, my heart secretly beats faster when I think of studying at a prestigious British university. Is that, however, because of the ‘excellence’ of the education, or because those universities are valued and recognized by potential employers? At best you can make the claim that the pressure to achieve or excel manifests itself more explicitly in the life of those in the process of making potential career determining choices.
Van Baar pleads for students being okay with getting low grades, not necessarily striving for better. It is, however, not the actual level of grades that matters. It is the calculative mentality in the whole process that is worrying. A student not striving for more than what is needed is just as wrong in his/her motives as a student who aspires to graduate cum laude merely for the CV-boost. Their behaviour indicates that somewhere along the process intrinsic motivation of self-development and elevation made way for a more superficial striving.
I notice that this strategic, calculative thinking also manifests itself in my life. When I first heard that I was appointed an internship with a local library in Kenya for my UCUinAfrica course, one of my first thoughts was: “That does not look particularly mesmerizing on my CV”. I gave myself an imaginary slap in the face. It was not the thought itself that shocked me; it was the urgency with which it came to me. I do not claim that this ‘CV-consciousness’ is as strong amongst all young adults, but I would say that all along the line the focus on self-marketability has increased.
“In recent years, Dutch higher education has increasingly become a factory of results”
If we want to understand the sometimes-alarming level of ‘CV-consciousness’ and urge to measure everything, we need to look at the institutions that help shape it. In recent years, Dutch higher education has increasingly become a factory of results. This idea continues at most universities, where self-development of students seems to have become more of a by-product than an aim in itself. The University Colleges are the counterbalance in the equation in terms of educational philosophy, but remain selective and expensive in comparison to ‘normal’ study programs.
The focus on results is underscored by the stance the government is taking against students taking longer to graduate than ‘needed’, by means of the ‘langstudeerboete’ (a fine). Universities are pressured as well, since government funding is partly based on the number of graduated students they deliver. Success rates are even pre-recorded in the budgets. It is not without a reason that University College Utrecht is happy with its low dropout rate.
Whoever thinks, though, that this measurability-fetish is something reserved for higher education, is wrong. Already in the last year of Dutch primary school pupils are obliged to take the three-day long CITO test. This multiple-choice test measures primary education attainment in the final year of primary school, resulting in a practically binding advice for a specific secondary school level. It has been criticised for its alleged narrow view of intellect and capability assessment. Moreover, these twelve-year-old youngsters learn that there are correct and wrong answers that consequently put them in a hierarchy of labels. I remember fellow pupils crying after receiving the test results, sentenced away, as they felt, from their friends.
Last November, The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) organised a two-day conference titled “Science in Transition”, addressing how science is “in need of fundamental reform”. The initiators, calling themselves “the rebels” of academia, addressed various issues that illustrate similar follies in current day science. In their position paper they stated “science has become a self-referential system where quality is measured mostly in bibliometric parameters and where societal relevance is undervalued”. Only weeks before that, The Economist published an article titled ‘How Science goes Wrong’. It addressed the issue of many errors in science going uncorrected as a result of the rat race of results in which both scientific journals and researches find themselves.
Both the conference and the article discuss the so-called h-index of researchers, measuring the ‘impact-factor’ of their articles. It is a formula that measures the number of times a research has been cited, potentially increasing the prestige of its author(s). Say a researcher has an h-index of 30, then this means that at least 30 of his/her articles have been cited 30 times or more. It has, however, also been encouraging a culture of returning favours in terms of co-authoring
Recently the issue of self-citation popped up in Dutch media. The question was if someone that cites him/herself, thereby increasing their h-index, is plagiarizing. A witty columnist drew on a quote of play-writer George Shaw: “I often quote myself. It adds spice to my conversation.
Pressure for publication in science is tremendous, as researches are judged by university management and funders on their number of publications. Quality seems subordinate to the labels ‘innovative’ and ‘applied’. Recent research in Nature stated that of 53 ‘innovative’ cancer researches, only 6 were replicable. This pressure leads to some scientists crossing the line, committing fraud or plagiarism. Media and public then stumble over one another to be the first to morally condemn their actions.
Saying that striving for bigger and better is something generational is an empty claim. Yes, I have been raised with the idea that I can and should do anything I want. What I want, however, is heavily influenced by what society perceives as valuable. Valuable has become interchangeable with useful. Therefore, studying economics is nowadays valued higher than studying philosophy, just as doing research is more prestigious than teaching. I have witnessed this society become one that, besides encouraging talent and creativity is satiated with rational, almost technocratic policies aimed at enhancing efficiency and efficacy.
Recently I read The Circle, a dystopian novel by Dave Eggers on a highly efficient Google-like company that aspires to record and quantify everything and everyone in the world. Reading about a society gone berserk over measurability and efficiency, one quote struck me in particular. “It is better to be at the bottom of a ladder that you want to climb than in the middle of some ladder you don’t”. Let’s make sure whatever ladder we aim to climb all the way up, is at least one we feel happy climbing.
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