'Being aware that complaints belong here is a sign of maturity'

| Rense Kuipers

Ombuds officer Han Warmelink's annual report is positive about the self-reflection shown by the HR department and notes that the UT is handling conflicts less 'panicky'. However, there are concerns about the vulnerable position of certain PhD candidates.


You received 38 reports from staff and six from students last academic year. What is your main conclusion about this?

'That we can speak of a relatively calm year. The number of reports from employees is practically the same as in previous years (the previous years 37, 39 and 39 respectively, ed.), but I observe little consistency in the complaints. Relatively most reports are related to a labour dispute or an employment status. In 23 of the total of 38 reports, I can speak of a successful solution for the person making a report. By successful, I do not mean that the situation is completely resolved, but that the parties can move on together. That is ultimately the most important thing, that people talk and listen - and think in terms of solutions.'

Relatively few students knock on your door, do you have an explanation for that?

'I understood from fellow ombuds officers that the proportions are different at their universities. But it apparently has to do with the culture of the organisation. My understanding is that students here are more inclined to go to the student desk, or find support among themselves - whether within an association or not. That's certainly not a bad thing; as long as they don't get stuck or don't know their way to the help structure. But I fortunately don't get that impression.'

'I find that one report from ET more strange than the 13 reports from BMS'

Interestingly, the number of reports varies considerably; for instance, there are 13 reports from the BMS faculty and 'only' one from the ET faculty.

'It may sound weird, but I find that one report from ET more strange than the 13 reports from BMS. Many reports are not necessarily wrong, if they fit a culture in which it is encouraged to report possible wrongdoing. That the number of reports at ET is so low I find a bit odd. Considering how big and complex the organisation is, there really should be more.'

In this report, you also note a different role taken by the Human Resources department since your critical comments two years ago. What do you notice?

'I see that HR has taken a more independent position, in between employee and employer. We have sparred on that since the earlier report: what is people's perception of HR and what can you do to change that? I am very positive about the self-reflection HR has shown and actually see a change in direction. That is quite extraordinary, if I am to believe colleagues elsewhere in the country. That action is actually taken after such recommendations, that doesn't happen everywhere.'

'I found that the UT was very quick to arm itself when a conflict situation arose'

In the same vein, you also note that the UT is handling conflicts differently, something you were critical of in the previous annual report.

'I found that the UT was very quick to arm itself when a conflict situation arose. A tin of legal advisers was pulled out quite quickly, so to speak. In this respect, I detect a gradual change: it still happens, but is no longer necessarily the first reflex. I see more awareness that complaints belong in any large organisation, and it is also what tone you strike. A complaint is actually also a kind of free advice, which can lead to improvement of the organisation. To me, that is an indication of the UT's maturity, certainly not a sign of weakness.'

Because actually, it is quite healthy that reports are made?

'That is mainly also a question of what tone is struck. But I would say it is, especially within such a complex organisation in which there is a strong dependency relationship. University professor Naomi Ellemers also noted this in her report to the minister last year. This is especially true for PhD candidates; they face strong dependence on one person, who can make or break a career. That makes it very difficult to raise problems.

Incidentally, in recent weeks I have noticed that many UT employees are knocking on my door after the announced financial measures. Especially employees on temporary contracts fear for their employment status. I clearly notice a certain stress among individuals, now that the financial position of the entire university is under a bit more pressure.'

 'Certain PhD candidates felt too much part of some kind of cookie factory'

You specifically raise the issue of PhD students in relation to the UT as an 'entrepreneurial university'. What is that about exactly?

'Over the past four years (Warmelink has been ombuds officer at the UT since 2019, ed.) I received signals from about ten PhD candidates that they were seriously disappointed in their experience at the university. They reported this after completing their PhD trajectory, which says a lot about that aforementioned dependency relationship. They felt that too little attention was paid to their scientific training and felt too much part of some kind of cookie factory. This was specifically about PhD positions that came about from external, commercial funding. Among other things, they struggled with a lack of supervision or facilities. And they had to immediately join a company - regularly the spin-off of their supervisor - while they were hoping for scientific training. The UT as an entrepreneurial university is well established and has many positive aspects. But this kind of deployment of these PhD candidates is clearly a downside of that. We need to pay attention to that.'

Finally, what is your current impression of the support structure at UT and your own role in it?

'The support structure has expanded in recent years and may not be clear to everyone. At the same time, the most important thing is that someone has somewhere to turn. In the past, we were perhaps searching a bit more, but I have noticed that the tasks are now better coordinated and that reports are increasingly reaching the right place. It is important that we know what we offer each other, which is why the entire support structure - from HR staff to the complaints committee - meets twice a year. The better the coordination, the more we prevent someone with a report from falling between the cracks.'

Stay tuned

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.