6. Human resources in Flemish higher education

As a rule, academic and non-academic staff in the Flemish Community have distinct statuses and employment conditions depending on whether they work in universities and university colleges. These differences reflect the distinct missions of the two types of institution and their historical development. Whereas Flemish universities have long been autonomous entities employing their own academic staff, university colleges were historically more directly integrated into the broader education system, with their lecturers employed on similar terms to teachers in secondary education. The career structures and conditions of academic staff attached to academic programmes in Schools of Arts (within university colleges) and in the Antwerp Maritime Academy are aligned with those used in universities, although they are otherwise subject to the rules governing employment in university colleges.

In universities, statutory employees are categorised as “independent” academic staff (zelfstandig academisch personeel or ZAP), assistant academic staff (assisterend academisch personeel - AAP) or administrative and technical staff (ATP). Senior academic staff (ZAP) are those in positions equivalent to the US academic ranks of professor, associate professor and assistant professor and staff in formalised “tenure track” posts for new academics. Although introduced in the Flemish system in analogy to the US model, the concept of “tenure track” and the requirements for acquiring tenure, as well as the status of holding tenure, are not directly equivalent in the Flemish and American higher education systems.

The category of assistant academic staff includes doctoral candidates, post-doctoral researchers and others specifically employed as teaching assistants. Administrative and technical staff encompasses the professional management staff in universities and various categories of support staff. In addition to mainstream academic staff, universities also employ a comparatively limited number of “teaching staff” (onderwijzend personeel – OP) who transferred to universities from university colleges with their academic programmes in 2013 (referred to as the “integration cohort” or “integratiekader”). This cohort of teaching staff is declining in number over time, as new staff recruited for the transferred programmes are employed in mainstream academic positions, under the standard university career structure. However, in 2020, transferred staff still accounted for around 540 full-time equivalent (FTE) posts in universities (VLIR, 2020[1]).

Most doctoral candidates and post-doctoral researchers – those who are not among the minority paid from university operating funds and classified as assisterend academisch personeel (AAP) – are together classified as “scientific staff” (wetenschappelijk personeel – WP). The Flemish Community has a mixed system of statuses for doctoral candidates, a minority of whom are formally employed by the universities on fixed-term contracts, in a manner similar to that seen more generally for doctoral candidates in the Netherlands or Norway. A majority of doctoral candidates have the status of research fellows and are paid through grants from research funding agencies. Both categories are included in the headcount of “scientific staff”. In 2020, 72% of total scientific staff were doctoral candidates and 28% post-docs.

In 2020, there were the equivalent of over 27 000 full-time staff and researcher positions in Flemish universities. Table 6.1 shows, for the years 2012 to 2020, the numbers FTE staff of different categories employed in the Flemish university sector. It distinguishes mainstream academic staff (ZAP), assistant academic staff (AAP), researchers paid from sources other than the core operating grant (WP), administrative and technical staff paid with core university funding, and administrative and technical staff paid with external funding sources. The figures include the administrative and technical staff that transferred from university colleges in 2013, but not the transferred teaching staff, who are categorised separately as they are paid from a distinct budget line.

The data show that the number of FTE academic staff in universities increased by around 32% in the nine years to 2020, while there were slightly smaller increases, of around 25%, in the numbers of FTE researchers and core administrative and technical staff. The number of FTE assistant academic staff increased more slowly, by only 7%. The comparatively large increase in the number of administrative and technical staff paid from external funds (+29%) reflects an increase in externally funded research and service activities. Of university staff paid from the core operating grant to universities, just over one-third of FTE positions are occupied by academic staff, 18% by assistant academic staff and 48% by administrative and technical staff.

The vast majority of doctoral and post-doctoral researchers (scientific staff) either receive grants from their funding bodies or are employed by the universities on fixed-term contracts. Assistant academic staff and most administrative and technical staff employed using third party funds are employed exclusively on fixed-term contracts, while administrative and technical staff paid out of the core operating grant can be employed on fixed-term or permanent contracts.

As a rule, senior academic staff (ZAP) are employed on permanent contracts. However, new senior academic staff can be employed for a period of up to three years on a fixed-term contract, after which, subject to a positive evaluation, they must be given a permanent appointment. Universities can subsequently decide to give academic staff paid out of the core operating grant statutory permanent contracts under public law – a process referred to as “permanent appointment” (vaste benoeming). For institutions, this has the advantage that social security costs are then borne by government, rather than the institution. As noted, although the US concept of “tenure” is sometimes used to refer to this status in English, permanent appointment is a concept used more widely in the public sector in Belgium and so does not have exactly the same meaning as tenure in a North American context. Tenure track positions are five-year posts, at the end of which, again subject to a positive evaluation, the holder is permanently appointed with the grade equivalent to associate professor (hoofddocent). The salaries for all positions are fixed in relation to central salary scales, established in the Higher Education Code (Flemish Government, 2013[2]).

Senior teaching staff working in professional programmes in university colleges, (Group 1 onderwijzend personeel – OP1) have the title lecturer or senior lecturer (lector or hoofdlector) or “practice lecturer” or “senior practice lecturer” (praktijklector or hoofdpraktijklector). The former categories require a master’s degree, the second only a bachelor’s qualification. Senior academic staff working on academic programmes in the Schools of Arts (which are integrated into university colleges) and the Antwerp Maritime Academy (Group 3 onderwijzend personeel – OP3) use the academic ranks used in universities. In addition, assistant academic staff (Group 2 onderwijzend personeel – OP2) are employed in both professional and academic programmes.

In 2019, there were the equivalent of 7 600 full-time teaching staff employed in the 16 university colleges, along with around 3 300 FTE administrative and technical staff (Flemish Government, 2020[3]). As a significant minority of teaching staff work part-time, the number of individual lecturers is higher than the full-time equivalent figure. All categories of staff in university colleges are employed on contracts under public law, with their salaries established with reference to a specific set of salary scales for university colleges also established in the Higher Education Code. Teaching staff are initially engaged on fixed-term contracts, typically then progress to indefinite contracts and then, subject to further positive evaluations, may be made permanent (vast benoemd) in a similar way to academic staff in universities and public sector employees in Belgium more generally. Each university college has its own regulations governing career progression, within the broad framework established at Flemish level. As noted, staff in academic programmes in the Schools of Arts and in the Antwerp Maritime Academy are employed under the salary conditions and career structures for university academic staff.

Taking into account the questions posed by the Flemish advisory group at the outset of this review and the issues that emerged during discussions with representatives of higher education institutions, staff and other stakeholders, the remainder of this chapter focuses on three topics related to human resources in Flemish higher education and where particular concerns have been reported:

  1. 1. The first section considers the workload of academic and teaching staff in higher education and, in particular, the student-to-staff ratios observed in the Flemish Community compared to those seen elsewhere in the OECD;

  2. 2. The second section considers the question of promoting diversity – and notably gender balance – in the academic workforce, focusing on actions that are being taken to further this goal in the Flemish higher education system and elsewhere and;

  3. 3. The final section examines approaches to supporting junior researchers to manage their careers and strategies for creating positive working environments in academia, including opportunities for professional development.

Teaching, supervising and guiding students is the primary role of lecturers in university colleges and a core component of the jobs of academic staff in universities, alongside their responsibilities in research. The way staff interact with students, through lectures, seminars, practical work, supervision of projects and dissertations, and the more general guidance and orientation they provide, are an essential determinant of the quality of the learning experience in higher education. In this context, the ratio between the number of students in a class or higher education institution and the number of staff actively involved in teaching, is often taken as a proxy indicator of the level of student-staff engagement and the potential quality of the student learning experience.

Equally, student-to-staff ratios may provide an indication of the workload of teaching staff, given that a higher number of students per staff member implies, for each staff member, greater demands for individual support from students and more assignments and examinations to assess. However, indicators of student-to-staff ratios can be challenging to calculate and to interpret. Firstly, there is no pre-determined “ideal” student-to-staff ratio that is required to ensure high-quality interaction between students and staff and appropriate ratios certainly vary between fields of study. Disciplines with a strong practical component, notably in certain professional disciplines, sciences with laboratory work, music and the visual and performing arts, nearly always require smaller class sizes than fields such as maths, economics or history.

Secondly, conventional measures of both student and staff numbers create interpretation challenges. In flexible higher education systems, such as that in the Flemish Community, where students study at different levels of intensity (enrolling for different numbers of credits), the number of unique students will be higher than the number of FTE students. However, the amount of time and effort required to support each student does not decrease proportionally with their study intensity, particularly as part-time students frequently come from populations that tend to require additional help. It may therefore be misleading to rely entirely on measures of FTE students as an indicator of student-related workload for staff.

On the staff side of the equation, the challenge arises from a difficulty of measuring how much time staff dedicate to teaching. This is classically a problem for interpreting student-to-staff ratios in universities, where all academic staff are assumed to conduct research and some dedicate a large proportion (or all) of their time to non-teaching activities. In particular, a significant proportion of academic staff in many OECD university systems may have a limited or no role in undergraduate teaching. However, even in less research-intensive institutions, such as Flemish university colleges, teaching staff are engaged in practice-oriented research, service and administrative tasks alongside teaching, which can have a significant impact on the amount of time they spend teaching and interacting directly with students.

Against the backdrop of these methodological challenges, Figure 6.1 presents the ratio of unique, degree-seeking students to full-time equivalent academic or teaching staff for Flemish universities and university colleges for the period 2015 to 2019.

Figure 6.1 illustrates that the number of unique degree-seeking students per staff member remained at around 17 in university colleges in the five-year period shown, while it increased from around 21 to 22 in universities. The figure shows the result of calculations using unique degree-seeking students, rather than full-time equivalent students, as the numerator. This generates a valid indicator of demand on staff time for the reasons noted above, but one that does not account for variation in students’ study intensity. Using a measure of full-time equivalent students would result in somewhat lower numbers of students per staff member. The use of unique students, rather than FTE students, also means apparent changes in the student-to-staff ratio may reflect changes in average student study intensity and must therefore be interpreted with caution. Using aggregated data such as these also masks differences in student-to-staff ratios between institutions and fields of study. The general pattern of lower student-to-staff ratios in university colleges reflects the high proportion of practically oriented programmes in these institutions, including those in Schools of Arts.

International data on student-to-staff ratios are subject to the same caveats as apply to interpretation of national data. In addition, there is likely to be even more variation in the proportion of time academic staff dedicate to teaching between countries than within a single system. Moreover, while clear international guidelines for reporting exist, it is also probable that differences in the way countries classify academic and teaching staff posts will affect the numbers of FTE staff that they report to the OECD, UNESCO and Eurostat. Figure 6.2 presents the ratios between the total numbers of FTE academic staff in higher education (i.e. in universities and non-university institutions) and the total numbers of FTE students enrolled in eight comparable OECD jurisdictions, including the Flemish Community, for the year 2018.

The international data show an average ratio of just over 19 FTE students for each FTE academic or teaching staff member in the Flemish higher education sector in 2018. This compares to an average of 15.2 FTE students per academic or teaching staff member in 2018 in the 28 OECD jurisdictions for which data are available (OECD, n.d.[5]). Of European OECD members, only Ireland (shown) and Italy have higher ratios of FTE students to FTE staff member (at respectively 20.4 and 20.3 FTE students to FTE staff member). Examining the data on academic staff also reveals that the Flemish higher education system has a comparatively low number of academic staff in relation to the population it serves, at around 1 825 FTE academic and teaching staff per million population in 2018 (using the population of the Flemish Region as the numerator). This compares with around 1 890 FTE academic staff per million inhabitants in the United Kingdom, 2 700 FTE per million in Finland and around 3 200 per million in the Netherlands and Denmark (OECD, 2020[6]). These differences may be influenced to some extent by differences in the categorisation of academic staff, although this influence is likely to be modest, as international data manuals provide clear definitions of the level of academic posts to be included and specify that “academic staff” should be involved in teaching (and not simply be researchers).

Ensuring that academic workforces reflect – or at least better reflect – the composition of the population in the jurisdictions they serve is a stated policy priority in many OECD member countries (OECD, 2020[7]). In many countries, the academic profession has historically been disproportionately male and had a poor record in integrating members of minority population groups. As time passes and the profession is renewed, opportunities arise to enhance the representativeness of the academic workforce through careful recruitment and promotion practices.

As shown in Figure 6.3, around 40% of the academic workforce in the Flemish Community (ZAP, AAP and OP) is over 50 years old – a higher proportion than in the Netherlands (33%), but significantly less than in Finland (nearly 50%). International data suggest that only 14% of the academic workforce in the Flemish Community is under 35, the second lowest percentage of the seven comparable jurisdictions shown below, after Portugal. These data are based on robust international data collections, but must be interpreted with care, as the involvement of junior academics, such as post-docs, in teaching may vary between jurisdictions. It is likely, for example, that a higher proportion of junior academics in the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark have teaching responsibilities and are considered as academic staff than in the Flemish Community, leading to a higher proportion of such staff being included in the international data submissions. Doctoral candidates and post-doctoral researchers employed in Flemish universities do not automatically have a role in teaching. Where they do so, they are employed and counted as assistant academic staff (AAP).

In terms of gender, less than 30% of senior academic staff (ZAP) and only 44% of researchers (WP) in Flemish universities in 2019 were women. In contrast, 57% of lecturers in university colleges in the same year were women (VLIR, 2020[1]; Flemish Government, 2020[3]). As illustrated in Figure 6.4, the proportion of female academic staff in the higher education system (covering both universities and non-university institutions) varies more strongly by age category in the Flemish Community than in comparable OECD jurisdictions. Whereas 64% of all academic staff aged under 35 in the Flemish Community are women, the proportion falls to 46% among those aged 50 to 59 and 21% for those over 60. This pattern suggests that higher education in the Flemish Community has become increasingly more female, but equally that a very high proportion of the most senior posts in academia are occupied by men. This is confirmed by Flemish data, which show that only a quarter of senior academic staff (ZAP) aged over 45 are women (Flemish Government, 2020[8]).

The pattern in the Flemish Community contrasts with that seen in comparable OECD jurisdictions, where there are higher proportions of women among academics aged over 60 and higher proportions of men among teaching and academic staff aged under 50. It appears likely that other jurisdictions were historically more successful than the Flemish Community in achieving a (more equal) gender balance in the academic workforce. In light of the international and Flemish data, it also appears that the Flemish Community has improved gender diversity among younger age cohorts, but with a potential under-representation of men among younger teaching staff in the university colleges and a persisting under-representation of women among young academic staff in universities.

The Flemish higher education sector has taken steps to address this situation. As discussed in Chapters 3 and 4, the formulas for allocating the research element of the core grant to universities and for the Special Research Funds (BOF), both reward institutions for the appointment of female academic staff, although, as also discussed, the direct influence of these parameters on institutional behaviour is hard to establish. The five Flemish universities themselves adopted Gender Action Plans in 2014 to boost the number of women entering and pursuing successful academic careers. In 2019, in recognition of modest progress in achieving gender equality, the Flemish universities and the Flemish association of young researchers (Jonge Academie) adopted a new Charter on Gender in Academia (VLIR and JA, 2019[9]), setting out five action lines to promote a better gender balance in the university system. The actions include training for staff on gender and implicit bias, strengthening guidelines for recruitment, targeting at least a 40:60 ratio of genders on official bodies and committees, promoting a gender-positive working environments and more systematic and transparent monitoring.

Some European countries, including Germany and Denmark, have incorporated explicit obligations in their national legislation governing higher education for higher education institutions to promote gender equality and report regularly on progress. These legislative obligations go beyond mainstream equality legislation in both jurisdictions. In addition, research funding agencies have implemented specific grant programmes to support female researchers and academic staff, notably in Germany and the Netherlands, as highlighted in Box 6.1.

The Flemish higher education sector has been less affected by the shift to employing academic and teaching staff on comparatively precarious temporary and fixed-term contracts than systems in some OECD jurisdictions, such as the United States (OECD, 2020[7]). As noted in the introductory section to this chapter, after an initial trial period, academic staff in universities and university colleges in Flanders are typically employed on well-protected indefinite contracts and the number of “assistant academic staff” has not increased disproportionally in recent years (see Table 6.1). The relatively high labour costs in Belgium are almost certainly one of the explanations for the comparatively higher student-to-staff ratios in the Flemish Community. As in other higher education systems, an expansion of doctoral education and an increase in external funding for post-doctoral positions has led to an increase in the number of junior researchers working in universities over the last two decades. As the number of permanent academic posts – and openings to enter them – remains limited, only a fraction of those who complete a PhD or even a post-doc will actually enter academia. Competition for permanent academic positions in the Flemish Community, as in other OECD jurisdictions, is intense.

At the same time, those who do enter higher education are being called upon to work in new ways. In the area of teaching, the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to a forced transition to online instruction in Belgium, as across the globe, revealed the weaknesses of existing digital infrastructure in higher education and the challenges of translating existing learning content and teaching methods to remote and blended formats. The pandemic has also intensified the worldwide debate about the most appropriate ways to integrate the best aspects of digital learning into mainstream higher education, as students return to campus. To engage with such developments, academic staff will need to hone skills that have not traditionally been part of academic training. In parallel, in the area of research, pressure to deliver publishable research outputs remains intense in Flemish higher education, as in other advanced research systems. Although pressure to perform and deliver high-quality research are inherent to life in an increasingly internationalised academic community, excessive pressure can naturally have negative effects on the academic working environment.

Against this backdrop, this section considers approaches – in the Flemish Community and other OECD jurisdictions – to supporting junior researchers to plan and develop their career, to providing professional learning opportunities for academic staff in the field of teaching and to creating positive working conditions for academics.

A majority of those who complete a PhD in OECD countries go on to work outside academia. Within a representative sample of 16-65 year-olds in OECD jurisdictions participating in the OECD Survey of Adult Skills in 2012 and 2015, 26% of doctorate holders younger than 45 worked in higher education, compared to 28% among doctorate holders aged 45-65 year-olds (OECD, 2019[14]). Moreover, the same survey found that doctorate holders under 45 working in higher education were about 2.5 times less likely to be employed on a permanent basis than doctorate holders in the same age group working in other sectors. This pattern is a reflection of a common tendency in OECD jurisdictions for post-doctoral researchers – and junior academic staff more generally – to be employed on fixed-term contracts, often for many years (OECD, 2020[7]).

Despite the generally more protected employment conditions for academic staff, these broad patterns are also visible in the Flemish Community. A 2018 evaluation of the research funding system in Flanders estimated that 80% of doctoral holders in Flanders move to the non-academic labour market (Van der Beken et al., 2018[15]). Data shared with the review team by the KU Leuven show that only 9% of those completing a PhD at that university go on to work in academia. Of post-docs at the same university, one-third of those who had previously completed a PhD at a Flemish university go on to obtain a job in a university in the Flemish Community. The proportion all post-docs, including those having obtained their PhD outside the Flemish Community, going on to obtain an academic position at a Flemish university is only 11%.

The low proportion of post-docs with PhDs obtained abroad moving into permanent academic jobs is likely to be explained in part by the Dutch-language requirements for obtaining a permanent academic post in the Flemish Community. The language requirements in place are widely reported to be more stringent than in neighbouring countries and to make it hard for non-Dutch-speaking international researchers to obtain permanent positions. In 2020, 48% of post-docs in Flemish universities held non-Belgian nationality, but this was the case for only 12% of permanent academic staff (ZAP). Of the 12% non-Belgian permanent academic staff, one-quarter held Dutch nationality. As highlighted in Box 6.2, the Flemish Community is an outlier in applying such strict language requirements, with only few countries imposing language requirements for academic staff and even fewer implementing stricter statutory regulation specifically for academic staff than for public sector employees more generally. In the Netherlands, for example, appointment to permanent academic positions does not routinely require a prior knowledge of Dutch (it may be considered as an asset for candidates), although all staff are encouraged to develop Dutch-language proficiency when in post to facilitate internal communication.

Compared to many other OECD jurisdictions, the Flemish Community has relatively well-embedded mechanisms to support doctoral and post-doctoral researchers to develop their profiles and, for most, to prepare for careers outside academia. Since 2013, the Flemish government has provided Flemish universities with dedicated grant funding for activities to support doctoral and post-doctoral researchers through an initiative called “Supporting Young Researchers” (Omkadering Jonge Onderzoekers - OJO). A 2018 evaluation of the initiative reported positive effects, despite the difficulty of measuring these, and recommended the continuation of the programme with a 25% increase in resources, albeit with a clearer focus on transversal skills (Bongers et al., 2018[17]). The importance of support to young researchers for their professional development and the management of expectations about pursuing an academic career were factors also stressed by Flemish universities consulted by the review team.

Belgium’s knowledge-intensive economy means that doctoral graduates, including those who have spent time as post-docs, are often able to find rewarding work outside the academic sector. Nevertheless, given the relative stability in the number of academic posts in Flemish universities over the last decade (see Table 6.1), the 2018 evaluation of the research funding system recommended that future investment in research be used to create additional permanent posts to allow a higher proportion of young researchers to pursue academic careers (Van der Beken et al., 2018[15]).

Professional learning for higher education staff has historically been less well developed then in many other professional fields, although this has begun to change in recent decades (OECD, 2020[7]). Higher education sector bodies and governments in several OECD jurisdictions have taken steps to enhance professional learning opportunities for new and established academic and teaching staff, in recognition of the increasing demands placed on the profession and a wider policy focus on the question of teaching quality, in particular (Donnelly, 2016[18]). These system-level initiatives complement existing institutional professional learning strategies and have taken various forms.

In the Netherlands, for example, all 14 universities now use and mutually recognise the University Teaching Qualification (Basiskwalificatie Onderwijs - BKO), first created in 2008 (VSNU, n.d.[19]). This allows lecturers to develop and document their teaching practice with support from a senior lecturer or educationalist, with certification based on evaluation of a portfolio submitted at the end of the teaching development phase. Several Belgian universities, including Hasselt University, KU Leuven and Antwerp University, are affiliated to the process, running similar schemes, with mutual recognition of the resulting certification. In Ireland, the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (T&L, n.d.[20]) has established a National Professional Development Framework for academic staff. The body supports professional learning activities through guidance to institutions, targeted funding and awards for excellent teaching. In the United Kingdom, the Higher Education Academy (now called Advance HE), is an established membership body funded by higher education institutions that promotes improved teaching, governance and leadership through professional development programmes, awards and fellowships (Advance HE, n.d.[21]).

Evidence on the impact of these initiatives is limited, partly because some of the initiatives are comparatively recent, but mainly because it is inherently challenging to assess the effects of professional learning activities on practice (Hughes et al., 2016[22]). As with many initiatives to promote professional learning, including among school teachers, it is important that they move beyond a philosophy of “providing training courses” and support higher education professionals to critically reflect on their practice and learning needs and seek out opportunities to develop.

Within the scope of this review of the Flemish Community, it was not possible to explore the vast issue of professional development for higher education staff in any depth. While there are no system-wide requirements in relation to professional development (such as a requirement for a University Teaching Qualification, for example), it is clear that individual higher education institutions – particularly the larger ones – have well-developed human resources policies that encompass professional learning for junior researchers, new academic staff and established faculty members. One area that did emerge in the review and has been highlighted in Flemish policy discussions is the need for capacity building in the field of digital education, to allow the more effective deployment of digital technologies to enhance learning and teaching (Voka, 2020[23]). This is almost certainly an area where system-wide coordination would be valuable, to develop and share professional learning content and approaches to supporting professional learning in digitalisation for academic and teaching staff.

It is appropriate to note that some OECD governments have also introduced more indirect measures, not used in the Flemish Community, to promote the quality of teaching and learning in higher education. In addition to programme approval and quality assurance and accreditation systems, which remain the primary mechanism for ensuring quality in most OECD jurisdictions, several governments have introduced policies that draw on the results of student surveys and data on graduate employment outcomes. Both Denmark and Finland, for example, which have established national student feedback surveys, use information generated from these in their core funding allocation models for higher education institutions, albeit linked to a small proportion of the overall budget. Denmark and Ontario (Canada) are among the relatively few OECD jurisdictions to use graduate employment metrics in their funding models, again with the explicit or implicit hope that this will incentivise institutions and staff to focus on students’ acquisition of labour-market-relevant skills, which, in turn, requires a focus on effective teaching (Government of Ontario, 2019[24]).

The United Kingdom’s Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), introduced in 2016, combines information from the National Student Survey (NSS) and data on graduate employment outcomes with qualitative assessment of institutional strategies for teaching and learning, assessed by an independent Panel (Office for Students, 2020[25]). Introduced in a bid to enhance the student learning experience in UK higher education, the TEF provides institution-level awards of gold, silver or bronze for the assessed quality and relevance of undergraduate provision, with the awards from the first round of assessments valid until 2021. Participation is voluntary for institutions, although all major universities take part. While acknowledging that the TEF only measures vague proxies of teaching quality, a review of the system has recommended that the system be retained as a transparency and accountability mechanism, albeit with minor adjustments to the methodology used (TEF Independent Review, 2019[26]). A revised system is under preparation at the time of writing.

The earlier discussion about supporting young researchers already highlighted the particular pressures faced by young researchers in higher education as they seek to develop their careers, both within and outside academia. The pressure is particularly acute for post-doctoral researchers. Post-doc contracts in Flemish universities – whether financed by the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO), by universities through the Special Research Funds (BOF) or other funding bodies – are typically awarded for three years, which is a short period to develop and refine a research profile and skills, deliver research outputs and invest in research funding applications and career development. Against this backdrop, the 2018 evaluation of the research funding system in Flanders recommended longer post-doc contracts, more support for post-docs to develop a rounded skills-set and, ultimately, more investment to create academic posts into which post-docs could transition (Van der Beken et al., 2018[15]).

More generally, the same evaluation of the research system found that the Flemish competitive research funding system and the strong focus on research output in performance evaluation were sources of frustration and stress among researchers and academics. As in other OECD systems, increases in the number of researchers have led to increased competition for research funding and reduced success rates to historically low levels. This creates inefficiencies, as well as negative consequences for the morale of research-active staff. To address this, the evaluation recommended a combination of a targeted reduction in funding applications (through internal pre-selection, for example) and, predictably, increased funding for the Research Foundation – Flanders.

Researchers surveyed for the 2018 evaluation called for greater emphasis to be placed in their own appraisal on aspects of their job not related to publication, such as education and service. The strongly performance-oriented funding system is likely to have been one of the factors that led to a significant focus on publications in appraisal of academic staff. The recent changes made to the design of the BOF allocation model, discussed in Chapter 4, with the reduction in emphasis on research output and emphasis on quality and cooperation, were in part made to reduce the pressure on researchers to deliver an ever increasing volume of publications. Nevertheless, as also highlighted earlier in this report, pressure to publish comes not only from domestic funding and regulatory arrangements, but from competitive forces within the international research community. It is therefore hard to judge how policy changes will affect the behaviour and attitudes of the academic community in relation to research output and the internal pressures that exist within universities to publish continually.

The challenges related to workplace pressures in Flemish higher education are common to most OECD higher education systems. The issue has received considerable attention in recent years in the neighbouring Netherlands. There, too, key challenges identified have been institutional research funding not increasing in line with the expansion in the number of researchers and the regularity with which researchers need to apply for external research funding, with only limited chances of success (Dutch Government, 2020[27]). In response, in 2020, the Dutch Research Council (NWO) and the Association of Universities of the Netherlands (VSNU) have launched a joint action plan to tackle the issue (see Box 6.3).

In some OECD jurisdictions, including Flanders, there has also been an increasing focus on the well-being of staff within higher education institutions (Beech, 2018[29]). This has also been driven by concerns about the pressures faced by young researchers and academics, with some commentators also arguing that competition between universities is also a contributory factor to stress in the academic workplace (O’Brien and Guiney, 2018[30]). In addition to the structural factors, there are signs that workplace bullying, harassment, and intimidation have increased in academia, although this may also reflect increased reporting (Jisc, 2021[31]). Job security, professional development opportunities, respect and assertiveness in relationships and the presence of open two-way communication systems are all also identified as key factors influencing the well-being of academic staff (Metcalf et al., 2005[32]).

In the United Kingdom, there has been a strong focus in recent years on staff well-being and mental health in the university sector. Launched in 2017, the “Stepchange” initiative provides a strategic, system-wide framework to promote mental health in British higher education institutions. Stepchange was co-developed by Universities UK, the association of United Kingdom universities, and Student Minds, a British student mental health charity. The framework calls on universities to make staff, as well as student, mental health and well-being a strategic priority. Stepchange supports the development and implementation of policies promoting mentally healthy workplaces, building mental health into performance regimes and training managers and research supervisors (Universities UK, n.d.[33]).

This chapter has highlighted the challenges in comparing student-to-staff ratios in higher education between countries and the difficulty of determining optimal ratios of students to staff to ensure quality and efficient use of resources. However, the available evidence suggests that the number of full-time equivalent students for each academic and teaching staff member in Flemish higher education is higher than in most comparable jurisdictions. Using an approach more commonly used to measure the supply of doctors and nurses (OECD, 2019[34]), the chapter also highlighted that the number of academic and teaching staff in relation to the size of the population is also relatively low in Flanders.

Part of the explanation for this lies in the fact that post-doctoral researchers in Flemish higher education rarely engage in teaching, which is not the case in some other OECD systems, where post-docs teach more frequently and thus count towards teaching staff numbers. Another factor is the relatively high cost of employing staff in Belgium, which affects academia, like other sectors. In 2020, the OECD calculates that Belgium had the highest rate of combined employee and employer taxation and charges for single people without children earning the average wage of any OECD country (OECD, 2021[35]). Average total labour costs in Belgium for a single person without children, earning the average wage, were the fourth highest in the OECD, in purchasing power parity terms, after Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Having a high-tax economy, with strong labour protections and funding higher education primarily from public sources are political choices with benefits and costs. In such contexts, governments implicitly accept that employment in higher education will be expensive and that the academic and teaching posts required to operate a high-quality higher education system will need to be paid almost exclusively from public funds. The balance of evidence suggests that a proportion of the additional public resources recommended above for higher education could productively be used by institutions to create additional academic posts. Such creation of costly posts would need to be carefully targeted to have greatest impact on reducing student-to-staff ratios where this is most urgently required and to create additional career posts for junior academics in fields with greatest demand.

Despite improvements, men occupy a large majority of the senior ranks in higher education institutions in the Flemish Community – particularly in the universities. The adoption, within the university sector, of the new Charter on Gender in Academia appears to be a positive step and will hopefully lead to greater changes than the previous set of Gender Actions Plans, which are reported to have had limited effect (Roos et al., 2020[36]). The new Charter does not appear to establish time frames for realising its key objectives. As such, careful monitoring of progress towards gender equality goals in the next few years - as proposed in the Charter - will be especially important as a basis for assessing whether more robust measures need to be taken to improve the gender balance in senior ranks.

The rigorous Dutch-language requirements for permanent academic staff positions make Flemish higher education comparatively unattractive – and sometimes simply inaccessible – for many international staff and researchers. Concerns to ensure that public servants have a good command of the domestic language and to protect the Dutch language within academia are entirely legitimate goals. However, it is questionable whether the current stringent and uniform requirements are needed to achieve these objectives. It is notable that other OECD jurisdictions, such as Quebec or Finland, implement measures to promote language diversity without imposing such rigorous language requirements for academic staff. Moreover, the costs and benefits of a rigorous protection of Dutch should be weighed against the costs and benefits of a more internationalised higher education workforce. It is clear that, at present, the Flemish government invests considerable sums of taxpayers’ money in supporting international researchers at doctoral and post-doctoral level, who are often subsequently unable to access permanent positions. There is a risk that some of the best talent is thus lost to the higher education system.

Within the scope of a broad review such as this, it has not been possible to analyse in detail the professional learning requirements of academic staff. It is clear that individual institutions have well-developed policies for professional learning. Nevertheless, given the generalised trends towards greater use of digital technologies in learning and teaching, there will be a growing need in Flemish higher education, as in other OECD higher education systems, for professional learning around the successful deployment of such technologies. Given the shared nature of the challenges related to digitalisation and the need for some system-wide infrastructure and approaches, support for professional learning should be embedded in a broader system-wide strategy for digitalisation in higher education in the Flemish Community.


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