3 July 2019 • HOP, Melanie Zierse
Educational institutions deeply divided by Van Rijn’s funding shifts
Research universities and universities of applied sciences find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Do they invest significantly in their beta degree programmes, at the expense of alfa, gamma and medical, or should they ignore the recommendation made by Van Rijn? At least five institutions are choosing the latter.
Today the Dutch Parliament discussed funding for higher education and research. Last week, minister van Engelshoven had already made it clear that she would largely accept the recommendations proposed by the Van Rijn committee, but accompanied by some mitigating measures. Universities of applied sciences won’t be cut at all right now and research universities no more than 2 percent starting in 2022.
One of the recommendations that the minister will implement is to allocate more funding to universities with a relatively higher number of beta-technical degree programmes, at the expense of other institutions. In 2020 and 2021 she will respectively redistribute 103 and 105 million euro. Starting in 2020 this amount will increase to 250 million. Universities of applied sciences with a larger number of beta degree programmes will also benefit from this funding shift. They will receive an additional 30 million euro starting in 2020.
Share the pain
Especially educational institutions with a broad programme are caught between a rock and a hard place. If they follow the political recommendations, it means cutting back significantly on alfa, gamma and medical degree programmes. If they ignore the advice, their beta degree programmes risk falling behind those institutions that are making the extra investment. Leiden University, the University of Groningen, the University of Amsterdam and Avans University of Applied Sciences have already stated that they will not blindly follow the Van Rijn recommendations.
At the University of Maastricht, where the budget will be cut with 5 million euro, the board and deans have agreed to equally share the pain. Rector Rianne Letschert: “The educational institutions are free to make this choice, but it can really complicate things for general universities. The real question is how long we can maintain our solidarity when beta universities loose the fight to 4 Technology Universities, for example when it comes to research subsidies.”
They believe it’s a very narrow-minded approach to pit universities and disciplines against each other, while “in the workplace” we are seeing more and more collaboration. “In the science memos, the minister emphasises the importance of interdisciplinary research and education, while the National Science Agenda provides subsidies to interdisciplinary research teams. Scientists view the Van Rijn proposals as a step back in time.”
She is also surprised by the order of things: “First they shift the money and afterwards they research the real costs. Only then will it become clear that general universities also invest a lot in beta technology. Not only in hardcore beta degree programmes, but also in areas such as data science. But apparently that isn’t very obvious to our government.”
According to Letschert it would have been much better overall if the additional 41 million euro that was included in the interim budget was fully allocated to the four Technology Universities, followed by a study on the effectiveness of the funding. “That would have allowed the TUs to make their investments and the universities would never have ended up in this situation. This is very reckless governance.”
Science association KNAW warned immediately that the Van Rijn approach unnecessarily pits institutions and faculties against one another. According to the KNAW the proposals will also lead to bigger shifts than the data suggests. The university umbrella organisation VSNU has already stated that the cutbacks to alfa, gamma and medical degree programmes could be more than 100 million euro. These political decisions could result in hundreds of dismissals and will lead to loss of quality and accessibility, according to VSNU.
The SSH area (social sciences & humanities) is also deeply concerned. In an urgent appeal to the minister, scientists described the budget shifts as “shortsighted, unwise and unfair”. The SSH faculties barely have any buffers to compensate for the cutbacks, which means that many degree programmes would be ‘forced to cut’ 10 to 20% of their staff.”
“The sector plans of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science recently provided extra resources for beta technology: 60 million euro for beta technology compared to 10 million euro for SSH programmes. How far can you go in punishing an area that is doing well?” according to SSH scientists. This begs the following question: With so much money already being allocated to the beta degree programmes, are those extra investments really necessary?
The KNAW states that the Van Rijn committee didn’t really take into consideration the earlier initiatives that resulted with the new sector plans. These plans will likely generate 300 steady jobs this year. “Stakeholders in the field are concerned that the pressure to quickly fill these positions may lead to careless hiring,” according to the science association. We are not even sure if all the money can be spent. The University of Twente states in its budget that it “will be a tall order” to use all the funds that have been allocated as a result of the sector plans. The money may only be used for staffing expenses.
The SSH scientists also write in their urgent letter that the advice of the Van Rijn committee relies heavily on the labour market analysis conducted by the Maastricht Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market (ROA). In an interview with HOP, ROA researcher Didier Fouarge affirmed that these prognoses weren’t intended to guide government policy. He also doubts if there really is such a shortage of technical staff and believes that the mismatch between the demand and supply of beta technicians cannot simply be resolved by several thousand additional graduates. The employers must also take some responsibility, he states.
However, the technical universities believe this is a very positive development as they feel that the beta field has been underfunded for years. That the additional funding comes at the expense of other faculties is ‘very unfortunate’, according to the spokesperson of the board of Wageningen University. “But the entire funding system is riddled with inequalities. It always works out better for some than for others. We are very pleased that our disadvantage is being addressed, it is much needed. But we cannot afford to pause, we really need to work hard.”
Today the members of Dutch Parliament had the opportunity to ask critical questions about the proposed funding shifts in higher education. They don’t have to approve the plans as no legislative change is required. However, they can file motions and call for further research.
Government party CDA is pleased that the minister is prepared to invest in beta technical degree programmes. “They have had problems with their capacity and have waited many years for things to improve,” states CDA Member of Parliament Harry van der Molen. He fully realises that this will be at the expense of other degree programmes. “That is par for the course when you redistribute funds.”
However, he believes that something should really be done now. “We cannot wait many more years, so that means we have to accept that other areas will need to cut back some. The minister has been able to minimise the worst financial pain, especially for universities of applied sciences. Van der Molen wants to prevent that the increasing collaboration between technical and social fields becomes unnecessarily strained. “Degree programmes are increasingly interconnected and we want to propose this to the minister on Monday.”
Opposition party PvdA is more critical. The party recently started a petition, which was supported by LSVb, FNV and WO in Actie, among others. The petition called for an end to budget cuts to medical, alfa and gamma degree programmes. PvdA member of parliament Kirsten van den Hul said that so far more than 2,000 people have signed. “If it were up to us, we would cancel the cutbacks that are the result of siphoning funds from one area to another.” She finds it very disconcerting that the minister didn’t provide clear insight into the consequences of shifting funds between faculties. “We first call for a study on the macro aspects of funding.”
Member of Parliament Eppo Bruins of the ChristenUnie wants more clarity. He will call on the minister to research the impact of the plan on various educational areas. “We especially want to ensure funding for the humanities. These are very vulnerable, but also high-quality and valuable to our country.” Bruins expects his motion to garner a majority in parliament. He only wants to comment on the minister’s plans after he has gathered all the numbers and figures.