Today, the Advisory Committee on Higher Education Financing presented the final report entitled 'Wissels Om' ('Changing Track'). The report makes a substantial number of recommendations – both short-term and long-term – regarding the funding of higher education. The Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) values the committee's efforts. 'This report makes recommendations to resolve the main issues regarding university funding and gives insight into the desired developments, namely the shift from the current "allocation model" to a "funding model"', said VSNU President Pieter Duisenberg. It is essential that this transition result in sufficient funding that is consistent with social challenges and in line with the Netherlands' ambition to be a nation of knowledge. In the VSNU's opinion, the Netherlands must make substantial investments in knowledge across the board in order to achieve the 3% of GDP objective and remain competitive and prosperous in the future. We welcome the proposed budget increases for natural sciences and technology, which are in line with the government's coalition agreement. However, due to the political precondition of budget neutrality, these recommended increases will also necessitate substantial and damaging budget cuts for the humanities, social sciences and medical sciences. These disciplines, which are of major importance to society, are already besieged by excessive workload and other problems. As a result, the long-term recommendations seem to represent a partial false start in the short term, a viewpoint reflected by the Van Rijn Committee's fears that 'we won't be able to maintain high quality for long'. I am therefore calling for these budget cuts to be prevented. Although the unconfirmed reports of extra resources in the Spring Memorandum give me hope, they are not enough to ease my concerns.'
The committee recommends working towards a more fixed funding system based on cost price and periodic reassessment of the system. The sufficiency of the macro budget should be evaluated based on these results. Furthermore, the committee recommends that greater notice should be taken of developments on the labour market and that money should be transferred from the second flow of funds to the first. To ensure short-term impact, the committee would like to quickly switch to a more fixed form of educational funding, including a relatively higher share for natural sciences/technology and students changing programmes.
Impetus for long-term funding system and greater research freedom
In the problem analysis entitled 'Ruimte voor investeringen en talent' (Scope for Investment and Talent, September 2018), the universities suggest short-term measures to reduce financial pressure and the excessive workload this creates. Among other matters, the VSNU has requested more fixed funding that is less driven by the number of students, but remains compatible with the universities' core tasks of education, research and impact. We therefore welcome the Van Rijn Committee's underlining of many of the VSNU's suggestions, as well as the study commissioned by the Dutch House of Representatives into the sufficiency of educational funding.
The Van Rijn Committee recommends placing a greater focus on the required capacity and cost price of funding in the long term. 'Depending on how it is conducted in practice, this adjustment to the funding system will enable greater transparency of decisions regarding quality, accessibility and effectiveness and will boost the connection with wider society,' said Duisenberg. 'Periodic reassessment of this matter and evaluation within the individual universities of the actual costs involved in achieving the desired quality level will be more effective than simply allocating the available resources. We will discuss the finer details of these recommendations with the minister.'
The committee also recommends a shift from the second flow of funds to the first. This would be another positive step, as it would increase the fixed portion of the funding and give academics greater freedom, encouraging unimpeded and pioneering research. It will also reinforce the connection between education and research, and create opportunities to appoint a greater number of permanent academic staff. This is vital to the quality of education, research and impact.
Budget increases for natural sciences and technology without extra investment will result in damaging budget cuts in other areas
The recommendations are beneficial to natural sciences and technology programmes, which have been facing increasing pressure in recent years. The proposed extra funding for natural sciences and technology programmes would allow them to resolve issues and tackle the undesired enrolment restrictions by investing in additional employees and educational facilities.
However, in the short term, the Van Rijn Committee's recommendations are based on a budget-neutral reallocation, meaning the extra funding for natural sciences and technology will be to the detriment of the humanities, social sciences and medical sciences. As a result, a number of large universities (such as Nijmegen and Groningen) and the newer universities in particular (such as Rotterdam, Maastricht, Tilburg and the Open University) will face substantial budget cuts with immediate effect. This reallocation will further increase their already excessive workload and damage the high quality of the education and research. The universities' highest priority is to prevent structural negative consequences stemming from the reallocation and to minimise any detrimental future impact for individual universities and the education sector as a whole. There are a number of issues with the substantiation of the effects of the reallocation. In the light of these issues, the committee recommends using equity capital, but this is not an effective solution, as it will put pressure on essential investments, increase debt levels (currently standing at over €3 billion) and incur high interest charges, all of which will be detrimental to education and research.
'Together with the minister, the universities would like to explore how best to implement the recommendations in this report,' said Duisenberg. 'This will help maintain high-quality university education and research across the entire academic spectrum, in both the short term and the long term, which in turn will enable the Netherlands to use knowledge to tackle urgent social issues and challenges.'