The official figures are based on a theoretical allocation of ‘direct funding’: the funding universities receive from the government. The proportion for education according to this allocation was 50 percent. However, since this funding is a lump sum, universities can determine for themselves how they will distribute the funds in practice. The cause is contract research.
Universities conducting contract research commissioned by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), Brussels, healthcare funds and non-profit organisations is something that is occurring more and more frequently. This is a positive development, as it brings in cash. But not all of a university’s costs are covered.
For example, only the personnel expenses are reimbursed, while the university is expected to contribute funds for accommodation, equipment and other related costs. The jargon term for this is ‘matching’.
Over the course of several years, matching absorbs an increasing amount of funding. For every euro received, a university pays 74 cents out of its own equity capital.
This is the first time the Rathenau Instituut has identified this trend. “Due to the method of calculation we are now using, we could be off by a few percentage points,” says researcher Jos de Jonge, “but there is no better data available. We’re not surprised by this finding. We all know there is a problem with matching research funding.”
The graph below shows the results. The dotted line distributes part of the government funding for universities into education and part of it for research. An increasing amount of the share for education is being absorbed by research – in part due to matching.
Difficult to verify
The Dutch National Student Association (ISO) is shocked by these findings, says president Rhea van der Dong. “Funding meant for education shouldn’t be ending up somewhere else. Because of matching, universities are taking advantage of money that should be going towards education.”
The Cabinet has pledged to invest more in education and even the basic grant was terminated to generate extra funding for education. But at the universities, it is difficult to verify whether these funds are actually used for education. “We need to fundamentally examine the funding of higher education,” says Van der Dong. “Randomly applying band-aid solutions won’t help. There is too little funding available and that is detrimental to education.”
The Rathenau Instituut also advocates that a comprehensive discussion take place regarding funding. Universities currently receive a single lump sum payment from the government and they can decide for themselves how it will be spent. Should that practice be called into question?
De Jonge hesitates. “If you start dividing up funding for education and for research, lecturers will have to start time recording: how many hours were spent on research and how many hours were spent on education and teaching?” he says. “You shouldn’t underestimate how drastic that would be.”
So what should be done? He does not want to say too much on the subject. “But we’ve come to accept as normal that external funders only reimburse part of the expenses. Maybe that’s something that needs to change.”
It’s a start, because the problem is actually much bigger. De Jonge: “We haven’t looked at the efforts of scholars who apply for research funding. These are additional costs to the matching costs.” For each scholar who receives funds from research funder NWO, there are six or seven who miss out. “The chances of success for European grants are even smaller.”
In De Jonge’s opinion, the universities themselves cannot be blamed for the fact that education is adversely affected. “Scholars receive too little appreciation for their teaching and education. They are under pressure to publish as much as possible in the most prestigious journals. If they don’t, they’re out of favour. And everyone expects universities to listen to what is being asked by the government and the corporate world.”
More information required
In any case, it would be helpful if there is improved data and if the scope of the problem could be better defined. “Our findings are now based on a study conducted by Ernst & Young in 2014 and they looked at matching figures from 2012. We would like to have more recent data, but this isn’t available. Likewise, there are also no figures available for how high the pressure for matching is at the different faculties.”
ISO president Van der Dong also feels that universities have to provide more information. “It doesn’t have to be accurate to the last cent, but I also look at this issue from the perspective of the participation council: how can it take part in discussions about spending if the relevant information isn’t there?”