The Cabinet has warned that education institutions must not keep too much money in their savings accounts, because this means the money is not being spent on pupils and students. It is a rather remarkable message, given all the recent protests against budget cuts in the education sector.

The two Ministers for Education feel that Dutch universities of applied sciences are doing a good job. Nearly two-thirds of the universities of applied sciences were in the red last year, which is said to be a sign that they are ‘making more effective choices when drawing up their budgets’ and ‘using their own reserves’.

In the black, after all

“There is a discrepancy between the universities’ strong financial situation and the financial distress they claim to be experiencing.”

Minister Van Engelshoven

On the other hand, the Dutch universities’ financial performance indicators are ‘stable’, and the great majority of Dutch universities are enjoying good financial health. They thought they would be in the red this year, but ended up in the black, after all.

So what about all those demonstrations? On 14 December, demonstrators led by the WOinActie protest movement will march through The Hague to protest the government’s cuts to the education institutions’ budgets. The institutions claim they need a billion euros more than they are getting. However, as the two Ministers for Education pointed out, “There is a discrepancy between the universities’ strong financial situation and the financial distress they claim to be experiencing.”

The ministers feel that the universities must learn to make more effective choices when drawing up their budgets, which, obviously, the universities had already figured out themselves. Yes, wages and prices will rise each year, but in the end, the universities will always be given additional funds to offset these things, so they should really be bold enough to count on this funding. They should also learn to include the fact that they will be given a higher budget if they attract more students in their calculations.

Too late

The Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) has confirmed this. “We do indeed get those funds every year, although we always get them too late,” said VSNU spokesman Bart Pierik. “We will simply include them in the budgets from now on, and we have announced as much. We also have a few other ideas like that. But all they will achieve is the optimisation of a system that is coming under considerable pressure. In recent years, universities have seen their per-student funding reduced over and over again. This is not going to alter that fact. What we should be doing is work towards an acceptable and sustainable financing system.”

However, Pierik was quick to emphasise that universities do not hang on to their reserves for no reason. These reserves are earmarked for future expenditures, such as buildings or teaching. “Name one university where saving money is a goal in its own right.”

In all likelihood, the debate will rage on for a while. In the Lower House, Van Engelshoven recently spoke disparagingly of ‘the University of De Efteling’ (a fairy tale-themed amusement park in the southern Netherlands) and Dutch universities’ similarity to Greedy Gus (a character on display in De Efteling), who will never be satisfied, no matter how much food he is given. The message she was trying to convey was that the Cabinet is actually spending more money on education, and higher education institutions will soon see the proceeds of the new student loan system.

A bit odd

For its part, the Dutch Education Inspectorate, too, has encouraged the education institutions to spend the money they are sitting on. “This may sound a bit odd, coming from a supervisory authority, but it would be good if the parties involved in the education sector would discuss goal-oriented, multi-year budgets,” writes Monique Vogelzang, the Inspector-General, “and if they could to some extent overcome their current reluctance to negative budgeting.”

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