Why is the university holding on to so much money while academics are literally taking to the streets to protest budget cuts in higher education?
“It’s something I can’t square with our constituents either. Students have lost their base grant, housing is becoming more expensive every year and tuition fees are going up. Students are far worse off financially than they used to be. And meanwhile, the university is consistently holding out.”
Aren’t the faculties responsible for spending this extra education funding – based on the so-called quality agreements?
“It’s true that so far they’ve failed to spend a share of the allocated funds. Although I do believe that they’re working hard to make amends. They’re catching up. But the big problem isn’t the quality agreements; it’s the structural underspending of the first flow of funds. And when you ask the Executive Board for an explanation, they say it’s merely a ‘corrective margin’ on the total budget: a margin of 3 to 4 percent per year. I can understand their point to an extent. But what they’re actually implying is that in the first place, the total budget of the millions freed up by the cancellation of the base grant scheme amounts to no more than a ‘corrective margin’ – which obviously won’t go down well with the students. And secondly, this underspending is structural. If the margin was actually used for corrections, we wouldn’t be looking at years of surpluses in a row.”
Why isn’t the university spending this money?
“While the university would like to, it fails to do so every time round. Year after year. For a large part this has to do with cautious budgeting. These underruns may frustrate financial controllers no end, but our administrators – both at the faculty and central levels – prefer to err on the side of caution. They don’t want to spend any cash that isn’t in their pockets yet. And in some cases, it’s difficult to estimate beforehand. As a result, by March they already know that they will have money to spare for the rest of the year. And they haven’t got anything lined up for this surplus.”
What could the university do about this?
“The previous rector [Huib Pols, eds.] used to say: we’re sitting on a pile of money, but there aren’t enough ideas coming in. This completely misrepresents the issues. It’s not a lack of ideas; it’s a case of students and staff not knowing whom to turn to. It’s crucial that the university does a better job at facilitating people in this area.
“The university should also pay more attention to flexible budgeting. It needs to have a plan ready for excess funds. And it should be easier to break open the budget where required. And I think that as a representative body we could also take a long, hard look at the budget. I’m not saying we should check the calculations – I don’t expect there to be any errors at that end. What I mean is that we should critically evaluate the underlying substantive choices. As a University Council we have a bird’s eye view that isn’t necessarily enjoyed by the faculties. That’s why we’d like to invite their council representatives to sit in on the meetings of our Finance committee, for example.”