While higher education and research in the Netherlands are of high quality, they won’t be able to maintain this level much longer, according to recommendations presented this morning by an advisory committee. According to the committee – headed by former State Secretary Martin van Rijn – students and lecturers are under increasing pressure, and education and research activities are no longer in balance. What’s more: the student-dependent reimbursement for universities amounts to a ‘perverse mechanism’ that could draw institutions into a ‘race to the bottom’.
The existing system is insufficiently transparent (‘we’re steering in the fog’) and encourages institutions to recruit as many students as possible – by launching English-language programmes and new curricula, among other measures. This leads to capacity issues and intake freezes – even among programmes in the exact sciences and engineering. Moreover, all these education activities threaten to push research aside, warns Van Rijn, since research-related income is out of step with the growth in student intake.
This perverse incentive for growth needs to be dialled back, says the committee – and quickly too. It recommends increasing the fixed component of the education-related budget and reducing the variable, student-dependent component as soon as 2020. The shift would concern 300 million euros in the academic higher education (WO) segment, and 250 million in higher professional education (HBO).
In the longer term, the committee believes it is important that student intake quota and the budgets awarded to degree programmes take closer account of the actual needs of the labour market.
Science and engineering
One of Van Rijn’s more controversial recommendations is to plough most of the funds freed up by this budget revision – to the amount of 250 million euros – into science and engineering programmes. These programmes will, however, be expected to put more energy into collaborations with other programmes as well as improving their students’ academic performance.
The remaining 50 million euros are intended for universities with a relatively large number of ‘external switchers’, i.e. students who transfer to a programme at a different institution – Leiden University and both Amsterdam universities, for example. The Van Rijn Committee doesn’t think it will be necessary to reserve additional funds for transfer students who want to attend a master programme at university level.
The result of all these recommendations is that a net amount of 70 million euros will be shifted between various universities over the course of 2019. The main beneficiaries of this redistribution will be the four technical universities; the institutions ‘losing out’ in this reshuffle are the three younger universities (Maastricht, Tilburg and Rotterdam) and the Open University. It doesn’t become clear from the report which disciplines will be hit hardest by the budget changes.
The universities of applied sciences won’t be awarded any extra funds for their science and engineering programmes. The entire redistributed amount will be advanced to HBO institutions with relatively large numbers of external switchers, like InHolland, The Hague University of Applied Sciences and NHL Stenden. This puts the total redistributed amount in higher professional education in 2019 at 21.4 million euros.
‘Government reserves extra budget for education’
The additional 100 million euros is mainly intended to promote science subjects and…
According to the committee, the competition for research funding needs to be kept in check. Universities have become too dependent on temporary grants from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) and on contract research funding and endowments. This has a disruptive effect, since researchers are repeatedly forced to submit new applications. Moreover, external funders often require universities to match the awarded budget with funds or capacity of their own – to the detriment of so-called direct funding. Van Rijn recommends transferring a share of the budget from NWO to the university administrators – although he doesn’t offer any specific amounts. The universities would be expected to work together more effectively in such an arrangement.
A larger share of the practice-oriented research in higher professional education should also be supported by direct funding. The number of awarded diplomas could serve as a gauge for determining how the budget is divvied up. In this calculation, master degrees are worth twice as much as bachelor degrees, in recognition of the importance of research in HBO master programmes.
The Van Rijn Committee is aware that if no extra funding is added at some point, these short-term measures amount to nothing more than a redistribution of the existing budget. The Committee does expect institutions on the losing end to have sufficient reserves to cushion the blow. After all, this money shouldn’t simply be hid under the bed doing nothing. Furthermore, the proposed shift from NWO and KNAW grants to direct funding could sweeten the pill somewhat – as could the fact that the reinvestment of public savings from the new student loan system has been pushed forward.
During the presentation, Minister Van Engelshoven said that she was impressed by the report. She is aware that barring changes to the total budget, one university’s loss is the other one’s gain. “I’ll be working hard to ensure a soft landing for everyone. I’m quite optimistic that the Spring Memorandum will bring extra headroom in terms of budget.”