The cabinet has approved Van Engelshoven’s proposal for limiting growth incentives for universities and universities of applied sciences and stimulating collaboration among these institutions. In line with the Van Rijn committee’s recommendation, the funding of higher education will become less dependent on student numbers. In the minister’s view, a more fixed funding model will provide more certainty and reduce competition.
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When the Van Rijn committee’s recommendations were presented, Van Engelshoven promised she would try to limit the negative impact of the redistribution and changes in budget allocation. This was because calculations showed that most universities and many universities of applied sciences would lose millions of euros as a result of the Van Rijn recommendations.
That’s why the cabinet announced an additional investment of 41 million euros for science and engineering programmes in its Spring Memorandum. But this wasn’t enough to cushion the blow. Certainly not for universities of applied sciences, where only institutions with high numbers of students transferring from other institutions (external switchers) would end up getting a bigger piece of the financial pie.
Minister Van Engelshoven consequently introduced another mitigating measure. Of the 272 million she planned to transfer from variable funding to fixed funding, she will only redistribute 130 million based on the ‘external switchers’ – half of what Van Rijn recommended. A budget-neutral shift of 112 million euros will mean that there will be no detrimental impact on universities of applied sciences with few external switchers.
What’s more, Van Engelshoven feels that both universities and universities of applied sciences with science and engineering programmes should benefit from the changes in the budget (30 million euro for universities of applied sciences). Combined with the additional investment of 10 million euro for science and engineering in the Spring Memorandum, universities of applied sciences will not lose any funding due to budget changes.
A similar adjustment will be made for universities. Instead of 250 million euro, in 2020 and 2021, only 103 and 105 million euro respectively will go to universities with science and engineering programmes. Nearly 200 million euro will undergo a budget-neutral shift. The minister stated no university will see a drop in funding for the first two years, but this will change in 2022. At that point, the negative impact could rise to a “maximum of 2 percent of a university’s total funding”.
A ministry overview shows this maximum 2-percent drop in funding will apply to Erasmus University and to universities in Maastricht and Tilburg. Only the four universities of technology, Utrecht University, and the Theological University of Apeldoorn stand to benefit in terms of funding.
Van Engelshoven also feels that it’s high time to curtail the excessive competition in scientific research. “I concur with the Van Rijn committee’s conclusion that the current intense competition for grants from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) leads to inefficiency. There is a low probability of success with NWO and too much time and energy is spent on the application process and assessing research proposals instead of actually conducting research.” The pressure on universities to match direct funding to cover any shortfalls also needs to be reduced.
In the minister’s opinion, shifting funding from research funder NWO (second flow of funds) to universities in the form of direct funding (first flow of funds for research) will restore the balance between competing and collaborating. In late May, NWO, KNAW, and the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) presented a joint proposal to transfer 60 million in 2020. In time, this sum would increase to 100 million. Van Engelshoven has decided to adopt this ‘well thought-out’ decision.
She announced an independent follow-up study into the relationship between costs and quality in higher education and research. The study will also examine whether the total budget is sufficient.
The initial response of the Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences is mainly positive. The association feels it is an encouraging first step that the minister has decided to structurally compensate for the negative effectives of the redistribution of funding for universities of applied sciences. We’ve argued that universities of applied sciences shouldn’t pay the price if funding is redistributed, and the minister has listened to our appeals, says association President Maurice Limmen.
The universities aren’t quite as enthusiastic. “The political choice to direct the majority of these investments towards science and engineering through cutting funding to arts and humanities, social sciences and medical programmes is a short-sighted move for a knowledge-driven country like the Netherlands”, says the VSNU. The VSNU feels that problem areas are being reshuffled rather than resolved.
The umbrella organisation is likewise dissatisfied with the proposals for a ‘soft landing’. “In addition to investments, the Spring Memorandum also contains cutbacks. On balance, there is practically no extra funding available for the sector.” The total package adds up to around 100 million in structural cutbacks, according to the VSNU. This presents universities with an impossible dilemma. The government decision now leads to a false discrepancy between different disciplines.” The universities feel the choices are detrimental to quality and accessibility and could potentially lead to hundreds of dismissals.
The Dutch National Union of Students also opposes the changes in the budget if these changes have a negative impact on the quality of education at some institutions. It would be better to postpone these plans until there is more insight regarding necessary funding.