On Monday, the Lower House’s Education Committee debated the funding of higher education and research. The Minister for Education, Ingrid van Engelshoven, had previously announced that she supports the great majority of the recommendations made by the Van Rijn Committee regarding a new funding model, in which tertiary education institutions that focus on STEM subjects will receive more funding than institutions offering other types of degrees. The Minister also indicated that she will implement mitigating measures, though. Universities of applied sciences will not see their funding reduced, while universities will not lose more than 2 per cent of their budget starting from 2022.

Creative accounting

The opposition parties feel that the Minister is rushing into her new plans. “This debate is being held far too early,” said PvdA, the Dutch Labour Party. The party tabled a motion to postpone the proposed budget cuts to the faculties of humanities, social sciences and medicine until a proper examination has been carried out into the right allocation of the budget to the various disciplines, and until some clarity has been obtained on whether the overall teaching and research budget actually covers all the costs. “We must first get a good idea of what the consequences will be. We won’t know if we can change gears in a responsible manner until we have done that,” PvdA said, summing up the issue in just a few words. GroenLinks, SP and SGP all seconded this sentiment.

GroenLinks indicated that it was annoyed by the Minister’s ‘creative accounting’. The party said that the teaching budget contains so many pluses and minuses that it is unclear how much money will ultimately be left for anything. “It takes a lot of very committed digging in the financial documents to realise that budget cuts will be made, too.”

In the black

For instance, in its Spring Memorandum, the Cabinet is allocating €41 million to degree programmes in STEM subjects. But the same Memorandum also contains a price adjustment to the value of €68 million. “So does this mean that there will be less money left over for the universities?” GroenLinks asked. Van Engelshoven said she was not sure what the figure of €68 million represented, and that €25 million would be allocated to the tertiary education sector.

Upon the opposition parties’ request, the Minister presented a table listing budget allocations and cuts, but according to GroenLinks, the table was incomplete. The Minister promised that she would provide a clearer overview of all the proposed allocations and cuts, but emphasised once again that ‘all the [Dutch] universities will remain in the black in the coming years’. D66 defended the Minister: “The turmoil is being caused by the fact that we are currently looking at the Van Rijn Committee’s recommendations through a straw. It’s almost as if you people don’t want to see that the universities are actually going to receive a lot of additional funding.”

This being the case, the Minister feels that it is not necessary to put off the implementation of her plans. “In 2016 your House believed that something had to be done quickly to address the shortage in capacity in STEM subjects. We can’t just keep on waiting. We must prevent getting even more degrees with a limited student intake,” she said. Of the four ruling parties, only ChristenUnie expressed some reservations on the plan. The party requested that attention be paid to the position of faculties offering degrees in the humanities and stated that it only supports budget reallocations in times of rising budgets.

The consequences of the reallocations

Many MPs expressed concern regarding the consequences the proposed budget reallocations will have for the various education institutions. The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) issued a warning at once, stating that Van Rijn’s proposal would unnecessarily pit universities and faculties against each other. Moreover, the Academy stated that the proposals would result in bigger shifts than suggested by the figures. For its part, the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) predicted that the budget cuts for faculties of humanities, social sciences and medicine might exceed €100 million. VSNU also stated that the decisions that have just been made by politicians may result in hundreds of people losing their jobs, and will negatively affect the quality and accessibility of tertiary education.

However, Van Engelshoven promised that none of this would happen. She reminded the MPs that tertiary education institutions are funded through lump sums. It is up to the institutions themselves to decide how these funds are to be allocated to their various faculties and departments. For this reason, the Minister said, it is impossible to state exactly how the various fields of study will be affected by the budget reallocations.

“The institutions must take a sensible look at what they can and can’t do. Which is something they should do with each other rather than on their own.” She stressed the importance of collaboration between the four universities of technology and the comprehensive universities. She feels they should jointly draw up a plan in which they address the issues in the STEM subjects and pay attention to interdisciplinary cooperation with faculties active in social sciences and humanities. “In this way, the non-STEM fields of study will benefit, as well,” said the Minister.

Skewed logic

PvdA said it was easy for the Minister to say so. “The Minister is shifting the problem to others and is making the universities’ management boards responsible.” The SP called it skewed logic. “On the one hand, the Minister says she is not in charge of the allocation of the funds, but on the other hand, she does expect the universities of technology to draw up a plan. So she is steering things, after all.”

KNAW stated previously that the Van Rijn Committee did not take into account the new ‘sector plan’ for the STEM subjects, under which some 300 academics will be appointed to permanent positions over the course of this year. “It is not acceptable for the universities of technology to find later that they have no plans for the additional funding,” the Minister said. D66 then asked if a larger percentage of the funds available under the ‘sector plan’ could be allocated to comprehensive universities, to further mitigate the effects of the budget reallocations. The Minister said she would look into this.

The Lower House will vote on the motions tabled at the meeting this Thursday.