In a nutshell
- In total, the Executive Board’s expense claims increased by an additional 150 per cent (roughly 100,000 euros)
- The key contributors: extra trips abroad in connection with the development of the university’s new long-term strategy and more taxi rides
- In a report, Deloitte recommended changing the monitoring mechanism. This advice has since been adopted and implemented.
- The Board exceeded the maximum amount set by the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) for representation costs as of 2018. According to the university, this can be attributed in part to obligations ensuing from an existing employment agreement.
In the period 2013-2018, the total annual expenses claimed by EUR’s Executive Board averaged around 70,000 euros. In 2019, the three members of the board (at the time, Rector Magnificus Rutger Engels, Chair Kristel Baele (until 1 December) and Roelien Ritsema van Eck as the third board member) together claimed 177,000 euros in expenses. This is more than double the total amount claimed in the preceding year. University executives are allowed to claim expenses that are necessary in the context of their position.
It becomes clear from the figures published in the annual report that in 2019, domestic travel expenses, costs of representation and foreign travel expenses were all substantially higher than in preceding years. What’s more, total expenses exceeded the maximum prescribed by the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) for representation costs – among other reasons due to stipulations in an existing contract. In its report, the auditor advised adapting the procedure for expense claim approvals.
While the Board did not want to give full access to all its receipts, the Secretary of the Executive Board Ann O’Brien was able to offer background information on and access to detailed specifications of the amounts.
Japan, China, the US
According to the Secretary, there are a number of reasons why claims saw such a stark peak in 2019. “In preparation for Erasmus University’s new long-term strategy, board members travelled abroad to visit various reputable universities and institutes. They also undertook trips in connection with the several partnership agreements and memorandums of understanding [in which the signatories set down their joint intentions, Eds.] with partner universities.
Among other destinations, the board members travelled to London, the United States, China and Japan. Together with several EUR colleagues, the rector travelled through the US on a tour past different ‘impact-driven’ universities, crossed over to London for the Rotterdam Arts and Science Lab (a collaboration with Codarts) and joined VSNU colleagues on a trip to Brussels.
Kristel Baele, the Chair of the Executive Board at the time, travelled with Mayor Aboutaleb to Shanghai to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the twinning of Rotterdam and the Chinese port. In Shanghai, Baele visited Jiao Tong University before travelling on to Japan. Ritsema van Eck participated in a tour of Hong Kong, Hangzhou and Shanghai together with representatives of various other Dutch universities.
In addition, the costs associated with domestic business trips were also higher than in previous years, among other things due to the fact that two of the three board members don’t live in Rotterdam itself. It becomes clear from the specifications supplied by the Board Secretary that the lion’s share of the close to 80,000 euros in domestic travel expenses were spent on taxi fare.
The taxis weren’t used for commuting since this isn’t allowed, emphasises O’Brien. The board members’ remuneration for commuting expenses is no different to that awarded to other staff members: 19 cents per kilometre. But: “What could be the case is that board members were brought home by taxi after a meeting elsewhere. One example would be a work-related meeting in the evening, after which the board member needs to be able to get home safely.” And if an administrator has to be dropped off at his or her home, the further he or she lives from Rotterdam the longer the ride will be.
EM is unable to check which activities these rides were connected with exactly. Last summer (after Erasmus University had published its annual report) the Education Inspectorate issued advice regarding the reporting of expense claims by higher education institutions. One of the Inspectorate’s recommendations to universities was the publication of a summary statement (containing an overview of the claims, how much various expenses amounted to and who claimed them) as a matter of course. Education Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven adopted this advice. The Secretary of the EUR Board says that while the university considers publishing a summary statement in future annual reports, it won’t be doing this retroactively. In addition, the Board has not allowed EM to peruse the administrative records of the board members’ taxi rides
EM has compared the 177,000 euros reimbursed to the Rotterdam board members with expense claims of 14 other universities in the Netherlands as listed in the annual reports over the past four years (2016-2019). According to this review, the only university board to submit an even higher total in 2019 was that of the University of Twente.
Over the entire four-year period, only two university boards claimed a higher total than their colleagues in Rotterdam: the administrators of the University of Twente and Utrecht University. There’s a strong divergence in total amounts: on average, the board members of the University of Amsterdam claim just under 30,000 euros per year, while the average annual expenditure of the frontrunners in Twente is nearly 190,000 euros.
In comparison with other universities, Rotterdam’s domestic travel expenses are relatively high. In 2019, two universities – Twente and Utrecht – spent more on travel within the Netherlands, with Utrecht listing high in this area because it does include commuting expenses in its calculations. Every day, a chauffeur drove the Chair of Utrecht’s Executive Board from his home in Zutphen to Utrecht by company car. The Chair promised he would move closer to the university to cut costs.
Deloitte: ‘Claims meet requirements’
Writing about the claims submitted in 2019, Erasmus University’s auditor Deloitte says that ‘the claims comply with the Expense Claim Guidelines for Board Members of Dutch Universities’ and that its check ‘has not yielded any findings that indicate financial irregularities’. The Board Secretary adds: “The Supervisory Board has also approved the claims in question. Twice a year, we send them an overview of the current state of affairs. And we also ask the Supervisory Board’s permission before planning a big trip or deciding to spend budget on e.g. further education.”
In its auditor’s report, Deloitte also writes that there’s room for improvement when it comes to the control mechanisms used to monitor expense claims: “We understand that it has been agreed internally that claims submitted by the members of the Executive Board are assessed and approved by the Chair. The claims submitted by the Chair are checked in turn by one of the members of the Executive Board.”
In other words: in 2019, the board members checked each other, according to the auditor. O’Brien says that in 2019, until Hans Smits was appointed as Chair, things actually went differently to what Deloitte set out in its report. “The Chair checked the Rector’s expense claims, and the third member and the Secretary checked the Chair’s claims.”
Deloitte recommends using an external control mechanism from now on, which can be handled by the Supervisory Board or the Chair of the Remuneration Committee (the body responsible for proposals regarding board members’ remuneration and other terms of employment). The procedure was adapted after the new Chair Ed Brinksma joined the Board in August 2020, according to O’Brien. “The Secretary checks all three board members and submits the findings to the Supervisory Board twice a year. The Supervisory Board will continue to approve further education, trainings and trips beforehand.”
Finally, the VSNU Guideline for expense claims, which became effective as of 1 January 2018 (see boxout below) prescribes a maximum monthly amount that board members are allowed to spend on representation costs. This fixed monthly amount, which the board members agree on with their Supervisory Board, is paid in the form of a monthly allowance. The administrators can use this budget to purchase clothing, for example, or make changes to their home that are relevant to their role on the board. In 2019, the maximum amount set for this allowance – as confirmed by the Secretary – was 541.90 euros per month, totting up to an annual budget of approximately 6,500 euros. However, according to EUR’s annual report, the Rector received a total of 8,962 euros and the Chair 8,635 euros – higher than specified by the Guideline, in other words.
Part of the budget overrun is due to an agreement that was entered into earlier by the university, according to O’Brien. Kristel Baele’s employment contract – which included an agreement on a fixed reimbursement for representation costs – was signed before the VSNU Guideline came into effect – meaning that a downward adjustment would amount to a ‘breach of contract’ in the university’s view. Rutger Engels’s claims in this area did not exceed the VSNU maximum, says the Secretary.
The responses of Deloitte and the Supervisory Board
Deloitte did not wish to comment, referring to its duty of confidentiality. EM is still waiting for a response from the Supervisory Board.
VSNU claims guideline
The members of EUR’s Executive Board claim expenses according to the VSNU Expense Claim Guidelines for Board Members of Dutch Universities. Eligible expenses include representation costs, travel and accommodation costs during trips abroad and ‘other expenses that are to be reimbursed’ (e.g. further education and training costs).
“The universities believe it is important that they handle their assets in a transparent manner and account for their decisions in the annual report,” wrote VSNU in late 2017, at the time of the Guideline’s publication. Through this Guideline, the universities want to show that they will strive to handle public funds in a uniform manner. It was introduced by the Chairs of all university Supervisory Boards as of 2018 – including that of Erasmus University Rotterdam – and was drawn up in response to public concerns about the expenditure patterns of senior administrators at Utrecht University.
The new Guideline standardises how expense claims are reported, and which expenses are eligible for this type of reimbursement. In addition, the Guideline sets maximum amounts for travel and dining expenses, for example. Economy Class has been adopted as the standard for flights within Europe, while board members are allowed to fly Business Class on intercontinental flights. In the case of domestic travel, the VSNU has set maximum amounts that can be spent on hotels and dinners; trips abroad are covered by the scheme drawn up by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs for business trips by its officials. According to the Education Inspectorate, the education institutions say that the set amounts are more than adequate for their purposes.
The background story of the VSNU Guideline is one of searches for sales receipts and commotion about excessive expense claims. As recently as last year, Utrecht University was the subject of new public debate after a member of the local University Council questioned the total of 124,343 euros claimed by the Chair of Utrecht University’s Executive Board in 2018. After the council member was given access to the receipts, it turned out the Chair commuted every day by chauffeur-driven car between his home in Zutphen and Utrecht.
And Utrecht was already under scrutiny, in the wake of a far larger brouhaha in 2016 following reports on excessive expenditure by RTL Nieuws. Media coverage spoke of ‘expensive plane tickets’ and ‘fancy hotels’. The affair even led to questions in the House of Representatives. The then Minister of Education Jet Bussemaker promised to have it looked into by the Education Inspectorate. While this agency concluded that a sizeable share of the expenses ‘served a purpose’, the board members didn’t always exercise sufficient restraint and some expenses could be considered questionable. This ultimately led to the drafting of the 2018 Guideline.