Van Schoten (1966) succeeded Roelien Ritsema van Eck as the person in charge of the university’s operational management and has now been in office for about eleven weeks. In the middle of the corona period, she transferred to the EUR from the Netherlands Authority for the Financial Markets, where she was also responsible for operational management as the Chief Operations Officer. It was an exciting time to start work, given that the corona crisis calls for a new vision on finances, work and use of space on the campus. These are all matters that fall under her portfolio. Van Schoten also works a lot from her home in Haarlem, so the conversation takes place via a video link.


Ellen van Schoten College van Bestuur – 2021-9 foto Dieuwertje Bravenboer (EM)
Ellen van Schoten Image credit: Dieuwertje Bravenboer

On screen, a beautiful antique bookcase takes pride of place behind her. The classics suit her: “I like to play the violin and the piano. That’s just for my own pleasure, but I have been taking lessons for two years now. I love Bach, and I’ve just started the three-part inventions on the piano, which I’m quite proud of!” This love of classics is also reflected in her choice of where she lives. She would like to live closer to the campus, but the high-rise metropolis of Rotterdam is a bit too sleek for her. Which is why she is moving from Haarlem to Delft soon. “I really love canal-side monumental buildings. They have more of those in Delft.”

One of the biggest challenges Van Schoten says that she faces are the developments surrounding IT. A merger between the IT department and the department of the Chief Information Officer (CIO) is in full swing, yet much more needs to be done. “It is important that we get back in control. That we map out which major projects still need long-overdue maintenance to be done. The level of maturity has got to be raised.”



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According to Van Schoten, IT departments of universities operate in a ‘hostile environment’ these days. She is referencing the hacks that recently took place at the universities of Maastricht and Amsterdam and the NOW (Dutch Research Council). At Maastricht and the NWO, data was ‘held hostage’ and encrypted by the hackers in exchange for a ransom sum. It cost Maastricht hundreds of thousands of euros to free its own data. The NWO refused to pay, whereupon hackers spread research funder’s confidential documents on the dark web.

This is the kind of situation Van Schoten wants to pre-empt. “In Maastricht, it turned out that online backups are of little use in a hostage situation (they had also been encrypted, ed.). So, we need to arrange offline backups more punctually. In addition, we need to properly rehearse recovery plans, because restoring these backups often turns out to be a lot more complicated in practice than it is on paper. That causes a lot of hold-ups and each day of delay is one day too many.” As long as backups are not restored, IT systems often hardly work.

Budget less deep in the red

The second major challenge for Van Schoten is a financial one. The university was in good shape until the corona crisis and had substantial reserves. So good, in fact, that her predecessor deliberately drew up a negative budget of 26 million euros to shrink those reserves. But the crisis has shaken things up considerably, things are very uncertain now. In August, Deloitte (the company’s auditor) predicted that the university would be 20 million euros deeper in debt last year because of corona-related slumps.

New figures have not yet been formally released, but according to Van Schoten they are more positive than Deloitte had initially expected last year. “Later on, the forecast for Woudestein was adjusted from 42 million to 25 million euro. It might be even less. You could call that good news, but I am from the school of thought that you should be able to explain why you aren’t ending up with a loss when you were expecting one. Ideally, you should see that coming. As such, predictive ability leaves something to be desired at times and we have to improve that.”

Although Van Schoten does think that in this situation, the university needs to be ‘more conscious about how it spends money.’ “We are eating into our reserves. That is not a problem in the short term. But research carried out by the university association VSNU has shown that higher education is structurally underfunded. Nationwide, an additional one billion euros per year is needed. Admittedly, there is now a National Teaching Programme (a one-off investment of 8.5 billion euros across all levels of education that the Dutch government recently pledged, ed.) That is a blessing, but you also run the risk of politicians thinking that the problem has been solved that way.”

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More students per teacher

The long-term budget reveals a deficit over the coming years which should turn back to a surplus in 2024. However, to achieve this, the number of students has to increase while the number of academic staff members will remain more or less stable. In other words, more students per lecturer. While the intention of the student loan system, for one thing, was to reduce this ratio. Is that disappointing?

Van Schoten: “Not necessarily, more students can also be seen as a success in some ways. The trick is to keep it all in balance. The workload is already high, so we have to keep an eye on that. Of course, we have to do something about the ratio of students to staff members. In the short term, this requires extra resources and thanks to the National Teaching Programme, we can do that. In the long term, we must look at what is needed per faculty, that is really done on a case-by-case basis.”

‘Less demand for workplaces'

Van Schoten expects corona to change the way the money is spent. “Hybrid forms of education are not going away anymore. You want to be able to keep these innovations after the crisis. At the same time, we have a wonderful campus, which we also want to make good use of as much as possible. But are we going to do that in the same way as we did in the past? I expect that there will be more of a need for meeting places and less demand for workplaces. We might end up spending only half the time on campus. We need to take a good look at that. And also, at what it means for modifications in existing buildings such as Tinbergen.”

IT and finance are only a limited part of Van Schoten’s extensive portfolio. Professional Services, support services – she wants to make these ‘an equal party’ in relation to the faculties. The cooperation with Delft University of Technology and Erasmus MC (referred to as the ‘convergence’) will demand a lot of attention in the years to come, but also the Culture Campus in Rotterdam-South. After all the Executive Board changes in recent years, it would be good for continuity if Van Schoten were to stay on for the full four years. Will she? “I promise,” she declares.