Gabriele Jacobs
Gabriele Jacobs Image credit: RSM

Last year, the Deloitte auditing firm looked into EUC’s current finances, since the university college had reached the end of the ‘start-up phase’. Deloitte came to a disheartening conclusion: if EUC didn’t make some drastic changes, it would have a negative balance of 1.2 million euros by 2024. This came as a bolt out of the blue for Jacobs. “No one had seen this coming.”

What’s going on at EUC?

EUC has reached the end of its pilot phase. This means the programme can no longer count on initial funding schemes and is expected to ‘stand on its own two feet’. During last year’s evaluation of the EUC finances, Deloitte calculated an expected deficit of 1.2 million euros by year-end 2024. EUC had a one-off dip in student intake, long-term illness of several staff members and has been hit by the budget cuts for, among others, social sciences programmes recommended by the Van Rijn Committee. To realise the necessary savings and ready EUC for the years ahead, the management team has drawn up Boost EUC. In this plan, the university college will be reducing its staff numbers from 76.1 FTEs in June 2020 to 53.2 FTEs by 2024. According to the plan, this can be done without forced redundancies. It will also be raising its tuition fee (provided the University Council endorses this proposal) by around 9 percent: from 4,400 to 4,800 euros for EU students, and from 12,500 to 13,500 euros for non-EU students.

How did this happen? Didn’t EUC have a clear enough picture of the financials?

“It’s true that there were a number of areas where our insight was lacking – the risks associated with operating your own building and student housing, for example. And some of the agreements we had entered into weren’t altogether crystal-clear. That’s something that happens more often with start-ups: a lot of agreements are implicit. Whatever the case, we need to avoid a situation like this from ever developing again. It was definitely a wake-up call.”

How did EUC get so far in the red?

”We’ve had one year with significantly fewer enrolments. And since your funding from EUR is calculated on the basis of a three-year average, we’ll be getting less money for a number of years. On top of this, we’ve been faced with an exceptionally high number of long-term illnesses. You have to keep paying these staff members, and arrange replacements besides. Together with the budget cuts for social sciences programmes recommended by the Van Rijn Committee, those would be the key factors.”

Could you think of an explanation for this spate of Iong-term illnesses?

“It’s difficult to draw any general conclusions, but I do think that in a start-up phase, staff members are often overburdened even while various work procedures are still undetermined. This puts extra pressure on the employees. It’s incredible how much work we’ve shifted over the past decade. And it could also relate to our strong focus on excellence. Our staff members really go the extra mile for students – in all sorts of ways: I’ve seen quite a few emails come by that were sent in the middle of the night. Sometimes, you need to be able to say ‘good is good enough’. You don’t have to raise the bar every single time. I’m trying to set an example in this area myself too.”

In its plan Boost EUC, the management team proposes reducing EUC’s workforce by 23 FTEs before 2024. Will anyone be laid off?

“We expect to achieve this through natural turnover, without having to make anyone redundant. Fortunately, we don’t have to round off the entire reduction before the end of the year – then it would have amounted to a reorganisation. But many of our young lecturers and PhD students have strong research ambitions. We’ll be helping them to find a job somewhere else. To this end, we’ll be improving our network and strengthening ties with other faculties.”

You intend to both reduce staff numbers and improve the quality of your education programme. Doesn’t that mean you’ll be asking even more of your people than before – while quite a few already have a burn-out?

“That’s definitely one of my main concerns – particularly at the tail-end of this very demanding pandemic. This isn’t what I wanted to put my staff members through after Covid-19. But I sincerely believe that with the right changes, our education model can not only become better but also less demanding for our staff. Our programme contains a number of unnecessary, non-functioning elements that are nevertheless very labour-intensive. The number of assessments we organise, for instance – that can be reduced. Students can have a bigger say in the provided education. And we’ve been able to acquire a budget to hire student assistants, for example. Lecturers can rely on them to design specific elements of our education. Everything’s up for discussion, basically. One thing I find particularly heart-warming is that a lot of our staff members have indicated they look forward to thinking along about the possibilities. And our students too – they’ve proven very involved.

“At the same time, I want to explore other ways to make or save money with EUC. A number of previously identified opportunities can still be tapped into. We want to do more research projects, for which we have set up the new platform ECLAS. And we can save the university some money too: we have wonderful rooms and study areas in the heart of the city – why don’t we open them up to other university programmes and faculties more often, instead of them hiring rooms elsewhere in the city? And we don’t have to handle everything in-house. The original plan was to build close ties between EUC and all the other faculties. A stronger integration with ESSB, for example, will allow us to make more frequent use of their facilities. And it has to become easier for academic staff at other faculties to organise a lecture at EUC.”

Do you think it’s fair to raise the tuition fee while economising on your education programme?

“Like Victor Bekkers (the ESSB dean, Eds.) always says: these budgets are like communicating vessels. If you lower the tuition fee, you’ll be able to offer even less education, and vice versa. With this increase, we remain in line with the market. With this rate we belong to the top three of Dutch university colleges and that reflects our position in the rankings. Of course you need to take care to remain accessible and inclusive, including for people from a less comfortable socio-economic background. But research has repeatedly shown that this doesn’t depend on how much tuition fee you’re charging. For example, every year we had ten scholarships to offer to students from Rotterdam, but we never got to award them all. Which is why we’ve reduced the total to seven. Despite the fact that every year, we invite secondary school pupils from Rotterdam to visit and get to know us via the EUC Junior programme.”

Some staff members feel they were filled in too late on what was going on. Is that a valid point of criticism?

“It has occasionally taken too long for my taste too. It’s a very complex process and within the university you need to talk to all kinds of people. Recent events didn’t help: the corona crisis, many board member changes. I’m unable to communicate on matters that haven’t been decided yet.”

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