The report deals with five difference cases, one of which is the budget for university funding used by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. This case in particular shows that the assumptions used by ministries are ‘not always up to date’, the Court of Audit maintains.
It’s like this: the total budget for universities is divided into two parts: one part for teaching (2.5 billion euros) and one part for research (2.2 billion euros). The teaching budget is adjusted annually based on the number of students who enrol, but the research part does not undergo a corresponding rise.
In the 1980s, the distribution of these funds was based on the then operative time allocations of research staff. To put it in the form of a question, in the case of universities, how many working hours were staff allocating to teaching and research? The problem is that the most recent survey of time allocation dates from 1984, and has never been updated since then.
At the time, about 35 percent of the government’s budget for universities was destined for teaching and 65 percent for research. In the intervening years, the ratio has changed due to rising student enrolments, the Court of Audit writes in its report. The portion universities receive for research has dropped from 65 to 45 percent over the past 37 years.
If the government fails to adjust the data on which a cost estimation is based for a long period of time, it raises the risk of a budget becoming ‘more skewed and out of sync’ with the passing of each year, according to the Court of Audit. “What this means is that it may suddenly take a lot of money to repair the situation, or projections and targets have to be lowered. “Which negatively affects the parties involved, in this case students and teaching faculty.”
In a separate appendix entitled ‘First aid for estimations’, the Court of Audit provides a more elaborate explanation of the budgeting issue at the Ministry of Education. They also mention a recent report by the consultancy firm PwC which states that the Ministry has been underfunding the universities.
The civil servants at the Ministry are not as yet ‘alarmed’ about the findings, as evidenced by interviews conducted by the Court of Audit. “After all, the universities in the Netherlands are financially fit, and this country has scored well internationally in terms of scientific research. Apparently the universities were perfectly able to keep afloat with the budget allocated.”
But a situation like this may be concealing substantial ‘hidden costs’, the report warns, such as neglect of important investments or relying too much on unpaid overtime put in by teaching faculty.
The obsolete data from the 1980s is also not the only problem. “An estimation is supposed to include all cost items, like those just mentioned, and the Ministry is supposed to be taking a conscious decision on the issue of the extent to which it wants to cover these costs with government funding.” According to the Court of Audit, the Minister has ‘no policy strategy regarding the degree to which they should be funding the costs of university teaching and research’.
'I’m right-you’re wrong'
Universities see this as a confirmation of what they have suspected for years and want over a billion euros added to their annual budget. “We’ve finally gotten past the I’m right-you’re wrong discussion”, says Pieter Duisenberg, President of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU). “The facts are now out in the open. Our staff have been sending us signals and at this late stage there are so many reports, it’s time for politicians to make up their minds.”