Last week, journalism platform Follow The Money (FTM) published the results of an investigation into the ‘Accent Indirect Tax’ specialisation; a joint track of the Master’s degrees in tax law of Maastricht University, Tilburg University, VU Amsterdam and Leiden University. The track trains students to become VAT and customs specialists.
The track is sponsored by the Tax and Customs Administration and six major Zuidas offices: Baker McKenzie, Deloitte, EY, KPMG Meijburg & Co, Loyens & Loeff and PwC. According to the report, these offices each pay 25,000 euros a year to have a say, for which they get plenty in return.
In 2015 the universities wrote that, contrary to other programmes, in this track, it was possible to keep the needs of the sponsors in mind and identify talent at an early stage. Notes and emails supplied by Maastricht University at the request of FTM apparently show that the sponsors have a say in which professors and teachers are hired as well as the contents of the programme.
According to FTM, the sponsors also select representatives to join the supervisory board of the joint specialisation and a database containing alumni information is used for staff recruitment, which is possibly in violation of privacy rules.
According to critics in the FTM investigation, the programme is overly focused on professional practice, which may pose a risk to academic freedom. Education Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf told FTM that he is concerned and wants the four universities to explain themselves. While he believes that having a vocational component in university degree programmes is perfectly okay, this should in no way come at the expense of academic freedom.
VU Amsterdam plans to investigate whether the independence of the specialisation is adequately safeguarded. Another tax law specialisation, ‘Tax & Technology’, will also be reviewed in this context. Leiden University has informed Follow the Money that they intend to re-evaluate their participation in the partnership.
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Conflicts of interest
Collaboration between universities and the business community has been a topic of discussion for many years. This discussion gained momentum again in early 2021 after de Volkskrant and Folia published articles about professors of tax law and tax economics who were also employed at major Zuidas offices.
With help from the universities, Minister Dijkgraaf sent an overview to the House of Representatives at the beginning of this year showing that at least 263 chairs at Dutch universities are funded by the Tax and Customs Administration, local authorities, agencies and foundations.
Following research by newspaper the Financieele Dagblad he was forced to admit that the list was far from exhaustive. He would like to see universities cooperate in creating a national register, open to everyone, showing the ancillary jobs held by professors and other researchers.