The figures are not yet final, but Van Schoten expects a deficit of at least 20 million euros next year, possibly as much as 25 million.

According to Van Schoten, the central government grant will shrink by around 8 million euros next year due to a forecast drop in student numbers. The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science bases the grant on the number of enrolled students. Wages have increased by 9 per cent in the past year, and the prices of nearly all products, but particularly energy, hardware and software, have risen steeply. A fourth major cost item is increased construction and maintenance costs for buildings.

Although the Ministry will pay compensation for wage increases, the rest of these increases will force the university to make structural changes, and Van Schoten does not shy away from using the word ‘cutbacks’. “If your budget is being cut by 20 million euros a year, you have to take action. That’s something we must do together, as faculties and service units. It may sound strange, but a tight budget offers an opportunity to sit down together and rethink how we do things, to see if there are ways to do them smarter and better.”

Becoming more resilient

The positive news: because the university has quite a bit of capital, it has time on its side. “We can talk about it publicly, so we don’t have to start our reorganisation blind”, says Van Schoten. She promises that faculties and service units won’t be given specific targets. “Look, we could say we have to cut a couple of per cent from everywhere, but then people would just think about cutbacks instead of thinking about how we can do things differently; how we can become more financially resilient, collaborate better and be more efficient.”

The paradox is that the university is actually getting more money from the Ministry, around 50 million euros each year. “But that money is earmarked – we have to spend it on starter grants for assistant professors and incentive grants for professors”, Van Schoten explains. “It can’t be used to cover rising IT and energy costs.”

Fewer rented spaces

Ellen van Schoten 3_okt2023_Ronald van den Heerik
Ellen van Schoten. Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

So where should the money come from? Van Schoten gives the example of renting external spaces. “We recently measured the occupancy of teaching spaces and offices, and found that it wasn’t that high. At the same time, we’re renting expensive spaces off campus. We have to look at whether there’s a smarter solution.” The renovation of the Tinbergen Building, a multi-million euro project due to start in 2024, will also be re-examined.

Another cost item Van Schoten is looking at is software – both licences and service costs. “We’ve created an inventory of all applications used by the faculties, which allows us to look at things like double licences, as well as service contracts we’re paying for twice. If we do something about that, we can both save money and improve quality.”

Van Schoten also wants to look at how the university can increase its income, for example by ‘getting more money from society’ via indirect funding (from Dutch Research Council grants, for example) and the ‘third flow of funds’ (money from private institutions). “Other opportunities include ‘lifelong learning’ (courses for graduates, etc.) and strategic partnerships such as the Convergence Alliance with TU Delft and Erasmus MC.” A new working group with representatives from various faculties and service units will identify options to both increase income and reduce expenditure.

Fall of the government causing uncertainty

The collapse of the government has created uncertainty for universities, including with regard to their budgets. Among other things, the proposals to lower the binding study advice (BSA) and to put the brakes on internationalisation have been shelved, and it is not yet certain whether either will continue, and if so, in what form. “As well as affecting us in financial terms”, says Van Schoten with concern, “reduced internationalisation affects our people. The good news is that we have very few Bachelor’s programmes that are taught exclusively in English. At the same time, we continue to be very dependent on direct government funding. Under the current model, a decline in student numbers means less funding.”

Van Schoten has similar concerns about any lowering of the binding study advice. Lowering the BSA – which the EUR largely opposes – is expected to result in students taking longer to complete their studies, which would cost more money. “I don’t yet know how that will play out, but it makes sense to put structural measures in place now.”

Van Schoten is very interested in the results of the upcoming elections. “If you look at the parties that are ahead in the polls, I don’t know whether quite as much money is going to be invested in education and research over the next few years. But we’ll have to wait and see.” According to the most recent polls, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and Pieter Omtzigt’s new party, the New Social Contract (NSC), are on track to win the most seats.

Ellen van Schoten College van Bestuur – 2021-13 foto Dieuwertje Bravenboer (EM)

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