If you follow the news at all, you’ll know that a number of matters are not faring well in Dutch Academia. Overcrowded lecture halls, worries about ever-encroaching English, not enough housing for the students, not enough lecture halls, the teaching staff’s increasing workload and mounting pressure on researchers to apply for grants. There have been strikes, protests and lots and lots of angry opinion pieces in the papers.
All of these problems are related to the way money is distributed among, and at, universities. Money for education depends mainly on a university’s market share as expressed by student numbers.
Scientists are forced to obtain most of their research funds from external sources: companies or subsidy providers like the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO).
That is why Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven of Education, Culture and Science asked former state secretary Martin van Rijn to find better ways of funding universities. His commission’s report came out last week.
“Times have changed since the current funding system, with its funding levels and flat-rate basic grants, was set up, and it needs an overhaul”, the Commission claims.
The most important recommendations are: the research money that former Minister Ronald Plasterk moved from the universities to the NWO should be handed back to the universities. Also, universities currently receive less money for students who have changed their programmes and that must change. According to Van Rijn, the relationship between funding and the quality of education should be clearer as well: “Now it’s like steering through fog.”
Depending on student numbers for funding education is a “preposterous mechanism”, the commission says: those numbers should have less influence.
Accordingly, more money should go directly to the universities. In addition, “developments on the labour market should have more consequences for funding than is currently the case.”
Due to a shortage of engineers and natural scientists in the Netherlands, more money should be made available for the natural science programmes. The plan calls for a total 300 million Euros to go to those programmes, of which 70 million will go from the humanities and social sciences to the natural sciences – starting in 2020.
The response of the VSNU, the Association of Universities in the Netherlands, to the report was mixed. Obviously, the universities are happy for money to go straight to universities, and more money for natural sciences would be great for the natural sciences. But...
“Moving the money to natural sciences and technology will impact the humanities, social sciences and medicine.” Also: “This redistribution means greater workloads and will damage the high quality of our education and research.”
The Technical Universities will receive tens of millions more, while Maastricht, Rotterdam and Nijmegen would lose the most cash. Leiden University has more humanities students than natural-sciences students, and will consequently lose nett in this part of Van Rijn’s plan. The commission calculates that this loss will amount to 1.4 per cent of the government’s contribution, slightly over five million Euros. However, Leiden is also the university that enrols the most programme-switchers, so it will gain some money there.
Leiden University’s Executive Board is decidedly unhappy with the plans: “The measures put forward in the Commission’s recommendations are drastic and the prospects for long-term solutions and their actual substance are not specific.
The effects of the redistribution measures will be unequal, in the short term, and a potential disaster for research and education related to the humanities, social sciences and medicine.”
Leiden, for one, will not go along with Van Rijn’s recommendations. “The Executive Board has decided, on the grounds of the currently estimated effects of the report, not to apply the recommendations internally, at least not in 2020.”
What happens in the years after that will depend on what Van Engelshoven and the House of Representatives do.