UU professor Bert Weckhuysen on university financing: ‘We’re reaching rock bottom’

Bert Weckhuysen ahead of Alarm Day. Photo: Lucas Kemper

Perhaps the commotion surrounding the formation of a new Cabinet overshadowed Alarm Day, a protest involving higher education students, teachers and administrators, who took to The Hague, the seat of the government, to complain about the underfunding of universities in the Netherlands. Even so, the message from Dutch universities to national politicians should be crystal clear by now, according to UU professor Bert Weckhuysen.

Weckhuysen argues that, now that a report – commissioned by the ministry – has been published, there’s no way around it for the new members of the parliament: academia has reached the bottom. Researchers at consultancy firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC) agree that Dutch universities should be receiving at least one billion euros more.

That’s exactly the amount that the outgoing Minister of Education, Ingrid Van Engelshoven, had mentioned previously. It’s also the amount that critical students and teachers have been asking for for years, as an absolute minimum to help science back on track.

Weckhuysen: “The time of observing and stating has passed. Everyone knows this by now. Concrete steps need to be taken to solve structural underfinancing.”

The entire system has been eaten by a Pacman

The renowned chemistry professor knows what he’s talking about. Throughout the past two years, he’s had conversations with dozens of academics and administrators who gave him enough input for two reports about research financing in the Netherlands, which he wrote on behalf of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW in the Dutch acronym). In the reports, he proposes to give researchers more elbow room for free, unfettered research.

Weckhuysen didn’t join his colleagues in the actual Hofvijver pond on Alarm Day. But as president of the two KNAW committees that advised minister Van Engelshoven, he does feel he should provide vocal support for the call for additional investments.

“I’ve seen that the situation is truly untenable, across the board. It’s not just about one scientific discipline anymore, or just about the young scientists. The entire university system has been eaten by a Pacman.”

The distinguished professor says one can already notice the effects. In general, students prefer not to pursue a career in academia, and the appeal Dutch universities have to international talent is waning.

What does Weckhuysen hope to see after the new government is formed? “Structurally, more funding”, he quickly replies. But then he changes his mind. “Let me rephrase that. What we want is a sustainable educational and research system. Fair financing and a fair staff policy are prerequisites for that. We’ve got a problem if people structurally work overtime, but it gets even worse when they take away the enjoyment they find in their work, too. That’s the bottom end, the lower limit, and that’s where we’ve been for a few years now.”

‘As a professor, you receive a pen and an iPad

The problem analysis Weckhuysen outlines sounds familiar by now. Universities aren’t adequately compensated for the ever growing number of students, and research financing doesn’t increase at the same speed of the student population. As a result, scientists teach classes in the time that should be reserved for their research, leading to frustration and overtime.

The lack of sufficient financing from the government also leads to an exhausting rush for external financers such as NWO and ERC. The chances of success, however, are small. Moreover, these funds are often temporary, and come with many conditions.

“As a professor, the university gives you a pen, an iPad, a chair, and a table”, Weckhuysen says. “If you then think you can get money from somewhere else, you get stuck.”

The system needs some rest

After writing the reports, Weckhuysen is convinced that three things are necessary for Dutch higher education to climb out of this impasse. He says his vision is shared by the knowledge coalition, a collaboration between companies, universities, universities of applied sciences, hospitals, research institutes, and research financer NWO.

Firstly, Weckhuysen calls for rolling grants, which scientists could use at different stages of their careers. That way, the rat race from project grant to project grant would be slowed down and there would be more continuity in the research programmes. “The system needs rest.”

That doesn’t create the desired permanent positions, however. Weckhuysen says they should be created through the sector plans that are established for each scientific domain. More money needs to flow that way, too. “With national agreements, you can strengthen disciplines.”

Lastly, academia needs investments in NWO's open competition. Weckhuysen and his KNAW committee previously calculated that the research financer has twice as much money for ‘strategic’ research than it does for ‘unfettered’ research. Those should be in balance, he argues. Weckhuysen has the support of hundreds of colleagues on this subject.

“The unfettered research component, in which the researcher’s ideas are central, allows scientists to explore new areas. It’s also important that we dare to make choices in the strategic research component, in which questions from industry and society are key. We then need to stick to that for a longer period of time, to ensure continuity.”

With this vision, Weckhuysen thinks the pressure on education should diminish as well. “What we want is more tenured teachers and researchers. I think it’s important that these positions are intertwined. Teachers need to have the option of conducting research and, the other way around, researchers should have the option of teaching. The Dutch word for professor (hoogleraar) literally means "high teacher". The teacher part is there for a reason. Depending on which phase of your academic career you’re in, and depending on your talent, you could do more research or more education.”

The total costs of these three plans amount to one, perhaps 1.5 billion euros. “The cake has to be bigger”, Weckhuysen stresses. “The time of robbing Peter to pay Paul, and band-aids on bullet holes, is over. Universities can no longer accept the shifting of funds. Look at what happened with the so-called Plasterk funds.”

If things go wrong now, we must consider protests

Weckhuysen says he’s fairly confident as he watches the governmental deliberations. In the presentations of his KNAW reports, he was met with a lot of understanding. “I could see that it resonates with people, even if they did initially ask questions about how one proposal related to the other. It’s important that the knowledge coalition has now presented a complete plan.”

Still, the largest political party in the Netherlands, VVD, wrote in its electoral programme that 200 million euros could be cut from the science budget. Universities should start collaborating, it stated. Weckhuysen: “Often, there’s a tendency to tell universities to become more efficient. But we’ve heard that plenty of times. We’re done efficiency-ing.”

“In science, you can't simply calculate exactly how much every euro that you spend will yield. But that’s not how you should look at it anyway. We educate new talents. They will provide the future’s prosperity. If you don’t promise a future to the new generation of academics, they will leave. Look at what happened in southern Europe during the financial crisis.”

Weckhuysen calls for universities to stand together, instead of letting themselves be put up against each other, as they have been before, or to accept less than they need.

“If things go wrong now, we’ll really have to consider protesting. Scientists don’t like to strike, because it means hurting themselves and their students. But we’re creative enough to think of something that the government will really feel. Walking into the Hofvijver pond in our academic gowns won’t suffice.”