UU announces new grant distribution model

Research teams can use starter grant too

Universiteit Utrecht

Many UU scientists were eagerly waiting for more information on how the funds for research recently announced by the Dutch government would be distributed. After all, the grants are meant to lower work and competitive pressure and offer more room for unaffiliated research, according to the so-called administrative agreement made with universities.

The 300 million euros allocated for these grants are part of a broader package of investments in scientific research —something that universities had been asking for years. “I think everyone is happy and grateful that the money is available now,” says UU President Anton Pijpers. “But the question of how to divide the funds was still a rather complicated one.

In total, the Executive Board will get 27.9 million euros annually for the next ten years. Of this amount, almost 12 million euros will be spent on starter grants for new assistant professors, which amounts to 40 grants each year. The remaining 16 million will go to encouragement funds for current assistant professors, senior lecturers and professors. That's 53 grants a year.

The bigger the faculty, the more money it gets
The faculties with the most students are set to get more of these funds than the others, according to the proposal the Executive Board submitted to the University Council (only accessible with Solis ID, Ed). The council members will voice their opinions on the proposal in a meeting on November 7.

The money is to be divided based on the number of students enrolled at each faculty, instead of based on the University Allocation Model (Dutch acronym: UVM) as some faculties would have preferred. According to this model, the exact and biomedical sciences would get more money per student than the Humanities and Social Sciences.

In the current plan, the faculties of Humanities, Social Sciences and Sciences will receive between 4 and 5 million euros. Faculties like Medicine and Veterinary Medicine will get much less. The Faculty of Science will get the most money (nearly 5 million) as it has the most students.

Anton Pijpers: “We think this division is justified because the faculties with the most students tend to have the biggest problems. There, the educational pressure is at its highest, especially at Social Sciences and Humanities, which jeopardises research.”

What is going to happen with the starter grants?
But how exactly will universities allocate the starter grants? This has been a hot topic for months. Whereas universities were given quite a lot of freedom on how to spend the encouragement funds, the same could not be said about the starter grants.

The administrative agreement postulates that new assistant professors are to receive a starting grant of 300,000 euros a year for a period of six years. However, the available funds are nowhere near enough to give this amount to all new assistant professors. In Utrecht, for example, there are around a hundred new assistant professors a year. This made for a lot of uncertainty: how will universities solve this issue? Will this lead to yet another application circus, this time within the universities themselves? Will the remedy be worse than the ailment?

The discussion prompted the association of Dutch universities, UNL, to hold talks with the Ministry of Education about how to give universities more room to distribute the grants as they see fit. However, the outcome of these meetings is still unclear.

Now, it seems as though UU's Executive Board has found a clever compromise. New assistant professors can also submit applications for starter grants on behalf of a team of colleagues. That way, there is a single applicant but current assistant professors can also benefit from the grants – for instance, the money could be used to finance additional research time for current assistant professors.

According to the Executive Board, the starter and encouragement funds can be spent on ways to increase research time for employees, hire PhD candidates, employ support staff, and buy equipment. That way, the university hopes to encourage scientific teamwork and interdisciplinary collaborations.

The board is also giving the faculties substantial freedom when it comes to execution and prioritising. The priorities can vary widely. The Faculty of Science, for example, wants assistant professors to be able to hire assistants, while the Faculty of Humanities needs to alleviate the educational load.

To President Anton Pijpers, UU's approach respects the boundaries set by the ministry. “This is all being done in accordance with the ministry's plan. We wanted to provide as many employees as possible with some peace and space, and that’s what we’re doing. The faculties know where the issues lie. I don’t expect any major problems here.”

However, an important condition is that giving lecturers more time for research shouldn't lead to the hiring of more temporary teachers. UU's faculties will have to give permanent contracts to assistant professors or find other solutions for the classes that need to be covered.

Pijpers: “Our goal is to hire fewer people on a temporary basis. We think that’s possible. With those grants, the means from the national sector plans, and the impulse funds we’re giving out in Utrecht, there’s a package now that allows faculties to simultaneously craft effective policies, reduce temporary contracts, and alleviate workloads. Some faculties, for example, want to give longer contracts to PhD candidates, so they can teach classes as well. That way, you’re educating your own talents at the same time."

Humanities satisfied as well
These past few months, there has been quite a lot of dissatisfaction at the Faculty of Humanities about the methodology used in the administrative agreement, especially when it comes to starter grants. The approach was often deemed as overly focused on the exact sciences.

Thomas Vaessens, the Dean of the Faculty of  Humanities, now says he is satisfied with the decisions the Executive Board has made. “This plan does justice to the desires and needs of all faculties, as different as they are.”

Cautious, Vaessens doesn’t want to get ahead of himself and comment on the final decisions about the distribution of the grants. But he does see enough possibilities to structurally provide lecturers with more research time — a common wish at his faculty. He adds that it should also be possible to reduce the number of temporary teachers.

For now, we would rather not make any statements about how exactly the faculty is to achieve these goals. “But we’ve got a good plan ready to go. These frameworks help with that. We can now use funds from this administrative agreement, but there are also means from the sector plan and from the Executive Board’s impulse funds.”

Finally, the dean is “incredibly happy” that there will not be a need for internal competition to obtain a limited number of grants. “That was a rather nightmarish idea. We would only be increasing our own workloads and competition.”

The right decisions
UU professor Ingrid Robeyns, from the protest group WOinActie, which calls for less work pressure in higher education, still thinks the minister should not have gone for starter grants. In her view, the distribution of these funds will take time and energy no matter what, so she would much rather have seen the means be embedded into the regular funds universities get from the government.

Considering that didn't happen and the grants are now a reality, she thinks that UU's Executive Board is making the right decisions. “UU has a clear goal in mind,” she writes in an e-mail to DUB. “In theory, it’s possible to reduce everyone’s workloads through the combination of starter and encouragement grants. Whether that will actually happen, remains to be seen.”

Robeyns enumerates her reservations. “Whether we will in fact have fewer temporary lecturers and more assistant professors will depend on the decisions made at each separate department. Say all starter and encouragement funds turn into PhD positions: that would only generate more work. That’s one extreme. The other is that all starter grants would be used to give 10 or 20 percent more research time to as many assistant professors as possible, hiring new assistant professors, and replacing temporary teaching positions with assistant professor positions. As far as I can see, the framework set by the Executive Board makes both options possible.”

Annemieke Hoogenboom and Joop Schippers, from the University Council party Vlam, note in an e-mail to DUB that the Executive Board tried to bend the ministry’s regulations as much as they could to UU's specific situation, which must have required a lot of "polderen" (Dutch word for compromise through a lot of conversation, Ed).

They add that the the board is looking to cater to broadly-shared desires such as increasing the number of permanent contracts and reducing the amount of work, as well as doing justice to the differences between faculties. At the same time, there are attempts to support the university’s strategic goals, such as strengthening scientific teamwork.

The two welcome the funds and the way it looks like they will be distributed. "If only as a symbolic acknowledgment of the issues.” However, they also warn about the consequences of “separate sources of cash that will have to be artificially implemented into local policies”, referring to the tough discussions generated by previous financial contributions from the government. It’s possible that UU will be facing such tough discussions again. “At a certain point, the minister will have to attest to the Parliament that funds have been well spent and there will be evaluations."