Stricter rules for UU board expense claims after critical report by education inspection

In September of last year, the newspaper De Telegraaf published a headline stating that UU board members were said to file expense claims for ‘expensive’ flights and ‘costly’ hotels abroad. The article led to questions in parliament. Minister of Education Jet Bussemaker called for research into the expense claim habits of the UU board. In 2016, the inspection had already researched the expense claim habits of four universities and four universities of applied science – the UU among them. That study showed no irregularities.

Not always handled efficiently
The conclusion of the current study, published by the Education inspection this week, is that in the time between 2013 and 2015, the UU board members had not always handled their expense claims efficiently. Some claims were higher than may be expected from board members.

The inspection has studied the receipts of expense claims attributed to the board members, which means they haven’t necessarily been submitted by the board members themselves. In the study, the inspection considered whether each expense fit within the parameters of ‘proper management’. That means they have to be sober, unambiguous, efficient and transparent. The UU’s own instructions were used as reference whenever possible, and whenever those were unclear, the rules for civil servants were consulted.

Taxi in combination with a lease car
Although most of the claims were defendable, the inspection did manage to find several expense claims that were overly luxurious, or where the efficiency of the expense wasn’t clear.

For instance, using two official cars with chauffeurs is all right. However, the inspection says it’s unreasonable that one board member – Anton Pijpers, in this case – also submitted expense claims for using taxis to the amount of 12.291 euros in a year, even though at the time, he also had a lease car from his time as a dean at the Faculty of Veterinary Science. “These taxi costs don’t fit in the parameters of soberness that may be expected from the university board,” the inspection says.

The built-in system for mobile internet in the official cars – with a cost of 13.500 euros for mobile data use in 2014 – is less than efficient. “We think the UU should’ve and could’ve known that the data limits were exceeded in such a way. Furthermore, in those years there were several phone subscriptions available that included unlimited calls and data for set prices, significantly lower than the total amount spent here.”

The inspection also calls foul on the fact that chauffeurs were not held accountable for tickets for double parking and speeding – a total of 1.038 euros in three years – when according to the rules, they should have been.

Flying business class
In 2014 and 2015, board members flew business class nine times. According to the UU’s own rules, flying business class is only allowed for urgent reasons, and these trips need to be pre-approved. Inspection says all these trips were only approved after the fact.

In four cases, the expense claimed for nights spent in hotels exceeded the maximum amount. For seven nights in hotels, a total of 3.075 euros was claimed. Usually, a hotel room costs approximately 150 euros a night. Although the UU states its reasons for each overnight stay (for instance, spending a night in a specific hotel because that’s where the conference is held), it’s not clear to the inspection whether an attempt was made to find a more affordable alternative.

Generally speaking, the board was fairly reserved in claiming expenses for dinners and drinks. In some cases, the inspection understood the choice to dine in an expensive restaurant as it would benefit the UU. What isn’t clear is the importance of having fine wines during team building days. In the period that was studied, six bottles of wine were bought for this purpose, for a total of 512 euros. Board members state in a response that they had never seen the price tag for the wine, but that it was uncovered after analyzing the hotel bill. In response to said analysis, the board members have decided to voluntarily pay back a part of these expenses.

All expense claims are available online
In a response, the university says that the time period studied ended in 2015, and that especially in the last two years, things have changed and transparency has improved. Starting in 2017, for instance, all expense claims made by members of the Executive Board are available online. Rules have been made stricter – for example, hotel costs higher than 150 euros a night have to be accompanied by a thorough explanation, and travelling business class requires approval in advance from the chairman of the Supervisory Board.

The university acknowledges that in the 2013-2015 period, some expense claims were ‘insufficiently sober and careful’. Some things were set right immediately (such as the costs for phone calls in the official cars) and in response to the observations, some costs were repaid (approximately 200 euros in dinner costs).

The university says it’s defendable that a board member who lives far away from the university, travels to work by taxi once or twice a month if a service car with chauffeur was unavailable. This was preferable to driving his own lease car. Emmo Meijer, chairman of the Supervisory Board, says this was his responsibility. “If a board member has to work until late at night, sometimes in combination with dinner or drinks, it’s irresponsible to let him drive himself. At those hours, there’s usually no public transport available either. So I said that in those cases, he could take a taxi. The lease contract for his own car was bad luck; it already existed and we waited until the time was right to cancel it.” The contract was cancelled at the end of 2016.

An atmosphere where we trust one another
Meijer says the study was done well. It led to a more nuanced wording in several rules and agreements. “But I am surprised that the order was given by the minister to research the spending at Utrecht University exclusively.”

He laments the fact that the research is focused on the past, because steps have already been taken towards more transparency. He also defends the late approval of the Executive Board’s intercontinental flights. “You have to be able to trust the board of a large university like the UU. In an atmosphere where we trust one another, it’s unnecessary to have everything pre-approved. But we also have to note that in some cases, the actions don’t speak of sufficient soberness and carefulness. We regret that. In response to this report, we’ve adjusted the rules, so in case of high hotel cost and flying business class, this approval will be taken care of beforehand.”