Three University Council members vote against budget out of protest

The university has to try to keep as few reserves as possible in 2021. Photo: DUB

Utrecht University’s budget doesn’t look all that exciting for the upcoming year. The university has its finances in order -- not even the corona crisis changed that. However, the government’s idea that universities have too much money has been debunked as all faculties will have to reduce their reserves in 2021. Next year, the UU plans to spend 28.9 million euro more than it will receive.

This may sound like an easy task, but the past shows that isn’t really. In 2019, the UU planned to spend 30 million euro more than it received, but failed as a result of numerous windfalls: the budget ended up at a very neat zero. This year, too, money is supposed to keep flowing – the plan is to have spent 26.5 million more by December 31 than was received in 2020. Whether the university will actually manage to do it, remains uncertain.

The data up to the third quarter of the year shows that at least 14 million euros will have to be spent in this final quarter. There’s hope that the university will succeed, because there are 187 new full-time jobs (FTE) employees, of which 104 are scientific staff.

The staff had to grow because, in September, there was a 9.5 percent increase in students starting at the UU. That means the UU’s income increased by 5.5 million euros. The university can’t be entirely certain that it will receive that entire sum: it might be lower if students drop out before February 1 and part of their tuition fee is refunded.

Some pluses and minuses
The budget was created in the light of the long-term budget that was presented before the summer. The so-called framework letter 2021-2023 states the financial developments and announces the estimated income and expenditures.

This spring, as mentioned, the university had not yet counted on the enormous increase in first-year students to 3,259. The additional income is now included in the budget for 2021. Another beneficial financial aspect for 2021 is that the number of PhD candidates has increased. That means the university will receive a larger share of the governmental budget that’s meant for PhD tracks. Additionally, the UU will receive 1.6 million euro from the national government to partially cover the costs of delays in research as a result of the corona crisis. This money will be moved to the fund the university established for this goal.

There’s also a financial demerit: the university will receive 2 million euro less from the government, 656 million instead of 658 million euros. Why? Because Utrecht University’s share, compared to other universities, has dropped. It’s not just Utrecht that’s welcomed more students this year: other universities also got more popular. The total budget the government divides among the universities, however, has not increased.

Financial consequences
For 2021, the university hasn’t reserved budget to pay possible costs it has to incur because of the corona crisis. This calendar year shows that, up to the third quarter, corona costs amount to around 11 million euro. The Facilities Service Centre, for instance, needed 4 million euro to make the buildings corona-proof. The UU also put 2.7 million euro in a separate fund for delayed research, and the one-time remote working fee of 300 euros per employee cost a total of 2.1 million euros. That money comes from the so-called conditions of employment fund, which collects part of the salaries to do ‘things’ for all employees. The increase of travel reimbursement pay was also covered with this fund. The 11 million for corona, however, was paid from ‘regular’ means. The university expects the same will be possible next year.

New teachers and student assistants
Because the budget looks stable, there was barely any discussion about it during the meeting between the University Council and the Executive Board on December 7. The council was mainly worried about the faculties’ expenditures. Are they spending enough to ensure their reserves are reduced? Why are they seemingly having so much trouble recruiting new teachers to keep the quality of research and education?

The Executive Board explained that, because of previous setbacks and fluctuating student numbers, faculties are cautious to spend money. In practice, the number of teachers required fluctuates each year. “Faculties have a lot of built-in safety valves,” said rector Henk Kummeling. He stressed that he’s talking with the faculties to take away their fears. “We’ve said that it’s okay if their budget is in the red, as long as it doesn’t mean reorganisation becomes necessary.”

The university board is also offering a helping hand to faculties to battle high workloads and safeguard educational quality, by hiring more student assistants. “It turns out that it’s not always clear at all departments of the university what student assistants can help with. Legal Affairs is making a list of all the jobs student assistants can do.”

The Hague needs to give universities more money
Although it seemed as though there was not a worry in sight, the University Council didn’t approve of the budget entirely. The three UUinActie members were unable to approve it, justifying that it doesn’t include enough means to lower teachers’ structurally high workloads. That isn’t the university’s fault, they say. “We understand that this happens because of insufficient funding from The Hague. We’d like to see the Executive Board commit more strongly to obtaining sufficient funding for its core business.”

The other nineteen members present did approve of the budget, but they, too, included a statement. “We don’t see any substantial reasons to reject the budget, but we do agree with UUinActie’s cry that the means we’ve got are insufficient. This is a national problem. The government’s funding isn’t enough to safeguard the quality of our education and the wellbeing of our students and employees. We support to call to the Ministry of Education to make more funding available, and would like to further discuss specific actions that can be taken to realise this.”

The university’s President wants to join forces with all parties and universities to achieve this change. “The minister already said a billion more euro are needed, and we’d like to receive them. It’s important to let our voice be heard in the elections, and following those, in the formation of the parliament.”