Utrecht University needs to spend more money

The budget shows how the university plans to spend its money in the upcoming year. Considering the financing of standing charges and current affairs, the total sum amounts to zero. This year, the university is making use of its reserves, spending quite a lot on education and research. The university’s savings have increased in the past few years by financial windfall, such as an additional contribution from the Ministry of Education, but also by not spending money that should’ve been spent.

Annetje Ottow, the board member in charge of guarding the university’s finances, says it’s necessary to reduce the university’s reserves. She fears that if the university doesn’t do so, The Hague will cut its financing. The money in the bank of the university has been topic of political discussions in The Hague for a number of years. The feeling there is that universities are hoarding their cash. Ottow doesn’t want to encourage that idea, and she wants to ensure that all money reserved for education and research will in fact be spent. “In practice, this turns out to be quite tricky,” Ottow says. As an example, she mentions how hard it can be to find someone suitable for a vacancy. Furthermore, the university’s had its share of poorer years, in which everyone was being urged to be thrifty with finances.

More money to wellbeing and internationalisation
In 2020, then, the university is supposed to spend 26.5 million euros more than it earns that year. The budget already includes an extra 8 million euros of income. In previous years, the UU had received that amount from the ministry of Education. Now, part of that money will be spent in advance. In case the extra funding from the ministry isn’t quite as much as foreseen, there’ll still be enough money in the bank to soften that blow, or adjust planned expenditures, Ottow says.

Important themes the board wants to spend part of that 8 million euros on, include student wellbeing (0.2 million), internationalisation (2.1 million), and the new alliance with Eindhoven, Wageningen, and the UMC Utrecht (1.5 million). In total, these projects will receive 3.8 million euros next year. For another 1.2 million euros, no expense has been thought of yet. The student members of the council want to know whether the reserved amounts for internationalisation and student wellbeing are in fact high enough to realise the university’s ambitions in these areas. The board emphasises that this is additional funding, and that these amounts are added to the budget already reserved for these themes.

Alliance with UMCU, Eindhoven, and Wageningen
Next year, 1.5 million euros will be spent on the new alliance Utrecht University has started with the UMC Utrecht, Eindhoven University of Technology, and Wageningen University. The partners are all investing the same amount. In four years’ time, these investments will amount to 6 million euros for the UU alone. With the money, the alliance will finance new research that crosses the borders of the institutions, and create new educational opportunities.

The University Council did have some additional questions about this collaboration, because specific plans won’t be announced until March 2020. Rector Henk Kummeling understands the council’s hesitation. “We have high expectations of this collaboration, and have faith in its success.” The UU has successfully collaborated with not only the UMCU, but also with Eindhoven and Wageningen. “This gives the project a strong foundation.” The university board says the institutions are complementary and they can strengthen each other. In terms of education, UU students will be able to take a technological course in Eindhoven, and students who wish to learn more about black holes, can come to Utrecht. “Because that’s something we’re really good at,” says rector Kummeling.

In February or March of next year, the university board promises, more specific plans will be announced. Both in terms of the studies the alliance will conduct and in measures regarding wellbeing, workloads, and internationalisation.

The university council is happy that financially, the university is making the best possible use of its opportunities. With the exception of Humanities (in Dutch) and Veterinary Medicine (in Dutch), all faculties are financially healthy, although a number of faculties have shown in the past few years that they’re not that good at spending money, according to council member Wim de Smidt. How will the Executive Board make them spend money? The board indicates they’ll keep a close eye on this.

Before the budget is put to a vote, the University Council would like to receive a promise from the Executive Board to “take a stand, with the council, against The Hague,” De Smidt says. Student-member Nienke Prins asks the board whether the three are willing to sign an incendiary letter written by the council, to be sent to parliament.

The executive board doesn’t fully say yes. President Anton Pijpers: “The minister has said herself that she wants to reserve an additional billion euros for higher education.” Kummeling: “It’s become very clear that the situation’s dire.” Furthermore, later this week, the university board has a meeting with other universities about the minister’s Strategic Agenda. They wish to await the results of that meeting as well. If a letter sent to parliament will help the lobby, they do want to consider signing it.

With a promise to come back to this topic, the University Council approves the budget. With this action, the council has ignored a call from WOinAction, numerous unions, and student union LSBv. They had asked university councils not to approve their budgets. The UU University Council, however, felt this was taking things too far, as a countervote would frustrate the work of the university. Two members, however, do wish to make a declaration of vote. Annemieke Hoogenboom, also on behalf of Toine Minnaert and with approval of Annelien de Dijn, who’d had to leave before the vote, reads a declaration which states the three approve the budget, under a condition.

“The condition is that the Board take concrete steps to reach a deal for a better, more realistic funding model for scientific education. That deal would have to be done in late 2020, with the approval of the Ministry of Education, the VSNU, the unions, and the LSVb. The call from WOinAction and others includes the plan to reject the 2021 budget if that deal is not made.” She also says the declaration should not be seen as a sign of distrust regarding the board, but as ammo in the negotiations that are to lead to a funding model that justifies the quality of education and research.