Rathenau: Universities sacrificing education for research

Universities are having to spend so much money on research that an ever decreasing amount remains for education, observes the Rathenau Institute. High time for a frank discussion about the financing of universities.

Increasingly, universities are undertaking research for NWO, Brussels, health funds and non-profit organizations. This is good, because it puts money in the bank. But not all of a university's costs are paid.


Only staff costs, for example, are reimbursed, and the university has to dig into its own funds for accommodation, equipment, and so on. In the jargon, this is called 'matching'.

Over the years, this matching has been swallowing up more and more of the universities' own funds, the Rathenau Institute reports today. For every additional euro that the universities receive, they pay 74 cents from their own capital.

This is the first time that the Rathenau has revealed this trend. “With the calculation method we are using, we may be out by a couple of percent,” says researcher Jos de Jonge, “but there are no better data. And the outcome comes as no surprise, we all know that there's a problem with the matching of research funding.”

In the chart below, you can see the consequences. The dotted line divides the government contribution to the universities in two parts: education and research. An ever growing portion of education funding is being spent on research – thanks in part to matching.


Student organization ISO is shocked by this finding, says chairperson Rhea van der Dong. “Money intended for education should not end up somewhere else. Matching is causing the universities to eat away at the education budget.”

The cabinet has promised to invest more in education. Even the basic grant has been abolished to make more money available for education. But at the universities it is virtually impossible to check whether that money is actually reaching its goal. “We need to take a fundamental look at the funding of higher education,” believes Van der Dong. “Just patching things up isn't going to help. The pot of money is too small, and that's damaging to education.”

The Rathenau Institute has added its voice to those calling for a thorough discussion of financing. At present the universities receive a single lump sum from the government, and it is up to them to decide how they spend it. Should this system be overhauled?

De Jonge is hesitant. “If, say, you separate the money for education and research, lecturers will have to keep track of their hours: which hours are they spending on research and which on teaching?” he says. “That is a radical step, one that shouldn't be underestimated.”

So what should happen? He doesn't want to say too much. “But we now think it normal that external financiers reimburse only a portion of the costs. Maybe that's what needs to change.”


This is the start of things; the problem is actually much bigger. De Jonge: “We didn't look at the effort put in my academics who apply for research funding. These costs are in addition to the matching.” For every academic who receives money from the research funding body NWO, there are six or seven who come away empty-handed. “For European grants, the likelihood of success is even lower.”

That education is being squeezed isn't due to the universities themselves, but to the system, believes De Jonge. “Academics receive little appreciation for the teaching they do. They have to publish as much as possible in the most prestigious journals, otherwise they are out on their ear. And everyone expects universities to listen to the requirements being voiced by government and industry.”

In any event, it would be nice if the data were better and the size of the problem were clarified. “We are currently basing our findings on a study by Ernst & Young from 2014, in which they looked at matching in 2012. We would like to have more recent data, but they aren't available. Nor are figures showing the extent of the matching pressure at the various departments.”

Likewise, ISO chairperson Van der Dong thinks that the universities must provide more information. “I don't need it nailed down to decimal places, but I'm also seeing things from the perspective of the participation council: how can they join in the discussion about how money is being spent if information like this is lacking?”

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