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Van Rijn committee: more funding for technical sciences

Universities and universities of applied sciences quickly need to become less dependent on student enrollment numbers for their financing, the Van Rijn committee recommends. It also proposes to spend a larger part of the budget on technical sciences. This year already, a sum of 70 million euros needs to be redistributed among the universities. The four technical universities will benefit most from this.

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Dutch higher education and research is of high quality, but that will soon become unsustainable, according to the advice that the advisory committee led by former state secretary Martin van Rijn presented this morning. Students and teachers experience more and more pressure, there is no balance between education and research, and student-based funding is a ‘perverse mechanism’ that threatens to become a race to the bottom.

The current system is not transparent enough (‘we are driving in fog’) and encourages institutions to attract as many students as possible, for instance by starting new, English-taught programs. This leads to capacity problems and intake limits, even for technical science programs. In addition, education will supplant research, the Van Rijn committee warns, because research funding does not keep pace with the increase of student numbers.

The committee therefore wants to put a stop to the perverse incentive for growth in student numbers, and it wants to do it soon: already in 2020, the fixed education budget needs to increase, and the variable, student-based funding needs to be decreased. The committee proposes to redistribute 300 million euros in university education and 250 million in higher vocational education.

For the long term, the committee believes it is important that student influx and funding for programs become more dependent on labor market needs.

Technical sciences

The committee’s advice to allocate most of this redistributed budget, 250 million, to universities with technical science programs is controversial. The condition does apply that these universities work to improve their collaboration and their study success rates.

The remaining 50 million euros are meant for universities with a relatively high number of students who have switched from other institutions (so-called ‘external switchers’), such as Delft University and the two universities of Amsterdam. The committee believes extra funding for pre-Master’s students who want to follow a master’s program at a research university is not necessary.

The result of all this, is that a total sum of 70 million euros will be redistributed among the universities this year. The four technical universities will benefit most, and the three young universities (Maastricht, Tilburg and Rotterdam) and the Open University least. The report does not make clear which disciplines will suffer most from the budget redistributions.

The technical science programs of universities of applied sciences will not receive extra funding. The full amount of redistributed funding will go to universities of applied sciences with a relatively high number of external switchers, such as Inholland, The Hague University of Applied Sciences, and NHL Stenden. This way, a total sum of 21.4 million euros will be redistributed in 2019.

Research funding

The competition for research funding has also gone too far, the committee believes. Researchers have become increasingly dependent on temporary funds from the second and third flow, and this has a disruptive effect because they repeatedly have to apply for new grants. In addition, external financers often demand that universities supplement the costs with money or capacity (‘matching’), which is taken from the basic financing (first flow of funds). Van Rijn advises the Dutch Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) to transfer 100 million euros to the universities, under the condition that they work to improve their mutual collaboration.

Funding for practice-based research in higher vocational education also has to come out of the first flow of funds. The number of awarded degrees should be a determining factor for the distribution of the budget. Master’s degrees count as two, because of the importance of research in a higher vocational education Master’s program.

Soft landing

Without extra funding, the short-term measures will only lead to a redistribution of already existing money, the Van Rijn committee realizes. It expects that the institutions that stand to lose funding have enough reserves to be able to take the blow. That money should not be left unused. In addition, the proposed transfer from the second to the first flow of funds could ease the pain somewhat, and so could the use of the income from the student loan system.

Minister of Education Ingrid van Engelshoven is impressed with the report, she said during the presentation. She realizes that when the education budget remains the same, some institutions will receive more financial support at the expense of others. “I will do my best to ensure a soft landing. I am very confident that the Spring Memorandum will address this issue.”

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