TU/e does not get its hopes up yet after Van Rijn

The news that the Van Rijn committee advices to allocate more funding to technical sciences initially met with euphoria at our university. The total sum involved is seventy million euros. That euphoria has given way to a more cautious stance, the new president of the Executive Board Robert-Jan Smits said yesterday during the University Council meeting: “We are very busy calculating the exact effects of the Van Rijn committee’s plans for our university.”

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The Van Rijn committee wants to redistribute the budget for universities, which should lead to more money for technical sciences. The total sum involved is seventy million euros. TU/e and the other three technical universities would benefit financially by an average of 6.6 percent. The other universities will lose funding, in particular the young universities of Maastricht, Rotterdam and Tilburg, and the Open University, who stand to lose the most.

Still, it’s not exactly clear how much extra money TU/e will receive, vice-president Nicole Ummelen clarified during yesterday afternoon’s University Council meeting: “We await the minister’s decision, see what the effect will be. Other universities are busy doing calculations as well; it is a very sensitive subject, for obvious reasons. We have committed ourselves to the societal demand for more engineers. The question is: what budget will we have and what will it allow us to do? There will be more clarity by the end of June.”

The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) hopes, as do the universities, that education minister Ingrid van Engelshoven will find extra money for technical sciences, so that the redistribution will not be at the expense of other academic disciplines. KNAW president Wim van Saarloos warns that the committee’s advice will inevitably lead to new cuts and reorganizations in the non- technical science domains - humanities, social and medical sciences - at the universities that are affected most.

Balancing act

But the impact on the older, broad-based general universities with a technical science department that will ‘only’ lose one and a half percent of seventy million euros will be “significantly greater” than appears at first sight, the KNAW believes. Because the Van Rijn committee also wants the universities to strengthen the education capacity of their technical science departments, or not to reduce it at the least. In other words: the non-technical science departments at these universities are expected to give up more than one and a half percent.

This would be harmful for the internal collaboration, KNAW president Wim van Saarloos says. It would require a balancing act from the deans of technical sciences departments: do they remain loyal to their colleagues at other departments, or to Van Rijn’s objectives of increasing the capacity of technical sciences?

Bag of money

Still, it remains to be seen whether universities will cooperate in such a redistribution. They receive an annual bag of money that they can spend as they see fit, within certain boundaries. Universities have the possibility of rectifying the imbalance in case one department receives more money than another, as long as the participation council approves. They do so, for instance, by diverting money from ‘inexpensive’ programs such as law and business studies, to expensive ones.

The four technical universities have less room for manoeuvre in this area. That is why they were the first to demand more funding from the cabinet, and backed up their arguments by introducing intake limits.

Former education minister Jet Bussemaker (social-democratic PvdA) was less susceptible to this lobby than current minister Van Engelshoven of the liberal-democratic party D66. The Rutte III coalition agreement stated that the cabinet intended to revise the funding system for higher education, “with specific attention to technical sciences.”

But is very unlikely that this can be realized at broad-based general universities without harming the principles of lump-sum funding.

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