What is this mess about the Van Rijn commission?

Disclaimer: the following post is going to be a rather dry one about some recent controversies concerning the funding of the higher education system in The Netherlands. Moreover, it is probably going to be incomplete and not fully accurate, both since the discussion is quite complex and also since my understanding of the overall situation (as well as my Dutch skills) is still somewhat limited. In any case, this ongoing argument is something that most likely will directly shape the near and long term future of the Dutch universities and research institutions, so it is definitely worth trying to understand a bit what is going on.

Let me start with a quick overview of the Dutch higher education system, summarised by the numbers below. The overall yearly budget of the national universities is around EUR6.8G, with most of it (EUR3.8G) coming from directly from the government (the so-called Rijksbijdragen), followed by European (think of ERC for example) and private funding (EUR1.9G) and then in smaller proportion by the NWO, the Dutch Organisation for Scientific Research, and by the student tuition fees (collegegeld). With these means, in 2016 more than 260K students were being educated in one of the Dutch higher education programs by around 25000 academics (where here the tally includes also PhD students and junior teachers). Interestingly, following a similar trend as in other countries, the number of support, management, and policy personnel is now comparable to that of the actual academics.

A snapshot of the Dutch higher education system, including its various source of funding. Credit: VSNU.

All this mess about the infamous Van Rijn commission and recommendations has to do with the way the Dutch higher education system is being financed by the government, and a number of proposed changes in this model. As with most other European countries (England excluded of course), also in the Netherlands higher education is reasonably affordable, being heavily subsidised by the state. As show in the map below, The Netherlands falls into the middle category of European countries, with the average yearly tuition rates for EU students being around EUR2K. This of course does not mean that higher education is cheaper here than say in the UK, but rather that a bigger chunk of the cost is financed indirectly via the taxpayers as compared to the upfront costs paid by the students (in terms of the tuition fees).

Credit: Reddit

A very remarkable feature of the lowlands is that, despite being a relatively small country, The Netherlands has an outstanding university system, both in terms of education and of research. For example, according to the THE World University Rankings (insert here all required caveats/rants about rankings before moving on), The Netherlands has 13 universities in the top 500, to be compared with the 21 of France and the 8 of Spain, countries with a significantly larger population. One can also take a look at many other estimators, such as number of scientific papers and their impact, the number of grants from the European Research Council secured by PIs hosted by Dutch institutions, patents, and one could go on for a long time. All these complementary measures tell a consistent story: the Dutch higher education system appears to be in outstanding shape and world-leading science is being carried out at its universities and research institutes.

Number of top universities by country according to the THE 2019 rankings. Credit: jakubmarian.com.

Or it this not the case? Actually, there are number of signals that suggest that the situation is far less rosy, and that the position of the Dutch higher education system might be under strong pressure. One reason for this has to do with the way Dutch universities receive their funding for education from the government, the so-called first money stream. In the current system, this source of income depends heavily on the number of students that enrol in a given education program (say a bachelor or a master program) in any given year. This choice of financing model leads to several challenges. First of all, faculties and departments are faced with a significant uncertainty concerning their funding even on a year by year basis: if the number of students decreases in some programs suddenly then might find themselves in red numbers, while if the opposite situation happens they might turn out to be understaffed and have to quickly hire new instructors and teachers, or even have to look for new lecture rooms. The bottom line is that in such situation long term and strategic planning is clearly difficult due to these potentially sudden variations of income. This often leads to an increase in the relative fraction of scientific personnel in temporary contracts, which allows universities to adjust more easily to changes in supply and demand in the education market. Whether this increase in temporary positions as opposed to permanent staff is desirable is a topic for another discussion, but it seems to be that it is a natural consequence of the current financing model.

Another problem associated to this funding model of Dutch higher education system is that it creates incentives to dump programs with low influx of students and focus on those with high influx. This has lead to the termination of programs with an insufficient number of students, such as the recent example bachelor program in Dutch language at the VU Amsterdam, which created a certain outrage in the media (but again, there is limited wiggle room to tackle this kind of problems within the current funding model). There are also concerns that this system creates perverse incentives to emphasise quantity instead of quality, and boost as much as possible the number of students at any cost. While it is of course important to take into account the preferences of the students (at the end of the dat, it is their own lives which will be affected by such choices) it might seem to be unwise that these choices completely determine which programs are on offer. One can always make strong cases for higher education programs that might be less attractive but are equally important for the society in the long term, and that deserved to be sustained rather than cancelled at the earliest opportunity.

As far as I understand, at some point the current government realised that the job market required many more graduates with hard natural sciences and engineering degrees that the universities were producing. Moreover, the recent increase in the number of students in these disciplines had lead to a structural underfunding of these programs, specially for the technical universities such as TU Delftt and TU Eindhoven. With this motivation, the Dutch government wanted to increase the funding of the hard natural sciences (which for some obscure reason are known as the Beta-disciplines in Dutch) as well as the engineering degrees. So they installed the so-called Van Rijn commission with the task of finding a way to improve the funding of the beta and technical programs, and here comes the catch, in a budget neutral way. While the devil is in the details, one does not need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that this can only happen if part of the funding which is currently allocated to the social sciences and the humanities, and the medical disciplines (again in the Dutch jargon known as the alpha and gamma disciplines respective) to the exact sciences and the engineering programs. And indeed this is one of the main recommendations of the Van Rijn commission, which has been in most part assumed by the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science (OCW). While there are many positive aspects of Van Rijn, such us proposing a more stable model less depending on student influx and reducing the competition for research funding in favour of an increase in structural resources, this redistribution both between universities and between disciplines is my far the most controversial measure.

And while there is a war going on about the numbers (where the government claims that the universities are going to receive actually more money as compared to the current situation and with everyone else claiming the contrary) some projections are extremely disturbing: if implemented, the recommendations of the Van Rijn commission could lead in the next few years to a “redistribution” of teaching and scientific personnel from the alpha/gamma/medical disciplines to the beta/technical ones of rather staggering size: up to 2000 FTE (full time equivalent), which for a country as the Netherlands would be rather devastating. Of course here redistribution is just the jargon that human resources people like to use to soften the blow, but in plain language this simply means that these 2000 FTE will either be fired or their temporary contracts will not be renewed, in order to hire their counterparts in the beta/technical programs. Fun fact: in the Dutch higher education system there is no such thing as being tenure, and even full professors or other scientific staff with permanent contract can be fired if the university management deems it necessary.

In the table below, one can find a summary of the assessment by the Dutch Association of Universities (VSNU) about the impact of the the implementation of the measures of the Van Rijn commission would have on their short-term financing. While general universities would loose up EUR10K each in terms of structural funds, the technical universities, in particular TU Delft, would strongly benefit from the redistribution. See here for a more extensive discussion of the financial consequences of the implementation of the recommendations of the Van Rijn commission. The universities of Groningen, Maastricht, and Rotterdam would be the ones most severely affected by these cuts.

The Dutch Association of Universities (VSNU) has assessed the impact of the the implementation of the measures of the Van Rijn commission would have on their short-term financing. While general universities could loose up EUR10K in structural funds, the technical universities, in particular TU Delft.

If, as it seems to be the case, the government is going to move forward implementing the recommendations from the Van Rijn commission, the general universities will face an almost unsolvable dilemma: or they decides to avoid any redistribution between faculties, making even more severe the under-financing problem of the scientific disciplines, or they redistribute funding and personnel from alpha, gamma, and medical programs to the Beta ones, dealing a very serious blow on otherwise very succesful education programs and compromising their long-term viability. My own university, the VU Amsterdam, has already announced that they will not implement any redistribution in 2020, but at some point in the future some kind of action will need to be taken, an “impossible balancing act” to implement: current estimates imply that due to Van Rijn by 2022 around 120 FTE will need to be “redistributed” from the beta, gamma, and medical disciplines to the beta ones within the VU, where again redistribution means either not renewing the contracts of temporary staff or of directly terminating the contracts of permanent scientific personnel.

Forcing universities and faculties to battle among themselves (“Divide and conquer”, as the rector of the VUA Vinod Subramanian says) for funding is a terrible idea. Education has been repeatedly demonstrated to deliver the best guaranteed return on investment, so why imposing these unnecessary cuts?

Perhaps the most mind-blowing aspect of this situation is that The Netherlands is not a poor country with a struggling economy which simply does not afford to invest in higher education. On the contrary, it is a rich country with a booming economy. Indeed, in 2018 the overall budget surplus was of 11 billion euros, that is, around three times the total government contribution to the whole higher education system (see figures above). So there does not seem to be any reasonable financial or budgetary reason to impose this dramatic austerity, other than the deliberate political will of reducing the size of the alpha and gamma sectors in higher education. I might be very well be missing something important here (Dutch politics are almost incomprehensible for the outsider, with a multitude of small parties and a complicated “polder” model for negotiating among them), but it seems to be rather short-sighted in addition to unnecessary.

Perhaps a key aspect of the whole discussion that politicians might be missing is that investing on education in general, and higher education in particular, is quite different that say building a highway. There you can build one part, stop if you run out of money, and then finish when money comes back, easy peasy, and get the job done. But building a strong, competitive higher education ecosystem takes decades to consolidate but it can be destructed very easily, as the sad example of Spain shows, still reeling from the savage cuts that took place after the economic crisis in 2008. Or perhaps they realise that this is the case, and then everything is done on purpose? The Netherlands is already one of the most effective countries in Europe in terms of research productivity (ratio of output to investment) but further squeezing this lemon might end up cracking the system.

Following the financial crisis in 2008 and the subsequent austerity measures, the overall investment in I+D (including publicly funded research) fell in Spain by 10%, to be compared with the 30% increase average in the EU, and the 40% increases in Germany and the UK.

To me, as someone who has just recently joined the Dutch system, the whole discussion seems almost surreal: why a wealthy country would like to unnecessarily damage its highly competitive higher education and scientific ecosystem? In a very competitive world, with powerful emerging economies playing each time a more important role in the global stage, reducing the support for a crucial pillar of the future of a country and its economy such as higher education is really difficult to understand.

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