OPINION08 May 2019
We need to change how we run the VU
While we demand The Hague for proper funding and a more principled way to distribute them, we also need the courage to change the way we run our universities internally, say Paola Gori Georgi and Frans van der Woerd.
The new financial allocation model of the VU (Vusam) that is currently discussed is a great chance to change the way we run our university. Yes, universities need additional resources to solve our problems, and we desperately need a restoration of sense of purpose for our institutions. But external and internal change must go together: while we demand The Hague for proper funding and a more principled way to distribute them, we also need the courage to change the way we run our universities internally.
The deep problem that plagues our universities is the dogmatic application of market-based management. It causes the financial pressure to be felt mainly by the core workers. This is paralleled by an exploding amount of bureaucracy and control staff dedicated to manage and create even more bureaucracy, draining away the already scarce resources. Lecturers must be made aware of how much money brings each single EC, each hour of lecture, or each student who completes a diploma or PhD (with plenty of forms to fill and check). The result is deep distress.
The new Vusam gives us the opportunity to start from principles like proper funding for all disciplines and the removal of all perverse incentives
Our work loses any sense of purpose, as everything is reduced to few financial “output” parameters decorated with arbitrary and empty “quality indicators” that change whimsically, again and again. The academic staff knows that if their department or faculty does not produce enough “revenue” they will be reorganized; they are implicitly or explicitly asked to maximize “profit” inside their own institution, competing with their colleagues and with other departments and other faculties. The results are perverse incentives and a sense of moral defeat.
The new Vusam gives us the opportunity to start from principles like proper funding for all disciplines and the removal of all perverse incentives (see the website of #woinactie for a complete list), not from spreadsheet-ready formulas. This opportunity will be completely missed if we adopt yet another output driven model, with the usual perverse incentives. Regrettably, this is exactly what is on the table. In fact, it is proposed (again) to divide 90 percent of funding according to the output results of the last two years. Once again, education is looked at from a purely profit perspective: programs with 100+ students make money, programs with fewer students lose money. We find nothing in the new model about who we are and what we want to be, nothing about input or vision.
On top of that, the VU is introducing a full cost model (KDM), which in this historical moment is a nonsensical step backwards: a new army of spreadsheets and people who will have to monitor money going back and forth between the central VU, the faculties and the departments. Politicians already criticize universities for reducing the real support staff while increasing “control” staff; this doesn’t make it any better.
The usual defense of models like the current Vusam is: “But faculties can then divide the money in a different way.” But then faculties divide the money between departments essentially in the same way and we hear: “But departments are free to divide the money in a different way.” In fact, already the government says: “Universities can divide the money in a different way.” So why don’t we do it at the highest possible level? Shifting the responsibility to lower and lower levels, as we have been doing for years results in distress for the academic staff, more bureaucracy, and moral corruption, all in a perverse spiral.
What can the VU learn from this example? Input oriented and more stable allocation models are possible.
The present market-based Vusam threatens programs with less than 100 students. Its continuation will further shrink smaller programs, threatening in particular (but not only) the faculties of Humanities (‘Geesteswetenschappen’’) and Social Sciences. Do we want that? And can we prevent that? Yes, there are alternatives.
The Technical University in Delft (TU Delft) took a bold step: since 2016, faculties get a 70 percent basic allowance based on historic funding. Only the remaining 30 percent is output oriented. The aim is to prevent annual shocks in funding, enabling faculties to focus on long term strategies. The TU Delft work council (‘ondernemingsraad’’) is happy with the results, and favours continuation. What can the VU learn from this example? Input oriented and more stable allocation models are possible. They can take several forms. That’s why we want to do a few suggestions for the new Vusam.
First, in the period 2020- 2025, faculties get a core funding based on 50 percent of average Vusam-funding in 2017-2019. Because annual shocks become smaller, faculties can develop their educational and research portfolios in a proper manner.
Second, each bachelor and master program gets a basic allowance for five years. The remaining money is divided via current Vusam criteria. Basic funding guarantees a broad education portfolio at VU.
Third, present output parameters EC and degrees are replaced by the input criterion ‘active students’, i.e. the number of students who gather ECs in a certain year. This limits the perverse incentive to maximise ECs and degrees.
The University Board must take alternatives seriously, and compare them with the business-as-usual scenario. The new Vusam cannot just be more of the same. The VU Strategic Plan 2020-2025 (‘Instellingsplan’), now in preparation, demands clear messages about future strategies. Does the VU aim at maximum growth? Or does the VU aim to be a broad, content-oriented university? Choices on the essence of the VU as an educational institution and on Vusam are deeply intertwined.
Paola Gori Giorgi is professor of theoretical and mathematical chemistry and the initiator of #WOinActie @VU, Frans van der Woerd is former OR member and present advisor of the OR in financial matters.