08 mei 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.

Paola Gori Giorgi and Frans van der Woerd

{ Lees de 5  reacties }

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Door Marieke Buil op 09 mei 2019

Very interesting opinion piece. Good for thought.

Door Marieke Buil op 09 mei 2019

*Food. Grr autocorrect.

Door Bert van der Spek op 13 juni 2019

I completely endorse your point of view and I wish you a lot of success, but I fear nothing will change. Many many people have already protested against this perverse system during the last decades. Conferences have been organised by Chris Lorenz (who wrote books on the issue, already in 1993: Van het Universitaire Front Geen Nieuws; 2008 the edited volume: "If you are so Smart, Why aren't you rich?) and Ad Verbrugge (who founded a society to combat the system: BON, Beter Onderwijs Nederland). See also Maartje ter Horst in De Volkskrant 2 Nov. 2013. If you try to explain the system to an ordinary citizen and tells that giving good marks to students will be rewarded with funding, a Homeric laughter will be the reaction. Everybody, really everybody knows that the system leads to fraud (and it did), except ministers of education and managers of universities. I have witten various articles myself in AdValvas (18 Sep 2008; 15 Oct 2009; 17 Dec 2009; 14 Oct. 2010; 11 June 2014); also in Trouw (1 febr 2002, p. 8 and 20 June 2011) and De Volkskrant 11 Nov 2006. I once wrote a proposal for another system and presented it to the ministry of education (without reaction of course); it is available on my academia.edu webpage under 'columns' (where you can also consult all my other columns on the issue) {https://www.academia.edu/10055723/Onderwijsbeleid_in_Nederland_is_geric… }

A "Nacht van de Universiteit" was organized on 6-7 June 2014 in Amsterdam to discuss the state of the universities. The president of the VSNU, Karl Dittrich, present there, declared that he was not aware of the problems (which means that he had lost all contact with the daily practice at the universities). When I once discussed the matter with the rector of Leiden University, Carel Stolker, he bluntly said that nothing would change ever. So we seem to have to live with this. The reason is: the present system is simple, looks fair, it works automatically, nobody needs to think and it wonderfully fits in the dominant ideology of our times, neo-liberalism.

Door Paola Gori Giorgi op 13 juni 2019

I admire people like you, who stood firm and tried to fight this system since the beginning, when it was framed as the "new" and "efficient" way to do things (with many people believing or pretending to believe that), and it was not popular to speak against it. I came to the VU in 2010 (I was in France before) and I had a shock when I was confronted with this funding system of higher education. At the time it seemed impossible to resist in any way, and I was really pessimistic .
But in recent times I see small signs that things might change. Even the committee van Rijn declared officially that the present funding of higher education has perverse incentives, which means that university boards will have now a hard time saying there is no problem.
The first step is always to change what is "common sense". This is why continuing to write articles and talking to people about it I believe it is of fundamental importance, so please do not stop doing that!
Hopefully the work council (OR) will vote against this VUSAM and at least we, as VU, will try to come up with something more reasonable. It will be a very first small step.
Neo-liberalism is showing all its weaknesses (and absurdities) and failed the vast majority of people. I meet less and less people who really try to defend it. Again, slowly we must change the "common sense", which can happen only if we continue to speak up, pointing again and again the contradictions, the problems, the perversities and the absurdities of the present system.

Door Paola Gori Giorgi op 13 juni 2019

By error I put my answer to this in a separate comment, see below (or above depending where it will be placed).


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