The Court of Audits conducted an extensive investigation (links to Dutch content) into the so-called estimation models used by the various ministries. These models are used to determine how much money is needed.
Five cases are discussed, including the funding of universities by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (Dutch acronym OCW). This example in particular shows that the assumptions used by the ministries are ‘not always up to date’, according to the Court of Audits. This is why: the total universities’ budget is based on a part for education (2.5 billion euros) and a part for research (2.2 billion euros). The education share is adjusted annually in accordance with the number of students, but the research budget stays fixed.
The distribution of this money was determined in the eighties and was based, in part, on time invested by scientific staff at that time. In the case of universities: what part of the total working hours were spent on education, and what portion on research. The problem is that the most recent study on the way time was spent dates from 1984 and has never been updated since.
If the data on which an estimation model is based is not updated, there is the risk that the budget becomes increasingly imbalanced with every passing year, the Court of Audits writes. ‘Thus, a large sum of money may suddenly be required to rectify the situation, or ambitions must be adjusted. This could negatively impact those involved; students and teaching staff in this case.’
In a separate appendix, entitled ‘First aid for estimates’, the Court of Audits discusses the OCW budget problems in depth. Here, a recent report by consulting agency PwC is cited, which states the ministry provides too little funding for the universities.
The OCW staff appears as yet unfazed, discussions conducted by the Court of Audits show. ‘The financial position of universities was healthy, and the Netherlands scored well in scientific research. Apparently, the universities managed to get by on the provided budget.’ But, a situation such as this can have high ‘hidden costs’, the report cautions. For example, refraining from much-needed investments or depending on unpaid overtime by the teaching staff.
‘Oh yes, it is – Oh no, it isn’t’
The outdated data from the eighties is not the only issue. ‘If all goes as planned, the estimate includes all costs, including this, followed by the ministry making an informed decision on the degree to which it wishes to cover these costs with a contribution.’ According to the Court of Audits, the minister does not have a political opinion on the degree to which she should fund university education and research.’
The universities see this as confirmation. They want an annual budget increase of one billion euros. ‘So, we have now moved beyond the “oh yes, it is – oh no, it isn’t” discussion’, says Pieter Duisenberg, chair of the Dutch universities’ association VSNU. ‘The facts are clear. We have the signals from our staff and a great number of reports. It is now up to the politicians to make a choice.’