Student numbers are growing. The university gets extra funding to cover that, and increases the education budget of the chair groups every year. But those groups are taking on very few additional lecturers. So where is that education funding going to? Resource investigated.
text Albert Sikkema illustration Paul Gerlach
For the past year, the WUR Council, the main consultative body of Wageningen University & Research, has been discussing a tricky dossier with the Executive Board. Student numbers in Wageningen continue to grow at a rate of about five to ten percent per year, and more students means more teaching. This growth is financed by the Executive Board. If the number of students on a chair group’s courses goes up, that chair group gets extra funding. WUR’s education budget therefore increased from 30 million euros in 2006 to 53 million in 2016. This year the Board is dividing as much as 59 million in education funding between the chair groups.
And yet the chair groups grumble like mad about the growing teaching load and work pressure they experience. Student numbers are growing, but staff numbers are not, they complain. And they are right. In 2013, there were 3014 people working at the university, says the annual report. Three years later, staff numbers had gone down by 140, while 1500 more students came in during that period. Even if you only look at the number of teachers, you see that it did not keep pace either. In 2010, the university had 1teacher to every 12 students; in 2017 it had 1 teacher to 17 students.
So where did all the extra education funding go, if it is not being spent on additional teaching staff? Ivonne Rietjens, professor of Toxicology, knows exactly what she has spent the extra money on in recent years: Helix. The net accommodation costs of her group, which moved into the new building on campus in 2016, have risen from 174,000 euros in 2011 to 242,000 euros in 2017. That is a difference of 68,000 euros, which would have been enough for a full-time member of staff.
The accommodation costs just go on rising, notes Rietjens. This year her chair group is paying 375,000 euros for its space in Helix. The Board covers 100,000 euros of that, so her group has to pay 275,000 euros net. ‘Where does the Executive Board think we are going to get that money from every year?’ asks Rietjens. The university is giving her chair group extra education funding with one hand, and taking extra money for accommodation with the other.
This account is echoed by Rietjens’ colleague Sacco de Vries, professor at the Biochemistry chair group. He too says his group’s accommodation and overheads costs are going up every year. And staff are getting more expensive every year too. ‘So you can never appoint a lecturer without getting deeply into the red. That is why it is not usually permitted by the management of the Sciences Groups.’
It seems these are not the only chair groups from the Agrotechnology & Food Sciences Group that have had to spend their additional education funding on a new home on campus. And their bills have gone up in stages over the years to the current high price per square metre in Helix. Chair groups from other Sciences Groups have already experienced that kind of price hike. The housing costs for the plant scientists, for instance, rose sharply when they moved into Radix on campus in 2009, but they have stopped rising now. ‘Accommodation costs in Radix are not too bad,’ says Niels Anten, professor of Crop and Weed Ecology. ‘In other words: they are exorbitant, but haven’t gone up in the past couple of years, except when you have to rent some extra space because of the growth in student numbers.’
So the professors in the Plant Sciences Group give a different answer to the question of where the extra education funding has gone to. Some of that money has gone into rising ICT costs, says Entomology professor Marcel Dicke. ‘An account which cost 995 euros a year in 2014 costs 1219 euros this year: a rise of 23 percent!’ What is more, the chair groups with a lot of students writing theses face rising costs for materials. ‘We spend more on that per student than we get in education funding.’
Most of the chair groups point to more than one reason for the evaporation of the extra education funding. In Niels Anten’s group, for example, the basic costs of education go up every year, as do salary costs. In Rik Leemans’ Environmental Systems Analysis Group, the impact of soaring staff is even greater. Like some other groups, he has a lot of staff on tenure track. If they are successful, they get promoted and cost more.
Yet there are a few chair groups that have appointed additional staff. One of these is the Cell Biology and Immunology chair group. ‘We had a steady growth in education funding,’ explains Professor Geert Wiegertjes. ‘The course that has grown most is the first-year course in Cell Biology, which is now taken by 800 students. We have now appointed one member of staff exclusively for education, on a permanent contract for three days a week.’
The Wageningen director of education Arnold Bregt has investigated how the education funding is being spent, and can explain why some chair groups can invest in teaching staff while others cannot. He discovered that the workload varies a lot per degree programme. The staff-student ratio on Bachelor’s degree programmes averaged 1 to 11 last year, almost unchanged since 2010, but the ratio on Master’s degree programmes is 1 teacher to 20 students, with extreme cases of 25 or 30 students. So the problems are at the Master’s stage, Bregt concludes. Chair groups with popular, broad Bachelor’s courses get a lot of extra education funding and can often afford to appoint an extra lecturer. Chair groups with a lot of Master’s students, who have to supervise a lot of thesis research, get less funding and cannot appoint an extra lecturer.
There is yet another problem at the Master’s stage, according to Bregt’s analysis. Chair groups with a lot of students writing theses also need to be doing a lot of research: they need topics on which they can provide supervision for the students. Bregt knows of chair groups which do not have enough thesis topics for their MSc students, partly because they have cut back on research.
The education director has figures to back this up too. The number of ‘AIO’ research assistants at the university has gone down by 100 in the past three years. In 2013, WUR had 947 research assistants, and in 2016 it had 844. And it is these research assistants who suggest thesis topics and supervise Master’s students. The drop in their numbers is not immediately obvious because the total number of PhD researchers in Wageningen has remained about the same. The number of PhD candidates not appointed at the university has in fact gone up, but those external PhD candidates are rarely involved in teaching. Having fewer AIO assistants has therefore meant a drop in teaching capacity in many chair groups.
Less contract research
How did that drop in AIO assistant numbers come about? The university’s annual accounts offer an insight into this. Academic contract research shrank by 24 million euros between 2013 and 2016. Researchers have more and more difficulty in getting their research proposals accepted, partly because of the disappearance of certain important research funds and the technological top institutes. And those research assignments were usually carried out by AIO assistants.
Until five years ago, Wageningen research grew with Wageningen education, but then the university was presented with the bill for the ministry of Economic Affairs’ top sector policy, which was cutting half a billion euros from its knowledge development budget. That led directly to a drop in the number of AIO assistants at the university, says Bregt. In 2007, WUR had 490 such assistants, their numbers swelled to 747 in 2014, and subsequently dropped to 623 in 2017.
This fall in contract research has affected some chair groups more than others. Groups with a lot of contract research and a lot of Master’s students had a problem in the last few years. Groups with less contract research and far more first-year courses had an easier time of it, financially, and could appoint extra staff to focus exclusively on education. And you can see that from the figures. In 2008, the university had 51 lecturers on its books, and in 2017 the number had grown to 119. This increase has not kept up with the growing shortfall in teaching capacity, however.
Recent research by the Rathenau Institute exposed another way education funding has been used. Universities spend a lot of that money on ‘matching’ funding for research projects. The reason for this: research financiers such as the European Union, NWO and top sectors only partially fund the approved research projects and expect the universities to cover some of the costs themselves. This matching is costing universities more and more money, show the Rathenau Institute’s calculations: for each euro the universities attract in the form of contract research, they put in 74 cents from their own coffers.
Here lies the explanation for the decline in the university’s contract research which Bregt has noticed. The universities, including WUR, are acquiring fewer assignments but also get a smaller percentage of funding per research assignment they take on. In WUR’s case this led to a drop of 24 million euros’ worth of contract research over three years. The Rathenau report suggests that the universities are spending their extra education funding on research, that this causes the education problem, and that the government should earmark the extra funding for education to solve the problem. This reasoning is based, however, on the assumption that research incomes have remained stable. In reality, the groups have been receiving more education funding but less research funding. And they therefore spend less time on research. Bregt: ‘In many groups the emphasis used to lie on research and a few people taught the big courses. Increasingly, in busy periods, chair groups assign all their permanent staff to teaching. They are simply delivering education.’ In other words: the extra funding also goes to pay existing staff who are acquiring fewer research assignments and are teaching more.
What should be done? According to Bregt, the university can ‘turn two major taps off or on’ to take off the pressure on education. It could put a cap on student enrolment, or it could expand the staff of the chair groups. The Executive Board and the WUR Council are going for the second option: this year all chair groups are to receive an extra 25,000 euros. ‘That is stable funding with which they can employ a part-time teacher.’
The question is whether this is enough, though. Professor Sacco de Vries thinks not. He point out that a junior lecturer costs well over 50,000 euros per year, and that the chair group has to pay 34.8 percent overheads to the Science Group on top of that. ‘So that 25,000 euros from the Executive Board is just enough for one third of a teacher.’ He sees this contribution as totally inadequate for the current student body and the expected growth in numbers.
The extra education funding goes to...
1. Higher accommodation costs
2. Higher ICT costs
3. Higher salaries
4. Extra lecturers for BSc courses
5. Permanent staff who are getting less research and doing more teaching