Building an entire campus without borrowing a single euro — that is the greatest achievement of Tijs Breukink, the ‘financial man’ on the Executive Board. On 5 July he will be saying goodbye after twelve years in the role. ‘The progress WUR has made is certainly not all down to me but I am very proud of it.’
Photos: Guy Ackermans
‘I’ve got mixed feeling about leaving,’ says Tijs Breukink. ‘My head says twelve years is long enough. It’s good that I’m going, for both WUR and myself, as you can’t keep coming up with fresh ideas after such a long period. But my heart says I’d like to stay. I have the freedom here to develop policy and build a campus with really committed and motivated people around me. Not many people can say that.’
Twelve years ago, Breukink joined the WUR Executive Board and became responsible for finance, operating procedures and campus development. The university and the DLO institutes — now known as Wageningen Research — were in a very different state compared to now, he recalls. ‘When I started in Wageningen in 2005, I found an organization that was in difficulties. Wageningen UR was in the middle of a cost-cutting exercise, Focus, in which 1000 employees had to go. Student numbers had reached a low point of 4500 and the operational procedures were antiquated. Now we are looking healthy again. Our finances are sound, we are attracting a lot of students, doing ground-breaking research and have an excellent reputation. That is certainly not all down to me but I am still very proud of this progress.’
So far, Wageningen University has coped well with the persistent growth in student numbers, thinks Breukink. ‘All the university’s financial indicators are good. The only possible issue is that the university doesn’t have any additional financial reserves. That’s because of the cap on direct government funding by the Ministry of Economic Affairs, which has lost us 30 to 40 million euros in the past few years.’ Breukink is referring to the so-called two-percent rule, which says that Wageningen’s education budget can increase by a maximum of two percent a year, regardless of the actual increase in student numbers. ‘Despite this, we have chosen to continue funding our education entirely along the lines of the Brascamp model. That means that we make up for the shortfall in the government funding for the chair groups with contributions from central funds, and we are using efficiency measures to make sure we can compensate for that shortfall within a few years. The university’s overhead is about 19 percent, one of the lowest percentages for any Dutch university. That lets us invest money in our teaching.’
Breukink has a question for the interviewers. ‘Have you noticed that there is hardly any squabbling within the university about how the money is divided up? That’s because of the “box system” in which each chair group gets some basic funding and can earn the rest of its money through teaching and research. This is a robust, businesslike model that enjoys broad support and allows no room for favouritism. The professors see that everything’s above board. Other universities get more arguments about this. The box system, which we developed ourselves, creates a harmonious atmosphere.’
But Wageningen Research is not in such a healthy financial state as the university, is it?
‘Wageningen Research is financially sound too. The institutes’ reserves are up to a good level, which is why we can invest in recovery plans this year. I don’t just mean the downsizing plan for Wageningen Environmental Research with the loss of 100 jobs but also for example additional investments in data management at Wageningen Economic Research. Almost all the institutes have downsized in the past few years but fortunately we have also made savings so that we can invest in modernization.
I am proud of the fact that we haven’t had to take any more drastic measures since the Focus cost-cutting exercise, and that was needed because nothing had been done for so long. We’ve only had a few minor reorganizations and organizational adjustments. You have to make sure you know the market and then continually adapt the organization to fit its environment; being one step ahead of any problems is also a much more considerate approach for your staff in the long run.’
How do you do that, get one step ahead of the problems?
‘You have to keep a finger on the pulse. After I arrived, we developed a sound planning and control cycle that lets us get status reports ten times a year on the contracts, productivity and financial situation of the science groups. The provision of financial information has been systematized and automated to such an extent that we can get a reliable summary, which lets us make adjustments in good time.’
We’ve heard that you don’t like surprises.
‘That’s right. A surprise means something has happened that you didn’t foresee; you missed something and that puts you at a disadvantage. Ideally you should be aware of all the relevant trends so that you can key into them fast. In the past few years we have made huge progress, from recording data to making risk assessments, scenarios and predictions for the future. That has really helped us keep WUR on course.’
Many of the applied research organizations have merged. Do they still have a future?
‘I have indeed seen a big increase in the concentration of applied animal research institutions. For example, four experimental dairy farms have been combined at the Dairy Campus in Leeuwarden. There is only one experimental pig farm left and the centre for applied poultry research has even been closed due to a lack of assignments. What hasn’t helped is the fact that the agricultural commodity boards were abolished and nothing has come in their place in the way of properly organized research. I think our applied research centres only have a future if they can become part of an innovation cluster. In Leeuwarden, WUR is collaborating with Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences, PTC+ and dairy companies on a science campus. The question now is whether the pig farming sector will also be able to set up such a science campus jointly with us. We need to rethink the innovation clusters in applied research.’
Orion or no Orion?
Breukink’s most important visible legacy is undoubtedly the Wageningen campus. There was already a campus plan with drawings of the Forum when he arrived but it was Breukink who built and extended the campus. A second teaching building, Orion, was erected, and the construction of Helix was brought forward, which meant an additional 100 million was needed on top of the construction budget of 200 million euros. ‘I am proud that this has been achieved without external funding and that we even managed to repay the final bank loan from before that period last January.’ The original plan did not envisage having so many companies based on campus either. ‘The companies in StartHub and Plus Ultra, FrieslandCampina and the imminent arrival of Unilever all mean that we will be able to share facilities, collaborate in research and teaching and build a global knowledge hub.’
The construction of Orion was not foreseen in the initial plans and it led to some heated discussions with the Supervisory Board, as Breukink recalls. ‘When we decided to build Orion in 2009, we had about 6000 to 7000 students. We could easily accommodate them in the Forum, but student numbers were predicted to grow to 10,000. However, there were also people saying: don’t do this, it’s too big a risk. But we made the right choice.’
So why not add a third teaching building now that student numbers are continuing to rise?
‘We can't afford it. A building like that can easily cost 100 million euros and it has to last for 40 to 60 years. The demographic forecast shows student numbers falling again in five years’ time. Besides, we need to make much better use of our existing buildings. That is possible with our proposal for an extended daytime schedule. We live in a 24-hour economy and students expect our facilities to be open in the evenings. If you then consider how few hours in the day our classrooms are in use, that seems outmoded and not at all sustainable.’
The concentration of WUR activities on campus also led to the university relinquishing buildings and sites elsewhere in Wageningen. Breukink had to see whether they had any future. ‘We gave the arboreta a new lease of life, for instance. De Dreijen Arboretum was handed over to Utopa, which has now created a lovely sculpture museum in the park, and Belmonte has been transferred to a foundation that currently manages the park with the help of volunteers. I was personally closely involved in that transition. WUR has saved 600,000 euros a year in maintenance costs, which we can spend on teaching and research instead, and the Belmonte Arboterum has a new future. I could also have stuck a sign in the garden saying ‘For Sale’ and sold it to the highest bidder, but this feels better.’
We haven’t seen you much in the local press talking about the arboreta or access issues. Are you the invisible man behind the scenes?
‘I am less visible than my colleagues. That’s partly because of my portfolio and partly my character. I feel no need to be in the limelight when it serves no purpose; it’s not an end in itself for me.’
Breukink gets somewhat irritated by the suggestion that many WUR IT projects have failed — think of the student information system WISE or the project information system Kameleon. He emphasizes that business processes only make the news when they perform poorly. Are we aware, for instance, of the many business processes that have been successfully standardized and automated in the past few years? ‘For example, take the electronic ordering system, the payroll system and Agresso. In recent years, there have been dozens of upgrades and implementations every year that have ensured effective and efficient support for teaching and research.’
Noted. But what lessons should we draw from the botched introduction of WISE?
‘We hebben ons te veel laten leiden door de bestaande onderwijspraktijk. We wilden het unieke Wageningse onderwijssysteem, met veel keuzevrijheid en -ruimte, ondersteunen met een standaard ICT-systeem. Dat is ons niet gelukt. Nu kijkt de commissie-Verreth naar de knelpunten. Ik verwacht dat er een pittige discussie komt waarin de universiteit keuzes moet maken in het onderwijs om te zorgen voor een goed functionerend onderwijsregistratiesysteem.’
Are the operational procedures becoming more and more complex?
‘Definitely. That’s mainly because of all the new regulations. We are increasingly being held to account. Think of the Work and Security Act, the Work-incapacitated Persons Act, tender legislation, privacy legislation, rules on sideline activities, the Freedom of Information Act, rules on matching funding, corporate income tax, VAT legislation — you name it. It’s an enormous mishmash that’s creating a bureaucratic burden. And the accountants check everything according to the letter of the law as they are afraid of repercussions from the regulatory authorities. We are trying to keep the overheads down at WUR but overhead costs are undeniably rising due to the overkill in regulations.
This has its roots in society’s call for transparency and accountability but it is really a deep mistrust of people’s behaviour in our kind of organization. A mistrust that leads to detailed rules aimed at having some control over the expenditure of what may or may not be public money. Staff often think these rules are thought up on the sixth storey in Atlas. No, most of the rules come from the government and we have to implement and incorporate them in order to avoid sanctions.’
And you yourself were held to account for your high salary. How did that feel?
‘I didn’t enjoy that discussion. Before joining WUR, I worked for Arcadis. I didn’t take this job at WUR for the money. I have a good salary but after a few years a new perspective emerged on university administrators: they were painted as fat cats. Public opinion painted me as a semi-criminal, which was not nice at all. The strange thing was my salary decreased but society’s views on that salary became increasingly critical.’
What are you going to do now?
‘I don't know yet. Nothing has turned up so far and it has been so busy that I haven’t really given much thought to my next career move. I am open to trying something new.’
Tijs Breukink’s farewell
Board member Tijs Breukink will be officially leaving WUR on 5 July. The farewell event will be in Orion from 15:30. The programme includes speeches by Geert van Rumund, mayor of Wageningen, Cees van der Knaap, the chair of Foodvalley, and Loek Dijkman, who established Utopa Foundation and the sculpture gallery Het Depot. Registration is still open via wur.nl.