Nieuws - 17 mei 2010

Leaner and meaner

DLO employees will market their consultancy services, English will be the medium of communication, less should be spent on participational councils, and the Larenstein estate will be sold if it is not profitable. The Executive Board will reveal its strategic plans and major tasks in the next four years when it takes a powerpoint presentation to the organization this week.

'Nothing is hard and fast yet,' says board chairman Aalt Dijkhuizen.
From today onwards, employees may have a say about the 'Strategic Plan 2011-2014'.  However, the executive board, together with the Board of Directors, will decide which suggestions to include in the draft version of the strategy paper which will be made known before the summer. This will be submitted to the participational council and the supervisory board. The plans concerning DLO will be submitted to the Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality (LNV).
There is also a so-called external section so that Wageningen UR can comply to the wishes of politicians and entrepreneurs. It is sticking close to the budget cutting plans of The Hague, and meetings are being organized in June with financers, ranging from companies in the food industry to nature organizations. The entire process will be completed only at the end of this year, when the strategy paper will be finalized.  Resource highlights several major issues in the pipeline.

English as medium of communication
Wageningen UR wants to attract more foreign workers, and to enable them, their partners and their children to feel more at home here. But language is still a stumbling block. While almost all lessons and research work are conducted in English, this is not the case for supporting services such as financial and personnel matters. As Wageningen UR is bilingual, almost all materials are translated. However, this costs time and money, and causes foreigners to lag behind.
The executive board had wanted to make English the medium of communication a few years ago, but the participational council stood in its way. The board hopes that the council will change its mind. This would give Wageningen an even greater international allure.

People may be poking fun at it now, but the position of the university in international rankings is a new area which demands attention. From now on, there should be a conscious drive to aim high. Wageningen University has to be among the top 100 (it's now among the top 200), and VHL has to be among the top 10 in the Netherlands (it's now average). The executive board says that rankings will become more important, especially in the recruitment of (international) students and foreign customers. To boost our status, we should rub shoulders with successful American colleagues in Cornell and Davis. Besides benefitting students and professors, this also helps to place us more prominently on the map in the United States.

Not more, but better students
Increasing the number of university students has been the aim for years. The executive board finds that the time is now ripe for a break in this trend: not just more, but better, students. Bait top scholars with possibilities of having the best professors and extra education benefits, such as Masters classes. Entrance selections are not necessary as most students at VHL and the university are very motivated essentially and there are relatively few dropouts.

Many employees in Lelystad may need to be relocated. The Edelhertweg premises are like a millstone around the neck; they are too big and therefore, too expensive. A new building could be built, but the executive board is hesitant for fear of being tied down for the next decades. Moreover, the Edehertweg premises are not due to be written off and buyers aren't in sight. An alternative is for some of the employees to move to Wageningen. A number of them have to be relocated anyway: the dairy test farm will move to Leeuwarden's future dairy campus. That could be the spark that sets off a complete departure from the polders.

Van Hall Larenstein
VHL is a thorny issue. This university of applied sciences is dangling somewhere at the bottom of the list of favoured institutions; students have graded it as unsatisfactory because lectures are often cancelled, and exams are not marked on time. Its education components also need a revamp: less agro matter, more nutrition and climate components. Furthermore, more funds should be channelled to education. Too much is now spent on supporting services and inefficient processes. The executive board expects the 'VHL Vooruit' plan to be implemented, and a merger to take place concerning the three locations in Leeuwarden, Velp and Wageningen. The participational council, however, has not approved this yet; a large number of employees are openly sceptical about it.

Sell Larenstein?
'Decision on the future of the Velp estate' is stated in the executive board's proposal for the Strategic Plan. These are explosive words. Van Hall Larenstein in Velp is very attached to its estate, which it claims to be indispensable for its practice-oriented professional higher education. There are demonstration gardens, collection gardens and different types of vegetation. Board chairman Dijkhuizen explains: 'The estate can be retained if it can prove its worth in helping to attract students, or if companies in the green sector settle here. If this doesn't happen within the next two years, the estate will be put up for sale. Estate management must not be done at the expense of education. I am neither baron nor estate manager.'
A sale of the land in Velp would imply a move to Wageningen. Those in Velp think differently, though. The Wageningen branch of DHL now pays 1.2 million Euros for housing six hundred students in the Forum. Velp would be cheaper. Let Wageningen move to Velp.

DLO will feel the pressure in the years ahead. LNV is gradually cutting down on subsidies, and it remains to be seen if this ministry still exists after the cabinet formation. DLO therefore has to go in search of more markets: EU programmes, companies and foreign government institutions. It should also market its current know-how in emerging markets in the former Eastern Bloc and Asia. But this wouldn't be easy because foreign sister organizations, such as the French INRA, are better subsidized. Moreover, DLO has to distinguish itself as far as quality is concerned. If DLO has its own way, it will be doing more consultancy work. DLO calls this extending the knowledge chain. Besides receiving a report from researchers at the end of a project - which is what happens now - customers would also welcome help in applying the new knowledge in their company or organization. However, DLO consultants would certainly get a tongue-lashing from the market; for years, environment consultancy agencies have criticized Alterra for fishing in their pond.

Punishment and reward
Chair groups can be treated just like children: if they can cope, they will be given a freer hand. The five to ten top dogs in the university's line-up which have been given the best scores by peer review committees will get lump sum financing for four years. They do not have to account for every bit of expenditure, and they are treated more leniently by controllers, which leads in turn to lower overhead costs. But... they have to be financially sound. This works against the group headed by the well-loved scientist at the top Marten Scheffer, because his group is in the red.
In DLO, the same goes for groups with a sound management and a steady supply of job assignments. The boss will give them a freer hand.

Wageningen UR has to be more involved in social debate. As such, a strategic task force made up of professors, students and alumni should be set up. It can then indicate when and where a need arises for Wageningen to make a contribution. Such needs must be based on facts. 'We are not a protest group', warns Aalt Dijkhuizen. Let the cobbler stick to his last.

Employees' council
Participational activities require millions of Euros each year to pay salaries of workers who represent the interests of employees. Participational councils abound: inside the organization, outside, centralized, decentralized, for students, for employees, for the university, for the university of applied sciences, for DLO. These are legally required but the executive board believes that they can be streamlined. A study will be carried out in this area.

Fewer locations
Wageningen UR is present in all the twelve provinces. The executive board wants to have bigger programmes in fewer places and to invest only in locations which produce results: Friesland will have a dairy campus; energy and biobased studies will be jointly located up north, while Zeeland will be home to Shellfish and aquaculture. With activities in Flevoland (wind energy) and Limburg (mixed farming) being dispersed, the executive board will not increase its efforts there for the time being. Although the municipality of Rheden wants to set up a Nature Valley around VHL Velp, Wageningen UR will not invest in it.
Food Valley, on the other hand, has been praised four times in the Strategic Plan. Grouping food companies and Wageningen UR - preferably on campus - will increase the chances of acquiring contract research. The provincial government is also a supporter and brings with it a substantial amount of money.

New chairs for old
Scientifically, there are not many changes. The themes of Biobased studies, Nutrition and health, Climate and Water are still booming. If funds are available, the way will be open for Systems biology, Complex adaptive systems, and Information, behaviour & governance.
The executive board wants to set up three new chair groups: Biobased studies, Urban environment and Ecophysiology of marine animals. The part-time chair groups of Veterinary epidemiology, Sensory science and eating behaviour, Nutrition and pharmacology, and Air quality and atmospheric chemistry will become full-time. That is, if money and space are available. The 'new for old' principle calls for weak groups to be disbanded or merged first. 'Trim and improve', recommends the strategy paper concerning weak chair groups. 'If this fails, speed up dismantling.'
The strategic plans do not name the weak groups, but in the peer review of 2009, the following groups have been given the lowest scores: Human and animal physiology, Economics of consumers and households, Rural history, Environmental economics and Organic agricultural systems. The scientific quality of Landscape architecture is also a case for worry. All these groups should watch their finances as well. A combination of scientific frailty and indebtedness will surely spell misfortune.

Cheaper, cheaper and cheaper
The executive board tries to cut costs in all aspects in order to divert money to research and teaching. For example, make better use of buildings by having flexible workplaces and sharing laboratories, or combine personnel administration tasks. That will save millions annually. The board wishes to see the seven research schools work more closely together, at least in administrative matters. Mergers have not been ruled out either; in fact, one education institute was the outcome several years ago. / Gaby van Caulil and Rik Nijland.
Dialogue times:
17 May, 13.00-15.00 hours, ESG, Wageningen
17 May, 15.00-17.00 hours, PSG, Wageningen
19 May, 8.30-10.30 hours, SSG & CDI, Wageningen
20 May, VHL, Leeuwarden, Velp, exact time not known
21 May, 11.45-13.45 hours, AFSG & Rikilt, Wageningen
25 May, 11.30-13.30 hours, ASG, Lelystad
26 May, 10.00-12.00 hours, FB & head office staff, Wageningen