Organisation - June 7, 2012

Stay together but not at any price

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If VHL and Wageningen UR want their marriage to survive, they will have to clear three large hurdles. Three working groups are coming up with solutions for the poor collaboration on education, the lack of autonomy, and the high rates charges by Wageningen UR. In two weeks' time it will become clear whether VHL staff are satisfied with the suggestions.

In January 400 VHL staff stated their objections inZwolle. They will be voting again on 20 June on whether or not to stay with Wageningen.
It will be touch and go on Wednesday 20 June in Zwolle. There will be no teaching at Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences that day so that all staff can be present. Voting starts at three o'clock. Will VHL continue to be part of Wageningen UR or decide to go it alone?
In a poll in January 60 percent of the staff expressed a preference for continuing with the collaboration on condition that certain obstacles were cleared. Over the past few months, working groups made up of VHL and university staff identified the bottlenecks and proposed solutions. This week and next they will be informing the staff about their ideas. The trend is that VHL wants to continue together but not at any price.

Joint education still too incidental

First of all there was a surprise: there is a considerable amount of incidental collaboration on education between the applied science institution and the university. The Education working group counted about 50 examples of collaboration, such as guest teachers at the Dairy Campus in Leeuwarden, where VHL students take part in dairy research. The teachers work together but policymakers do not, as yet. That has to change, says the commission, which includes Hans van Rooijen, programme director at VHL, and university education director Pim Brascamp.
The commission gives some concrete advice. Such as: recruit students together. And: start related degree programmes in both institutions with a joint half year for those who are still finding it hard to choose. The university and VHL should also set up joint professional Master's programmes alongside the academic Master's offered by the university. Lastly, the ‘fee barrier' should be demolished: staff at the university charge fees that are 60 percent higher than those at VHL. This limits exchange of staff and services. The charges should be equalized. These are proposals, says Working group chair Hans van Rooijen; a number of them have been made before but never acted upon. One benefit of the working group is that educationalists from VHL and the university arrived at these proposals together.
No autonomous board
VHL staff feel dominated by Wageningen UR and many staff members object to the fact that the institution does not have a board of its own. But this is not going to change, if the working group on Governance and autonomy gets its way. Chair Wendy Zuidema-Haans, programme director for Life Sciences & Technology: ‘Of course you can abolish the staff merger, which means the Wageningen UR board is the board of VHL too, but then you undermine the whole philosophy behind the merger. As directors and management team, we have expressly chosen to remain part of Wageningen UR. A separate board for VHL will lead to disintegration, and that is how the executive board has seen it too.' The philosophy is: less autonomy for VHL and more collaboration. But joint research and education are underdeveloped. Zuidema-Haans: ‘It is mainly a question of haphazard efforts and commitment of individual staff. Collaboration is not facilitated, and nor is it rewarded.'
The working group therefore advises that collaboration should be stimulated. ‘That requires a change of culture. The board and the directors should be more active in drawing VHL in to Wageningen UR projects, and vice versa too.' VHL also needs to work on its own identity. ‘It does not have one at the moment. We think that a regional figurehead could change that: a lobbyist who could be the face of VHL for the business world and the provinces.' The directors and management will present a concrete proposal on this on 20 June.
VHL pays too much for central services
Just like the knowledge institutes, VHL pays Wageningen Ur for central services such as ICT, management and communications. But the rates charges for these things are too high for VHL. This was the conclusion drawn by the working group that looked into the money flows between VHL and Wageningen UR.
This contribution from VHL was introduced in 2007 and was then 108,000 euros, but it later went up to 892,000 euros. According to the working group this is much too high and out of proportion to the services provided for it. It is not clear how services provided by the executive council, central staff services or corporation-wide activities add up to 365,000 euros; there are also double charges and in some cases the services were not (or could not) be made use of. The working group advises abolishing this corporate charge since VHL is not in fact a knowledge unit of Wageningen UR. ‘The corporate charge is in conflict with the nature of the relationship', says working group member Hans van Bemmel. The actual corporate costs, 527,000 euros per year, should be covered by Service Level Agreements (SLAs).
But even that costs VHL more than is justified, the working group notes. A big proportion of the sum is for ICT costs, to the tune of 2.4 million euros per year, but they are no higher than at other applied sciences universities. The accommodation costs for the Wageningen branch of VHL, housed in the Forum, are a lot higher, by contrast. The Forum costs VHL 240,000 euros more per year than its buildings in Leeuwarden and Velp. This is because Wageningen UR charges VHL for the costs of land, maintenance and exchange value. At the Velp and Leeuwarden branches, as at similar institutions, rates charged by the ministry of education are based on the historical cost price of the buildings.
VHL's merger into Wageningen UR cost it 1.9 to 2.7 million euros between 2003 and 2011, by the working group's calculations. This includes reorganization costs such as laying off management, bringing in interim management, and legal advice. ‘This amount can be seen as an investment that has to be earned back within six years from the profits of the collaboration with Wageningen UR', says working group chair Perry van Dongen, head of Finance at VHL. ‘Our working group was not able to establish what these profits would be, but we still have to assess that in relation to the findings of the other working groups.'
Lastly, VHL has paid large sums in telephone costs since it started sourcing such services from Wageningen UR. The costs rose from 160,000 euros in 2009 to 300,000 euros in 2012. VHL did get mobile phone services for this but the working group proposes asking telephone company KPN for a quote in order to put these charges in perspective. The working group also noted that VHL's total overheads come to 32.4 percent of the salary costs. That is 1.5 to 3 percent higher than at other agricultural colleges at Dronten and Den Bosch. The working group advises saving on overheads so that VHl can invest in education again.
Albert Sikkema and Linda van der Nat

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