Why Tilburg University was the last university to get the basic grant money

Why Tilburg University was the last university to get the basic grant money

After three years of extremely sluggish pre-investments, it is finally time for the real thing. The euros freed up by the abolition of the basic grant have arrived. This money – also known as the revenues from the student loan system – paves the way for serious investments in education. However, in order to claim it, Tilburg University must first produce a decent plan. And that process is not without controversy.

Image: Jack Tummers

Lees dit artikel in het Nederlands.

2,478,000 euros. That is the amount of revenues from the student loan system that will be credited to Tilburg University’s bank account in 2018. It is the first money that Tilburg students will see back from their abolished basic grant and, given the increasing student numbers, more than welcome.

In the same year, the government, students, universities, and universities of applied sciences jointly conclude the Sector Agreement (in Dutch), in which they agree to draw up a so-called quality plan for each educational institution. In this long-term plan, the institution describes its concrete goals and intentions with the revenues from the student loan system, linking them to six nationally agreed themes. Only if the minister is convinced that the spending plans actually contribute to a “visible improvement in quality” will the money be paid out.

The Agreement builds on an earlier 2016 Agreement (in Dutch) between the umbrella organizations and student unions. The spending guidelines for the revenues from the student loan system were already largely agreed upon at that time. As was the agreement that the participation body would help decide where the basic grant funds will go, based on the right of consent.

Working Group

A special working group comprised of a mix of University Council members and officials begin work in the summer of 2018 to draft a Tilburg quality plan. Together, they are responsible for gathering input from the university community.

“We wanted to know what students would spend the money on,” says Veerle Pieters, who served on the working group that year on behalf of SAM. “To find out, we distributed a survey and posted statements on social media. In addition, we organized two participation afternoons for both students and staff.”

However, student turnout at these meetings was not as high as hoped, Robin de Hoon recalls. As a party member for Front, he was part of the working group that year. “In the end, those afternoons were mostly attended by participation members. Regular students didn’t seem to care that much. Incidentally, I also sensed this disinterest among some School Council members, who attended more with the idea that they had to be there. They didn’t seem to realize how important this subject is, which I don’t blame them for, by the way, because of its complexity.”

According to De Hoon, the lack of success in involving regular students in the decision-making process has to do with their easygoing expectation that it will “get taken care of anyway.” In Pieters’s view, the subject is not sexy enough for many students. “Investment in education is an abstract and complicated topic. That appeals less to students.”

Which is Which?

Pre-investments: this is the money that universities and universities of applied sciences invested in the years 2015, 2016, and 2017 in the quality of education for the group of students who had already lost their basic grant as of 2015. Because the money from the basic grant – revenues from the student loan system – did not become available until 2018, this money was used to bridge the gap.

Revenues from the student loan system: this is the money released by the introduction of the loan system and the accompanying abolition of the basic grant. As of 2018, universities and universities of applied sciences receive this money, with the aim of improving the quality of education.

Quality Agreements: these are the long-term plans drawn up by each university and university of applied sciences and contain their concrete objectives and intentions regarding the revenues from the student loan system. These plans must fall under six agreed themes and are reviewed and monitored by the NVAO.

The working group translates its findings into a draft plan and presents the official Quality Plan in February 2019. Initially to everyone’s satisfaction. Pieters: “In my transfer period, I was told that I really had to be on top of the process because things had not gone quite right with the pre-investments. This was not necessary in our case; they involved us in everything and listened to us carefully. Also, we were all behind the plan; everyone was enthusiastic about it.”

Not concrete enough

The upbeat atmosphere within the university turns when on November 11, 2019, the Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders (NVAO) issues a negative recommendation (in Dutch) on the Tilburg University plan. The NVAO is the body authorized by the minister to review all quality plans in the Netherlands. Based on a visit to the educational institution, among other things, it issues a recommendation to the minister, who then decides on the allocation of the basic grant money.

Minister Van Engelshoven accepts this negative recommendation and, by means of a letter (in Dutch), informs that Tilburg University’s plan is inadequate because it “does not yet contain sufficiently concrete and multi-year policy actions.” The NVAO writes in its report (in Dutch) that, due to the lack of such detailed plans, it cannot assess the achievability of the Quality Plan.

“Despite the disappointment, we partly understood why the plan was rejected,” says De Hoon. “Although Tilburg University is centrally governed, Schools are given a lot of space to make their own choices. We wanted to safeguard this freedom by not filling out the plan too much at the School level and leaving this up to the Schools themselves. As a result, the NVAO did not consider the agreements at the School level to be concrete enough.”

Rien Wijnhoven, who as chair of the University Council also had to deal with the quality agreements, adds: “The Tilburg Schools are both a strength and a pitfall. Because of their independence, there is often a tendency within the university to place the responsibility on them and say: this is your business. The NVAO, however, found this unclear. It expected more central control of resources for future accountability.”

Image: Jack Tummers

In retrospect, it appears that the focus was too much on the participation, said Hein Coppes, who led the working group at the time. “We thought they would find it particularly important how the students were included in the process. We only became aware that other issues deserved at least as much attention when we received a letter from NVAO in June telling us what they were going to pay attention to. Well, that was too late for us.”

Remarkably, despite the rejection of the plan, the university received a significant amount of basic grant money during that period. In fact, an approved quality plan was only a requirement for receiving the revenues from the student loan system from 2021 through 2024. In previous years, the money was disbursed without conditions. Specifically, this means that Tilburg University received a total of over 8.3 million euros between 2018 and 2020, without a clear and verifiable spending plan ready.

Retake

After the NVAO’s assessment, the university immediately starts a recovery plan. Through this plan, the minister will grant the university a last chance to still claim future revenues from the student loan system. But if no improved plan is on the table within a year, Tilburg University can wave goodbye to the basic grant millions. It creates (time) pressure.

There would be a central governing group in which the plan would be discussed and forged. According to Paul van der Gun, part of the group at the time as a Front student representative, the main task was to monitor the structure of the plan. “The first version mainly lacked the controlling factor. It was, therefore, up to us to introduce guidelines and mechanisms that would make monitoring possible.”

The substantive – and therefore most important – part, however, is the responsibility of the Schools. Logical, since that is precisely where the first plan fell short. Each School, therefore, draws up its own spending plan, in which it describes and justifies its financial choices for the next five years. Before this plan is presented, it must first pass through the School Council. It is also intended that the School Council be involved at an early stage in shaping the spending plan.

Top-down

The School Council’s codetermination does not go smoothly at every School. Van der Gun: “Although, in my experience, the university takes participation quite seriously – it is by no means a showpiece – I was told by some Schools that there was a little too much top-down decision-making. Certain School Councils felt a bit pressured by the administration. Of course, this always plays some role, but the stressful situation amplified this.”

A former student who served on the School Council of the Tilburg School of Economics and Management (TiSEM) in the year 2019-2020 and prefers not to be named, recognizes the complaints. “We were told very clearly at the time that we had to agree to the renewed proposal because otherwise there was a chance that the university would lose millions. We thought that was upside-down reasoning: in fact, we should get the money because we agreed. Not the other way around.”

Image: Jack Tummers

“We were also eventually sent a document stating that the plan had been ‘enthusiastically and unanimously’ approved by the School Council,” continued this former Council member. “We thought this was very strange, since we hadn’t even seen the proposal yet. Later, by the way, the Board admitted that they should have done it differently, which is to their credit, but also too late.”

It is reflected that the university was in a hurry: there was just over a month between the negative NVAO recommendation and the approved spending plans. A short time frame for a Council member, especially when they have to make an important decision about the School’s financial future. Still, the majority of former School Council members indicate that they had sufficient say in the spending plans.

Millions are in

“Once we had the Schools’ plans back, we started writing the new proposal after Christmas,” Coppes explained. “This went quite smoothly because the outline was already known from the previous plan. We only had to add the concrete intentions and proposals that the Schools gave us.”

After several internal advice rounds, the university finally submits its recovery plan to the NVAO on April 2, 2020. This time there is a much more detailed and comprehensive plan; where the first version was 16 pages, the new proposal has 135.

Pending the assessment, by mid-June 2020, Tilburg University is the only (in Dutch) Dutch university that does not have an approved plan yet. However, due to hopeful assurances from the visiting NVAO panel, this does not lead to uncertainty within the university. And rightly so, it turns out: two months later, the NVAO issues a positive recommendation (in Dutch) that the minister later adopts (in Dutch). The millions are in.

In the end, the amount at stake is lower than that originally planned. This is because earlier in the year, Minister Bussemaker decided (in Dutch) to already award the basic grant money for 2021 to all universities and universities of applied sciences. It would remove the “financial uncertainty” for those institutions – Tilburg University included – whose quality plan reviews have not yet been completed.

The implementation

What remains is the translation from theory to practice; within five years, all those beautiful plans and ideas must have been realized. To ensure that this happens properly, it is crucial to monitor this process. Coppes: “We monitor the quality plans every six months. Once in the spring, when the university prepares the previous year’s annual report, and once in the fall, when we go through the budget for the following year.”

About the future influence of students on this, De Hoon was rather skeptical during his year as a student representative. For example, he feared that decentral participation members would not be involved in the preparation of School plans early enough. “The preparation of the School budget often starts as early as March while the final version is not discussed in the School Council until September. So, then there is a new, often inexperienced, group of student Council members who can no longer make major changes. This creates the danger that they agree to plans they might have wanted to see differently.”

Within the Tilburg School of Catholic Theology (TST), Sujin Rosie, who served on the School Council from 2019 to 2021, says she noticed little in the way of specific monitoring. “The quality agreements were always on the agenda, but it’s not something we monitored in detail every meeting in terms of content. However, we were always asked for approval of the plans, only that happened more on the flow.” Part of the reason for this, she says, was that there were so many issues on the Council’s agenda that it was difficult to separate the quality plans from everything else. “It was one of many agenda items.”

Julius Graafsma, who represented group Dante on the School Council of the Tilburg School of Humanities and Digital Sciences (TSHD) in the 2020-2021 year, says the rollout of the TSHD spending plan went well in his year. “The bulk of the investments were invested according to plan. Another part, we carried over to the next semester. This mainly involved funds for facilitating seminars, which did not take place due to the coronavirus.”

Apart from expenditures delayed by the coronavirus, Tilburg University is satisfied with the progress of the quality agreements. Its response to questions from Univers states the following: “We received a positive final assessment in mid-November 2021 in a pilot assessment by the NVAO on our reporting of the 2020 quality agreements. The official midterm assessment is expected next fall and will take place based on the 2021 annual report. So, we are on the right track.”

Research series on Tilburg’s basic grant millions

This story is the second part of a three-part series about Tilburg’s basic grant millions. Are you curious to read more? See the first article about the pre-investments and the educational improvements here.

Translated by Language Center, Riet Bettonviel

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