Savings at Ghent University: fact or fiction?

Submitted by ACOD UGent on ma, 03/29/2021 - 18:01

For some time, the Board of Governors, central services directorates, faculty councils and departments have been saying that savings are required at UGent, especially on staff. This rhetoric about so-called "inevitable cutbacks" is causing panic within faculties and departments. Plans are already being made to not replace professors and ATP employees who are retiring, and to abolish AAP mandates.

As unions ACOD, ACV and VSOA, we regret that an austerity discussion that we believe is both premature and unnuanced is causing alarm. Moreover, this unreasonable focus on “savings” ensures that all substantive debates are then determined by it: as soon as resources are required, it becomes impossible to take the necessary measures. For example, the much-needed introduction of a teleworking allowance has already been postponed several times.

We have numerous arguments demonstrating that severe cuts, especially on personnel, are not currently warranted. Here are but a few:

  • In the savings discussion it is stated that the percentage of personnel costs in the total budget will increase over the coming years. That is correct. However, what people often fail to point out is that this increase is temporary, and is the result of a number of past changes to the personnel policy (new statutes and career models for the ATP, ZAP and WP). Over the long term, the share of the wage bill will once again decrease, so any shortfall is temporary.
  • It is argued that there could be a 'deficit' of €14.75 million by 2025. However, this does not take into account the Finance Committee's work, year after year, to absorb limited, annual deficits of several million euros. From that point of view, it is absurd to project either a deficit or surplus that far into the future.
  • If a deficit is a concern, there are a number of other measures that can be taken to at least partially resolve it: a limited increase in the overhead - which the expected additional income from European projects would potentially cover - and the financing of a number of ZAP positions through the BOF, which has a large surplus. Taken together, these measures could already account for several million euros.
  • If temporary shortfalls should arise in the future, there are possibilities for covering them via to loans, or by entering a temporary deficit in the budget.
  • Finally, the annual accounts show that the budget surplus has been higher than projected every year.

All in all, drastic cuts are not justified, and certainly not to personnel. As unions, we are therefore opposed to austerity measures and especially to cutbacks of staff. After all, this will increase the workload for those who remain. We also object to the bullying, asocial measures that are now being proposed, including lowering the bicycle allowance, reducing hospitalization insurance, or increasing staff tariffs in the student restaurants.

Is there already a long-term problem with financing our university? Yes.

The constantly declining public funding of higher education is a major problem. And while we do not believe that there is a need for severe austerity measures in the short term, the underfunding of higher education constitutes a structural risk in the long term. For years, the government has not granted Ghent University and the other universities the resources to which they are legally entitled - the resources that are necessary for serving their purpose.

This means that the workload for most employees has only increased in recent years. Nevertheless, it has become clearer to our society than ever (if any doubts remained) that research and higher education are an essential sector. It would send entirely the wrong message to scrimp on personnel now. Science is one of the engines that drives our country, and the education of young people is more crucial than ever in these uncertain times. Further economizations are simply not possible: ultimately, it would have a detrimental impact on the quality of research and education, and it would drastically deteriorate working conditions, while increasing stress and burnouts.

If we must discuss measures to guarantee the financial well-being of Ghent University in the long term, we see no benefit in short-sighted cuts to personnel. On the contrary, more public resources are needed for education, and the current context makes that position entirely defendable in the post-corona social debate. We therefore call on the university authorities to fight hand in hand with all personnel against the Flemish government's austerity logic, and for the future of our universities. Sensible politicians will understand that we are right and will not easily be able to ignore a unified message from the university community.

As unions, we will be taking steps in this area within the coming months. But we want the university's administration to be on board. Therefore, we address the following to Rector Rik Van de Walle and Vice Rector Mieke Van Herreweghe. We would like them to clarify the following:

  • Can we have clarity concerning the current savings plans? Is there truly a need for heavy cutbacks on personnel, or can alternatives be found that do not have a negative impact on Ghent University's staff?
  • Can a clear message be given to faculties not to implement drastic and unnecessary austerity measures?
  • What is the position of the rector and vice-rector concerning the current asocial proposals regarding the increase of meal prices, reduction of the bicycle allowance, and reductions in the hospitalization insurance policy? Are you prepared to oppose these kinds of asocial policies, which are not serious savings measures in any case?
  • If unions demand more funding for higher education and research in the months and years to come, are you prepared to publicly support this?

We hope for an affirmative answer.