Budget cutbacks at Ghent University: a look at the figures in the annual accounts. Are the cutbacks as necessary as they make out?

Submitted by ACOD UGent on wo, 04/17/2024 - 17:06

In recent years, there has been no escaping the discussion about budget cutbacks at Ghent University. Management systematically labels these cutbacks as necessary, and all alternatives are dismissed as unrealistic. ACOD UGent has always disputed this, and we have already drawn up a list of alternatives.

Recently, when the 2023 annual accounts of Ghent University were announced, it once again turned out that our criticisms are justified: once again it appears that the financial situation shown in the annual accounts looks very different from what management would have us believe. Below we provide you with an overview of the facts.

A look at the 2023 annual accounts, and a comparison with the 2023 budget

We now know the story of the management: Ghent University is heading for a serious budget deficit, and only heavy cuts - especially on personnel - can protect us from this. The budget for the year 2023, which was approved by the Board of Directors in November 2022, seemed to confirm that story: although a structural balance was foreseen in the budget for 2023 - excluding the additional energy costs of 15.5 million - a multi-year budget was assumed in which the deficit would rise to 31 million euros by 2027: this had to be saved.

However, the 2023 annual accounts provide a completely different picture than the budget. For example, the total of budget sections I (Operations), II (Investments) and V (Patrimony) - together sometimes referred to as the "central budget" of Ghent University - is no less than €29.2 million better than anticipated in the budget: approximately the entire amount of the anticipated savings!

Even more: the budgets of the BOF, the Social Services for Students and the greenhouses and research projects are also doing remarkably well: the total Ghent University annual accounts for 2023 are even €75.8 million better than the budget for that year!

The budget provided for a deficit of -€8 million for greenhouses and research projects, and a positive result of no less than €28 million was recorded in the annual accounts. However, during the discussions in the Board of Directors about the 2023 budget, this anticipated deficit of €8 million was used by management as an excuse not to implement the anticipated cash savings: after all, they would yield a negative result for the first time. The annual accounts now show that this is factually incorrect.

Moreover, this good result in the annual accounts compared to the anticipated budget is not a one-off event. In recent years, this difference has also fluctuated systematically between €20 and €30 million. This strengthens our belief that there are alternatives to management's redundant, useless and antisocial cutback plans.

Do these figures mean that there is no underfunding of higher education?

No way. Last year, higher education unions took the initiative for a demonstration in Brussels against the underfunding of universities and colleges. We then estimated that deficit at €667 million annually, the amount that universities and colleges would have to receive extra if we received the same amount of funding per student as in 2008.

As a result of these actions – or perhaps because there are elections this year – the Flemish government decided to allocate some extra resources to higher education before 2024. As a result, the deficit falls to 562 million euros, the financing per student increased from €7,340 to €7,820, still a lot less than the €9,580 that universities and colleges could count on in 2008 (all amounts expressed in euros according to the index on 1/1/2024).

This shortage explains the inadequate infrastructure and buildings in which we have to work, or the high workload caused by the fact that the number of staff cannot grow sufficiently with the strong research output or the increasing number of students. This high workload leads to stress and burnouts, as the recent well-being survey at Ghent University once again showed. As a trade union, we continue to argue for solving this structural deficit by returning the financing of higher education to the 2008 level: only that will make structural solutions to the problems in higher education possible.

At the same time, we believe that the management of Ghent University uses the underfunding as an excuse to justify its ill-considered and irrational savings, and not to want to think about alternatives. Now that we once again have annual accounts that provide a completely different picture than the budget, we want to restart the debate about those alternatives to the current savings proposals.

What are our savings alternatives?

We start from the position that the cutback target must be reduced. For example, due to the increase in funding per student, Ghent University received approximately €6 million extra per year from the Flemish government. We proposed using those resources to reduce staff cutbacks in the faculties and central administration. However, management decided not to do that, but to deduct the six million from the expected additional income from overhead. The rector's reasoning was that part of that extra overhead income should flow back to the research groups that have a lot of overhead income.

We believe that this is a wrong choice: our proposal was to use those resources to reduce the cutbacks on staff in the faculties and the central administration on a pro rata basis. This would mean that the number of personnel points to be deleted in the faculties would drop from 82.39 to 48.25 points, and the number of FTE to be deleted in the Central Administration could fall from 123 to 72.03 FTE: a total of 85 FTEs or about 110 jobs can be saved. Instead, the rector opted for a proposal that we believe would mainly benefit the research groups that have the most income.

In addition, we believe that alternative spending cuts can ensure a further decrease in the number of jobs that have to disappear. For example, we proposed cutting unnecessary expenses for management, such as air travel in first class or business class, or salary cars that are apparently - and wrongly - awarded to all new directors. We also argue for further savings for UGent by additional statutoryization, by insourcing expensive external consultants and service providers and by reducing the use of external rental locations. We found a total of 12.9 million euros in alternative spending cuts. Unfortunately, these proposals were never taken seriously.

We have always made it clear that these proposals for spending cuts in themselves would not represent a structural and definitive solution to the infrastructure shortages and the high workload at Ghent University - that is only possible if the Flemish government's savings on higher education in recent years are nullified. But: the administration's cutback measures do not offer a solution either: after all, who believes that the workload will decrease if even more jobs are cut?

Alternatives are urgently needed: ​​cutback plan is failing

In addition, management's current cutback proposals are ill-considered and completely arbitrary. From the moment management announced that it was "possible" to cut several hundred jobs at Ghent University, we as a union asked for figures and analyzes to prove that this could be done effectively without an increase in the workload for those who remained. Those figures never came, those analyzes have not been made to this day: all the management's savings proposals were therefore drawn up in a vacuum.

At the end of last year, “co-creation workshops” were introduced, but the cutbacks were not taken into account in any way. On the contrary: the cutbacks were not allowed to be discussed. The result was that these co-creation workshops revealed the need for additional support for the faculties from the central administration, and no list of tasks was drawn up that could be deleted. This once again shows that management is wrong when it claims that jobs can be cut in the faculties and central administration without this leading to a shift of tasks to the faculties, and without this leading to an increase in workload for the remaining staff. For example, it is striking that management also refuses to carry out an objective workload measurement to prove this...

Today, the austerity proposals have reached an impasse. There is no idea whatsoever about which tasks can be deleted - in our opinion there are hardly any. Management seems to want to pass the ball to individual managers: they will have to arbitrarily decide who can stay and who cannot, and which tasks the remaining ones should take on. We oppose such an arbitrary way of working, which will lead to arbitrariness and chaos.

We would therefore like to restart the debate about the necessity and focus of savings: the results of the annual accounts show that this is possible.

Management, finally admit that the boast about the large number of jobs that could be eliminated without impacting the workload was exaggerated, and start debating alternatives!