On Tuesday January 11, a heated debate unfolded as the Ghent University Board of Governors discussed a memo titled “A sound multi-year budget for our core tasks”. This proposal contained a number of controversial elements, of which the public at University could not possibly have been aware, as the rector and his team had requested the board to keep the memo confidential.
When Schamper was able to reveal some of its contents for the very first time on Monday, it was also the very first chance for students and staff to receive any information about what was about to be put to a vote during the Board meeting.
Eventually, the memo was approved, but it did not pass without any resistance. The meeting lasted for several hours and even then, the rector and vicerector were not able to obtain a majority among the internal sections within the Board. Some sources claim the rector behaved quite defensively during the debate. The memo was saved because the professorial staff section did not vote against it and the external sections of the board (representatives of public authorities and the University Hospital) supported the rectorial duo’s proposal. The final result was 19 votes in favour, 10 against and 2 abstentions. Of those sections representing either UGent staff or students, more than half voted against the proposal: student representatives, as well as the assistant academic staff section and non-academic staff voted against and the professorial staff was divided on the issue. The abstentions are said to originate from their voting bloc.
Tuition fees for PhD students to double
After the Board meeting, the rector lifted the confidential status of the memo. Schamper was able to obtain the document and will list some of the more remarkable contents of the bulky document (44 pages, some syllabi manage to be more concise) below. The general direction in the memo consists of a combination of rising tuition fees and cuts in staff expenses. The professorial staff seems to be largely let off the hook.
Tuition fee for PhD students doubles “in order to better reflect the actual costs and extensive guidance in the tuition fee"
The implications for students seem to be limited to a jump in tuition fees for some “master’s degree after master’s degree”. PhD students, however, will probably have more mixed feelings about the proposal. Tuition fees may not quadruple, as was proposed in the original memo, but does double as they will have to pay a fee every year instead of just twice for a maximum of 4 years. According to the memo, this was decided “in order to better reflect the actual costs and extensive guidance in the tuition fee without rendering the cost of a PhD prohibitive or dependant on the availability of means with the supervisor.”
UGent staff to lose part of holidays
Additionally, Ghent University wants to further balance the books by raising tuition fees for international students from outside the European Economic Area (EEA). The degree to which the fee is raised, however, is not mentioned explicitly. Elsewhere in the memo, the rector and vicerector also express their desire to raise income thanks to a higher number of international students. There is no mention of how these two aims will be reconciled.
The brunt of the austerity measures seems to be targeting the non-academic staff. The transport and borrowing services of UGent will be given up and the same fate awaits the day-care centres. While talk of privatisation is never far away in cases like these, the memo states that giving these services up does not equate privatising them. ‘Het Pand’, the more expensive restaurant and venue of the university, is closing down. The text vaguely hints at an alternative which can be integrated into student restaurant ‘De Brug’, but this is not specified any further. In other restaurant-related news, meals at student restaurants will become 50 % more expensive for university staff. Additionally, the memo makes mention of a “rationalisation” of the way staff is used in several Ghent University departments, which would result in cuts worth a few hundreds of thousands of euros. The non-academic staff seems to interpret this as a the university creating a possibility to reorganise and make a number of staff members redundant.
Furthermore, changes will be made to the hospitalisation insurances of certain staff members. According to non-academic staff representatives, this measure would mainly target older staff. Finally, an element which is mentioned in the text, but has not been costed as of yet, is the possible loss of holiday days for Ghent University staff.
Representatives were crystal clear: they claim no broad support for this memo exists within Ghent University
In a message to their supporters, the representatives were crystal clear: they claim no broad support for this memo exists within Ghent University. They point to the fact that student representatives, as well as the assistant academic staff and a part of the professorial staff voted against the proposal. The representatives indicate that they are certainly open to reform proposals, but label the measures proposed in the memo as “antisocial”.
An atmosphere of back-room politics surrounds the process of composing and approving the memo
The assistant academic staff also reacted with disappointment. On the one hand, they are relieved that the Board of Governors did not approve of the rectorial team’s effort to quadruple tuition fees. “We are convinced that thresholds for obtaining a PhD should never be of financial nature”, they comment. The doubling of tuition fees will probably ruffle some feathers nonetheless. The assistant academic staff section also criticises the fact that “many elements were not elaborated upon or costed enough to express our confidence in them. We were prepared to hand the rectorial team the mandate to make these elements more explicit, as we support the idea of structural reforms at our university.” They regret the lack of explicitation in the memo: “As Governors, we believe it is essential to only approve only those elements that are made explicit, especially in a debate on the context of core tasks.”
The memo also explicitly mentions the “typical culture of deliberation and participation at Ghent University.” This may come across as being somewhat ironic, since the memo was created and voted on in near-secrecy. As mentioned before in a previous article, no one in the Board of Governors wanted to react on the record, because of the confidential character of the memo and the idea that it would lead to misinformation with the general public. This does, however, conflict with the previously stated ideals of deliberation and participation. Furthermore, it is described in the memo itself that the document was composed through confidential conversations with deans, directors and administrators at university. Because of all this, an atmosphere of back-room politics surrounds the process of composing and approving this memo.