Why are we paying full tuition fees in 2020 when facilities are not available and education takes place largely online? Thousands of students signed nationwide petitions this spring calling for a refund of at least half of their tuition fees. The students’ question – what is actually happening to my tuition fees? – requires insight into the financing of education.
How reasonable is the request to halve tuition fees?
It is unsurprising that students raised this question during the pandemic. After all, universities switched en masse to online education and limited the use of facilities such as libraries. This year’s evaluations of online education gave additional credence to the students’ questions. Indeed, lecturers and students rated the quality of education as lower than before the pandemic, despite all the extra efforts made by lecturers and support staff this year. In-person contact was sorely missed by everyone, precisely because it promotes quality.
So why were the students not compensated?
A side note: students whose graduation is delayed and who are forced to register for another year due to COVID-19 can expect compensation; this is a government measure that applies to all universities.
But, for most students, the question of partial reimbursement remains relevant. And anyone who dives into the university’s finances will see that the cost of education per student far exceeds the amount of their tuition fees.
What do education finances look like?
First, the income. The statutory tuition fees in these years are just over €2,000, the rate applicable to students with EU/EEA, Swiss or Surinamese nationality. Other students pay the institutional tuition fees, which vary per degree programme. Together, our 24,104 students paid more than €45 million in tuition fees (tuition, course, lesson and exam fees). That seems like a lot (and it is!), but it is only a fraction of what the university receives for providing education: almost €239 million in 2020, or €10,000 per student. Therefore, tuition fees account for only 20% of the income earmarked for education; the rest comes almost entirely from direct government funding to the university.
But educational costs also include facilities such as the library, and students had much less access to them.
That is true. We not only use the tuition fees we receive to pay the direct costs related to education, such as lecture halls and lecturers, but also to pay for the facilities that support education.
Think of the libraries, study workplaces, student psychologists and various ICT applications: all cornerstones of good education. In contrast to the reduced facilities at the libraries, there was an increased use of ICT resources, an indispensable link in this year’s educational process.
If you comb through the annual report, you will discover that education, research and impact are closely intertwined. How can you tell what exactly goes into education?
Indeed, it is not easy to figure out because you cannot separate the core activities within the university. For example, an employee uses the same computer and secretarial support for research and teaching tasks. Research, education and impact reinforce each other, in financial terms as well. The professor who lectures shares the latest insights from their research with students, and sometimes they work with the same students on new research. In addition, good quality research strengthens the university’s reputation, which is reflected in the value of a diploma. Moreover, an important part of a university’s impact is formed by its graduates.
Tuition fees partly cover staff costs. It is logical if the researcher is indeed teaching, but surely tuition fees do not cover research efforts?
Scientific research and education cannot be viewed separately: good academic higher education requires scientific research, and vice versa. Then there are the figures: in addition to the €45 million income from tuition fees in 2020, there are payroll costs of €462 million. It is difficult to say exactly which of our personnel efforts contribute to education, but for the sake of convenience we will take the academic staff as our starting point. In general, they spend between 30% and 70% of their time on teaching tasks, depending on their appointment. Even if each academic staff member spends only 30% of their time on teaching, tuition fees are not nearly enough to cover these direct salary costs.
The fact that the tuition fees disappear into a large pot does not absolve the university of the possibility of making a goodwill gesture by repaying part of them.
Even if the university were to hold this view, it would not be relevant. Like the level of tuition fees, their possible reimbursement is a national decision. Meanwhile, the government has also shown this leniency: see the decision from February 2021 to halve the tuition fees for the 2021–2022 academic year. Students who obtain a Master’s degree between 1 September 2020 and 31 August 2021 will receive €535 of compensation.