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A Critical Perspective on the Strategic Plan 2017-2021

By Faye Bovelander

Last week, our Dean, Bert van den Brink, and Managing Director, Jorrit Snijder, released the Strategic Plan UCR, 2017-2021 to the UCR community. This document contains the strategic agenda for the upcoming four years, specifying policy lines UCR management plans on pursuing. It comes following a year in which we saw our first Public Spheres—evenings for students, faculty, and staff to discuss UCR—and the introduction of Repositioning UCR, a policy document spelling out the measures that UCR would be taking in order to remain financially healthy.

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The strategic plan has been in the making for months now, with several UCR bodies being involved. Last semester, a draft was already presented to students. Yet now that the final product is here, we must once again regard it critically. Student input has been incorporated into the document, following issues that have been raised at the Public Spheres. However, as put by the Dean and Managing Director themselves, there are “hotly debated issues” that need to be taken into consideration, such as the foundation of an Engineering department and another increase in tuition fees. But, there are also some issues not represented in the strategic plan that should be addressed before the UCR Council votes on it upcoming Wednesday.

Engineering Department

By far the most radical plan introduced is that of a fifth department in addition to the trusted Academic Core, Arts and Humanities, Social Sciences, and Sciences. This would be the Engineering and Innovation department, presenting a technological approach to the Liberal Arts and Sciences education. According to the strategic plan, it comes with lab facilities and up to 300 new students.

Considering the history of the deliberation to expand UCR’s sciences side, the mere three paragraphs that are spent on it seem very few. The Engineering and Innovation department originates from Campus Zeeland, a cooperation between local institutions and businesses to stimulate Zeeland as an educational science hotspot. The lab facilities would be a joint research lab between UCR and the University of Applied Sciences of Zeeland (HZ). According to the Campus Zeeland website, both the department and the research lab are steps towards a new beta college—a second university college in Zeeland.

Whether the development of this science college is desirable is open to debate, but the fact remains that the introduction of an Engineering and Innovation department raises concerns. Most of them have to do with a simple question of feasibility. Will UCR be able to attract more students? Can it compete with the technical universities in Delft and Twente? Is it possible to recruit suitable faculty for this? However, the two strongest arguments boil down to financial means and student intake.

A little over a year ago, UCR announced it would cut twelve courses from its curriculum as part of its Repositioning UCR policy. This erased the entire Theatre and Media Studies track and had implications for many students’ academic schedule. This course of action was fuelled by a need to save money in order to keep UCR financially stable. The costly idea of a fifth department seems tricky to propose a mere two semesters later. The strategic plan acknowledges the financial risk posed, but only states that UCR will be able to back this through external funding. How this money, a total of 5 million, will sustain an entire department that brings in up to 300 students is not elaborated upon.

This brings rise to the second issue: that of the new students. The plan itself briefly mentions that the college would draw up to 100 students per year. The appendix confirms that in the future, this would mean that UCR is presented with a maximum of 300 additional students. This means a significant growth of the student body, presenting housing, study places, and classrooms issues. Next to the financial challenges that more students bring, there are spatial concerns that should have been addressed before considering such a drastic plan as a fifth department.

Raising of Tuition Fees

An ever-controversial topic is the raising of tuition fees—students are never eager to part with their money. However, the manner in which the strategic plan presents the raises makes the issue more problematic than necessary. Evasive phrasing, faulty comparisons, and lack of transparency only lend themselves to more controversy, rather than justifying the raise.

It starts with the evasive phrasing of the tuition fees. UCR is going to raise fees by €175 in 2018-2019, €100 in 2019-2020, and another €100 in 2020-2021 for both EEA and non-EEA students, amounting to a total raise of €375. On page 14, when the concept of raising fees is first introduced, it only states that UCR “will consider” raising them. Only in Appendix 1 is that addressed in more detail, where it says that the additional money needed to finance plans will partly be funded by “charging an additional tuition fee”. Annex 1, finally, addresses the manner clearly, laying out the actual raise in numerical terms. Within four pages, UCR has shifted from “will consider” to “will raise its tuition”.

Once the raise is elaborated upon in Annex 1, a chart is presented in which UCR’s tuition is compared to that of the other University Colleges (UCs) in the Netherlands. The comparison should not be presented as an argument—the fact that other UCs have higher fees does not give UCR a mandate to raise its own. The information that follows, however, is even more problematic. First of all, it is stated that UCR’s last raise of its tuition fee was in 2013-2014. However, there was a raise of €113 in 2015-2016 which was, in fact, acknowledged by the Repositioning UCR document as a reason to not reconsider raising tuition fees. Furthermore, in the same paragraph, it is stated that the other UCs raised their tuition fees between €200 and €400 last year. A quick search, which was confirmed by students from the other UCs proved that none of the other colleges have raised their fees by more than €200. Moreover, only UC Amsterdam and UC Utrecht came even close to that mark.

The former two arguments can be dismissed on grounds of careless writing or fact checking; however, the point remains that UCR does not appear to be transparent about their finances. The strategic plan offers a vague idea of where the additional income will go, but it does not offer a complete picture. The targeted areas that should benefit from the increased tuition fee, being decreasing class size and improving facilities, do not make up the full gains that the raise offers. There are no other areas mentioned that the tuition fee money might go to, meaning that we cannot fully know the reason for the raise. It does not help matters that UCR reveals very little about its finances. The budget overview of 2016 is limited and we do not have insight in specific posts such as salaries. Offering students little to no insight into finances means they cannot be expected to understand the need of higher tuition fees – transparency is key.

Facilities

After the lengthy discussions and harsh words that occurred at the first Public Sphere on facilities, it is surprising how little some are addressed in the strategic plan. While important matters are addressed, there is not enough of a focus on housing—only a sentence is spent on Villex and Woongoed.

It comes as no surprise to anyone that our current housing system has glaring weaknesses. Our buildings are deteriorating, leaving particularly Bagijnhof in desperate need of renovation. Repairs—ranging from big to small—are sometimes left for weeks, the cleaning of common spaces is irregular, and students complain about being treated unfairly, resulting in extra expenses next to rent on a regular basis. Yet there is no mention of any of this in the strategic plan.

UCR is not responsible for the maintenance of our buildings, but their policy does assign us to our campus locations. We are not allowed to find alternatives, which grants a housing monopoly that should be addressed. Whilst a strategic plan may not be the platform to go into detail about this, it could offer an acknowledgement of the current issues, a promise to evaluate them, and an incentive to work towards improvement.

Concluding Thoughts

It would be unfair, though, to simply dismiss the entirety of the strategic plan on the grounds mentioned above. Months and months of work went into shaping of these plans, and input of the students was requested on multiple occasions. It cannot be said that this is not represented in parts of the plan.

It is difficult for us to assess whether the needs of the UCR faculty have been reached, but it is clear that student concerns have been given a great deal of consideration. Following student input, class size is being scaled back again, more study spaces are going to be created, and the alumni program will be refined. Furthermore, UCR is going to evaluate the semester system in terms of workload and reconsider graduation requirements in terms of their flexibility. All these plans directly meet student demands at info sessions, meetings, and the Public Spheres. Additionally, in its mentions about digitalisation and a focus on an ICT backbone, UCR also recognises the students’ need for better Internet facilities.

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Source: LENSE

Overall, there are major concerns regarding the strategic plan and many questions still remain. There is a need to address the fifth department, the lack of transparency in finances, and the failure to acknowledge housing problems. Regarding this, the strategic plan does not offer a satisfactory view on the future. UCR is a young college, and the rush to grow and be innovative should not come at the cost of neglecting longer-standing issues. But it should be said that students have been invited to speak and they have been listened to—and following the publication of the strategic plan, this opportunity once again presents itself.

This Monday, 25 September, at 20:00, the Dean and the Managing Director will host a session to share their views on the strategic plan and to answer questions. They will do so in Elliott C20. Whether you are doubtful, critical, or in agreement, it is important to attend and let your voice be heard.

Faye Bovelander, Class of 2018, is a Politics and International Law major from Delft, the Netherlands.

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