Budget cuts at the Faculty of Technical Sciences: Union representatives are surprised and criticise management for letting them down

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As late as October 2020 the staff representatives asked at a Faculty Liaison Committee (FSU) meeting if there were budget cuts in the pipeline. No immediate plans was the response. But now the Faculty of Technical Sciences must make cuts of DKK 70 million. Employees are both shocked and frustrated by the news, since they have been subjected to cuts for years.

2021.03.23 | Trine Marie Vestergaard og Marie Groth Andersen

Staff members are shocked and surprised by the proposed budget cuts, especially those at the departments at the Faculty of Technical Sciences, which have been hit the hardest by the proposed DKK 70 million cuts. Archive photos: Lars Kruse and Jørgen Weber/AU Photo

Shock, surprise, frustration and feelings of hopelessness are some of the words which describe the atmosphere among staff members at the departments at the Faculty of Technical Sciences, which are going through severe budget cuts. It applies in particular to the departments which among other things are in charge of public sector consultancy at Aarhus University: the Department of Environmental Science, Department of Bioscience, Department of Agroecology, and the Department of Animal Science.    

Asked directly about cutbacks during the autumn

This news comes as a big surprise because staff members asked specifically about possible cutbacks in 2021 at the Faculty Liaison Committee (FSU) meeting in October. They were told that there were no immediate plans to cut budgets. However, it appears from the minutes of the meeting (in Danish) that the part of the faculty covering government services was under financial pressure.

In November, the 2021 budget was once again on the agenda of the FSU meeting. The staff representatives noticed that the budget was included as a point on the agenda, but that there were no attachments provided, which meant that they didn’t have the opportunity to discuss the budget figures in detail. They were told at this meeting that the budget for 2021 had been finalised with help from Aarhus University. It wasn’t until an extraordinary FSU meeting was called in December that the staff representatives found out that the faculty was in severe financial difficulty. 

And on Monday the news spread through the faculty, when the Dean Eskild Holm Nielsen announced that the faculty has to introduce cutbacks of DKK 70 million, of which DKK 50 million will be cut from the departments that are involved with public sector consultancy. The senior management team and the board at Aarhus University have also stated that it is expected that the area of public sector consultancy will ‘be balanced’ financially from 2022. The remaining DKK 20 million will be cut from the four engineering departments.

Shock and surprise

”We’re all in shock,” said Ole-Kenneth Nielsen, who is the senior consultant at the Department of Environmental Science and the union representative for academic staff and administrative staff with an academic background (IDA). This department is facing cutbacks of DKK 7.5 million.

“The fact that it is necessary to make cuts as well as the scope of the cutbacks has come as such a surprise for both the union representatives and the other staff members,” he said. 

The news of cutbacks has also caused a lot of surprise and worry among the administrative staff, explained Charlotte Kler, who is the project secretary at the Department of Bioscience and the union representative for members of the National Union of Commerical and Clerical Employees (HK) at the Faculty of Technical Sciences.

”This was so unexpected – no one saw it coming,” said Charlotte Kler.

She explained that during recent years she has noticed that if employees leave or retire, these positions are not filled afterwards. 

”I find it difficult to see where we can make the cuts and still manage to run daily operations, because we have been cut right down to the minimum,” said Charlotte Kler.

Splitting the faculty has been causing worry about the financial situation for some time

Ole-Kenneth Nielsen from the Department of Environmental Science explained that the staff representatives were worried about the financial situation in relation to splitting the Faculty of Science and Technology into two faculties back in 2020, resulting in the Faculty of Natural Sciences and the Faculty of Technical Sciences. And as a result they had routinely posed these questions and raised these concerns with the liaison committees. 

”But we were always reassured that splitting the faculties wasn’t deemed as a way to save money by the senior management. Instead they presented it as an opportunity to build up our level of competitiveness,” said Ole-Kenneth Nielsen.

Quick execution means layoffs

He acknowledged the management’s decision to let the departments working in public sector consultancy become financially independent. And that the management will no longer compensate for the annual 2% cuts that this area is subject to politically. But the fact that this has to happen before 2022 is something that he and many other union representatives are very critical of. 

”There’s a very short period available to us to implement these savings and if management don’t give us more time for this transition period, then the only way to achieve these savings is to lay people off. That’s why we encourage management to spread the required savings over a number of years,” said Ole-Kenneth Nielsen.

Risk destroying the research environments

Ole-Kenneth and three other union representatives from the Department of Environmental Science have included this suggestion in an open letter which was sent to the Rector Brian Bech Nielsen and the chair of the board of AU, Connie Hedegaard. In the letter they highlight how there will be devastating consequences for the research environments if they implement the cutbacks too quickly.

Among other things, they wrote ”from our perspective, it would have been fairer to ask the departments affected to achieve the proposed targets by 2024 or 2025, and not to insist that they meet these targets already by 2022, which will result in several redundancies. It takes many years to establish strong research environments, but these can be destroyed in a flash by foolish actions by the management.”

Let down by management

At the Department of Agroecology in Flakkebjerg near Slagelse in the west of Zealand, associate professor and union representative Johannes Ravn Jørgensen is very much in agreement with his union representative colleagues from the Department of Environmental Science. He represents academic staff and administrative staff with an academic background (JA, DM, PharmaDK, IDA and KS), and he deems it ‘being let down by the management’ that they haven’t addressed the financial problems before now. 

”It’s also disappointing that the university management didn’t negotiate a sustainable contract between the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries in relation to public service consultancy,” he said.

The same message came from Beate Strandberg, who is the union representative for academic staff and administrative staff with an academic background (IDA) at the Department of Bioscience. The department has to save DKK 8.5 million. According to Beate Strandberg, this news came as a shock, because they received the message that “the finances looked good” from the liaison committee in the autumn.

”We weren’t warned in the slightest. We feel like we’ve been let down by management at the highest level – by the dean and the rector – where it was known how bad the financial situation really was,” said Beate Strandberg.

Wednesday 3 March was the deadline for sending in suggestions for where the cutbacks could be made. The Department of Bioscience has sent in a few suggestions, explained Beate Strandberg.

The first relates to when researchers at the department are supervisors for both BA and MA students of biology and agroecology. In these cases, they wouldn’t receive any student full time equivalent or FTE funding. This is the funding that departments receive when a full-time student has passed all the examinations in a given year. The aim of this proposal is that, in the future, supervision will generate income for the department.  

The second relates to a major financial investment in the area for a green transition; an investment which should come from the senior management team at AU. 

”If we think about a green transition, it’s difficult to see how the engineering industry can succeed without us. To find good solutions, it’s important to consider nature and the environment. Therefore, we suggest a pool of funding to support the green transition and collaboration at the Faculty of Technical Sciences between: biologists, engineers, agriculture, food, environment and animals,” said Beate Strandberg.

A call to politicians

At the Department of Agroecology in Foulum, north-west of Aarhus in Jutland, associate professor Goswin Johann Heckrath, who is the union representative for academic staff (JA), believes that the issue should be taken up at a political level. 

“A signal should be sent to the ministry to tell them that the 2% yearly cuts on public sector consultancy are not sustainable long-term. And certainly not when looked at in relation to the requirement for co-financing, which is increasingly becoming a standard with external grants. And the fact that many foundations are only willing to pay limited overheads. In other words, we’re squeezed out of basic funds because it’s of no benefit to us to receive external grants when they come with co-financing requirements that we simply cannot pay,” he said.   

Ole-Kenneth Nielsen from the Department of Environmental Sciences can also attest to this perspective.

”We’ve been making savings for many years without expecting that the number of tasks would reduce. Our experience has been quite the opposite – our area has in fact become one of greater focus. We’re under a lot of pressure, because there is a large focus on the areas of environment and food from several groups including politicians, interest groups and the media. Therefore, there’s a need for a call to politicians to say very clearly – you can’t have what you want while you make annual cuts of 2%,” said Ole-Kenneth Nielsen.

AU research areas score well in international rankings

Union representatives also highlighted that the research areas of food and the environment score well in international rankings. As recently as last Thursday, AU posted on Facebook that in the areas of ‘agriculture and forestry’, AU lies in 28th place on the QS World University Rankings.

”And recently we’ve seen AU announce that it wants to create a centre for more sustainable farming – this makes one wonder that on the one hand this area of research is of high priority, but at the same time strict cutbacks are being introduced in the area,” said Johannes Ravn Jørgensen.

Subjected to cuts for many years

Johannes Ravn Jørgensen also highlighted that cuts are not an unknown phenomenon to the departments affected. Since 2009, the public sector has been subjected to 2% annual cuts imposed from the political side.

”It’s been a long while since we’ve enjoyed ’good times’. Since 2009, we have experienced cuts on what the university considers our basic funding (contracts with ministries for public sector consultancy and monitoring tasks for the authorities, ed.). We have been really good at compensating for these restrictions by attracting external grants. But we’ve also been through recurring adjustment rounds, which have trimmed down the organisation,” explained Johannes Ravn Jørgensen.

The Department for Agroecology has just implemented savings of DKK 2.5 million by introducing planned staff retirements and then not filling these empty positions. This means that the original savings requirement of DKK 10 million at the department has now been reduced to DKK 7.5 million. 

”But it also means that the low-hanging fruit has already been picked,” said Johannes Ravn Jørgensen.

He also mentioned that the department has to deal with a generation challenge, because more staff members are older.

”I fear somewhat that now that we offer voluntary redundancy packages and senior staff schemes, we might lose much-needed skills at the department, which we rely on to deliver research and public sector consultancy,” said Johannes Ravn Jørgensen.

Beate Strandberg from the Department of Bioscience criticises the fact that senior management hasn’t previously taken into account the annual 2% cuts in the public sector since 2009. She believes, for example, that the cuts should have resulted in a corresponding reduction in tasks.

”The workload has clearly not been reduced and has been maintained at a very high level despite the cutbacks. At the same time, we’re a department with a strong focus on nature and the environment that also applies for private grants, which often have very low or absolutely no overheads. This also leads to a burden on the department’s finances. Therefore, if we focus solely on public sector consultancy as a way out of this financial crisis, then we’ll never find workable, long-term solutions,” said Beate Strandberg.

Dean: I’ve always said that there were black clouds looming

The Dean for Technical Sciences, Eskild Holm Nielsen, is personally surprised that the financial situation at the faculty comes as a surprise to union representatives and members of staff. He believes that everything has been very transparent at the collaboration meetings, and stresses that dialogue concerning the financial situation belongs at these meetings and at the departments.

The dean acknowledges that the financial process has been affected by some unknowns: the budgets for the two faculties weren’t agreed on and the framework conditions which are agreed on by the senior management team and the university’s board were only finalised at the end of December and in February. 

”Yes, it’s correct that I said at the meeting in October that there were no planned cuts in 2021, because there weren’t any at that time. The deficit of DKK 50 million was accounted for in the 2021 budget. But we didn’t know the framework conditions for how this deficit should be handled in 2022-2024, because no decisions had been made,” said Eskild Holm Nielsen, and continued: 

”But at the FSU meeting, I made no secret of the fact that there were black clouds looming  – we had stretched the elastic band as much as we could. So, that’s why I find it really difficult to understand their surprise.”

Eskild Holm Nielsen stresses that he gave members of staff at the FSU meeting in December a ‘meticulous review’ of the budget for 2021, but the budget for 2022-2024 was still awaiting a decision on the framework conditions for the long-term financial situation at the faculty. And therefore, he had to wait before he could announce specific information in relation to cutbacks for 2022-2024.

”As the dean, I’m reluctant to shout ’the wolf is coming’ before I know with certainty the extent of the cutbacks. And in December, I once again called the staff representatives to the FSU meeting to provide a confidential briefing on the situation. So I believe that I’ve fulfilled my task of informing them of the situation,” said the dean. 

So when members of staff claim they have been let down by management, since they weren’t informed of the extent of the problems and that those responsible should have had a closer eye on the finances at the faculty, do you consider these claims to be incorrect? 

”None of the decisions that I have made as dean have caused these challenges. The problems became apparent with the split of the finances of the Faculty of Science and Technology (the faculty was split into the Faculty of Natural Sciences and the Faculty of Technical Sciences, ed.). This split meant a rise in costs and a change in the faculty’s framework conditions – which as dean, I have very limited influence over. This year the contributions which we received from the other faculties in 2019-2020 will cease. This framework – following a recommendation from the senior management team – was only adopted by the board in February 2021.” 

Members of staff are also showing a high level of frustration about how the cuts will hit an area that has a large political focus and plays a key role in relation to providing a knowledge base for a green transition in society. These are also research environments that rank highly internationally. Can you understand this frustration? 

”Yes, and I too share this frustration. But I want to say again that the political decision to make 2% cuts annually on the public sector contracts cannot be subsidised any longer by Aarhus University. It’s necessary that the public sector consultancy books can balance themselves. The framework conditions that include the ministry’s 2% annual cuts don’t help us at all. We’re trying to change this, but it won’t be the answer to our current problems.”

Engineering not yet aware of their budget

Planned cuts within engineering are less severe. In total, savings of DKK 20 million have to be made. So far, the faculty have managed to cut spending by DKK 11 million by reducing building costs and reducing funding available to PhD students. Therefore, across the four engineering departments, savings of around DKK 8 million need to be made.

At the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, cuts of DKK 3 million are required.  But it’s not the scope of the cuts that interests Allan Leck Jensen, who is a union representative and senior researcher at the department. Instead, he would like to see the budget for the department.  

There was a merger of two former departments: Aarhus University School of Engineering, which was responsible for the 3.5-year Bachelor of Engineering Programme including a 6-month placement, and the Department of Engineering, which was responsible for the 5-year Master of Science in Engineering Programme. This combined department was then split into four new ones and the budget for each department has not yet been finalised.  

”Neither we nor management has the final budget. So we’ve no idea what the budget for our department looks like. And therefore it’s been difficult to come up with ideas for where savings can be made,” said Allan Leck Jensen.

Jens Peder Ulfkjær agrees. He is the joint union representative at the Faculty of Technical Sciences and union representative at the Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering, where they have to make cuts of DKK 1.5 million. He explains that they haven’t put forward any money-saving ideas yet, since they haven’t seen the budget and where savings could be made.

But he doesn’t hide the fact that he is concerned that these savings will negatively impact the 3.5-year Bachelor of Engineering Programmes (diplomingeniører, ed.). 

”A significant amount of money is being added for engineering investment, and the money primarily goes to the engineering programmes originating from the former 5-year Master of Science in Engineering Programme, including the relevant new Bachelor and Master’s engineering programmes. I’m afraid that the money will move away from the 3.5-year Bachelor in Engineering (diplomingeniører, ed.), and that the quality of the 3.5-year programme will decrease,” said Jens Peder Ulfkjær.

The dean Eskild Holm Nielsen recognises that it’s a difficult process, since the budgets for the engineering departments are not ready yet.  

”The budget process has been drawn out and we haven’t yet been able to separate out the budgets for each department. But we know the entire budget for the four departments and we know that there needs to be cuts of DKK 20 million. Of this amount, management at the faculty has been able to cut costs of DKK 11 million, so it is now up to the departments to cut their costs by DKK 8 million. And the departments know their respective costs,” added the dean.

Translated by Marian Flanagan

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