Get rid of the funding model for higher education

Ann Dooms

Professor of mathematics and data science at VUB and specialized in mathematics for digital applications

There is a lot going wrong in the financing of higher education. It is very difficult to give top candidates a position for more than three years after their studies and even more difficult to appoint scientific support staff.

I belong to what is called the Independent Academic Staff or ZAP for short. The Z can give you several meanings. I often feel like CEO, CTO, CFO, CMO, CCO and HR director rolled into one. Our mission officially consists of education, research and services within and outside the university and our funding models are built on this.

A department’s portfolio of professor and assistant positions largely depends on the number of students you teach, the number of credits and degrees – bachelor’s, master’s and PhD. – you deliver, internationalization, how much and where you publish, and the amount of external financial resources you bring in as a group.

The performance of your colleagues from other departments, faculties and universities is also a factor. Even if you do better than before, if the others do even better in absolute numbers, you may suffer losses, leaving the work under fewer hands, or should I say heads.

Unfortunately, mathematics education in Flanders does not attract a large number of students, while mathematical research is not a ‘paper generator’ or can be sold off the shelf, which means that practitioners of the Queen of Sciences do not lead a royal life. There are few ZAP positions and that is where the shoe squeezes the most.

Of course, not every PhD student or postdoc can aspire to progress to the professorship, but the current system means that Flanders is seeing too much valuable expertise disappear. To leaking pipeline deserves the attention of our policy makers.

If a newly graduated top student wants to start a PhD degree, there are invariably different funding options: an application to the – albeit very competitive – Fond for Videnskabelig Forskning (FWO), a vacant assistant position or a PhD position in a recently won research project. But once it becomes a doctor, the situation looks a lot less rosy.

If you want to delve into research, you have a few options, but once you have a PhD, the situation looks a lot less rosy.

A postdoc can again go to the FWO for a three-year mandate, but the competition is even greater than before. Even with excellent work, there is no automatic influx or one-time renewal. Because the favorable stipend scheme is no longer available to postdocs, hiring full-time assistants or a research project is often no longer an option, even during temporary transition periods.

In addition, success rates for achieving research projects are unacceptably low, so continuity is inevitably compromised. Postdocs therefore usually go abroad or leave the academy for a job with all possible benefits and a certain job security. In this way, a lot of knowledge is lost, which we have just invested in with public funds. And that precisely at the time of the highest return in research and its valorisation.

It is even more difficult to appoint scientific support staff. The university is the ideal place to tackle fundamental problems, in my case data science, something for which there is almost no time or space in our industry, and similar solutions are often the source of innovation. For example, my group works on automatic processing of scans of documents, both from our cultural heritage and the private sector. Although there are already many commercial players, the mathematical modeling of human text recognition and processing appears to be the key to a generic solution. We were named the winner of an international competition that included Google. After a four-year doctorate, there was naturally no marketable product on the table.

We regularly hear that there should be a better flow of academic research in Flemish industry. But most often it is not the will, but the means.

We regularly hear that there should be a better flow of academic research in Flemish industry. But most of the time it really is not lacking in will, but in resources, be it the university or the companies. Flanders has no Google or Facebook that recruits postdocs at the universities and thus in effect become privately funded research institutions that can effectively shape theoretical ideas into products in large teams.

The government has recently invested heavily in artificial intelligence and cyber security, but the distribution of these resources is in a straitjacket of affiliations and earmarks. We are therefore still dependent on project applications with corresponding schedules, budget constraints and rigid rules that prevent you from reacting quickly.

To appoint a much-needed software engineer with the right expertise to convert our research findings into a minimum viable product casting was a path paved with surreal obstacles, the main problem being the lack of a suitable working environment at the university. In this way, a valorization process quickly becomes altruism for all parties involved.

So get rid of the current academic funding models! This must and can be done better.

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