The Rector’s Column | 29.09.2022

Dear employees,
colleagues and students,

Universities are not immune to dramatic cost increases. Austrian universities are now estimated to be short of around 1.2 billion euros in the current budget period from 2022 to 2024 – and this shortfall could increase even further. “Even our best efforts to compensate for this enormous amount will not be enough,” says Sabine Seidler, President of the Austrian University Conference (uniko).

At the time of our budget negotiations with the Ministry in October 2021, the scale of inflation was – unfortunately or thankfully – not yet foreseeable. At the time, around 2-3% per year were factored into the budgets – the current price hikes across the board, as well as the foreseeable increases in personnel costs, cannot be covered by the budget for 2022 to 2024 as negotiated. All universities are now coming together to call for the compensation of at least the real, de facto additional costs, so that their services do not have to be cut back.

I would like to briefly discuss the areas of energy and personnel that are significantly affected:

In terms of energy costs, it is often argued that expenses lowered by reducing heating, but also by increasing distance learning and staff working from home. However, to fulfil the universities’ main tasks in teaching and research, it is essential for both students and teachers to come together and exchange ideas in person. This is more important than ever after the pandemic-related restrictions of the past few years. Even if the electricity and gas prices are going through the roof – an “energy lockdown” to save on costs would be counterproductive; it would not only set back universities as research institutions, but also students’ educational and personal development. Even today, the impact of the Corona years is almost impossible to make up for in some disciplines. We will not abandon our students and will do everything in our power to avoid the assumption that studying virtually is enough. This may be a viable option in some cases for some students, and we have learned from the Corona crisis that certain courses can continue to be held online in the future. However, we must help first-year students on their way – and this can hardly be done from home, especially at the beginning of their studies.

Saving on personnel costs – undoubtedly the largest share of the budget – is not effective either. Universities thrive on recruiting and keeping the brightest minds. If we do not offer the best conditions for our employees – in the scientific and academic support areas alike – and impose a recruitment freeze or not continue to employ existing staff, we are threatened with disruptions in the medium to long term that are not easy to resolve. Universities cannot be shut down and started back up again, as is possible in some sectors of the economy. If certain fields (of knowledge) are not cultivated for a certain time, they must first be recultivated before they can bear fruit in the form of answers to socially relevant questions.

Austria is a key location for business and innovation, and it would be more expensive than any energy bill if universities went bankrupt due to inflation. Budget cuts will inevitably cause irreparable damage. The money invested in promising structures and growth areas in recent years would be jeopardised. We at the PLUS will also contribute to saving costs and using resources sparingly as much as we can – this is precisely what our responsibility and social role model function entails. However, the additional costs cannot be compensated if we do not receive support. Therefore, I appeal to the political leaders to redistribute the additional revenue from inflation to the universities as well – so that the universities can continue to perform to their full potential. I will do my utmost to ensure that we as the PLUS will continue to develop and grow today and in the future.

Kind regards,
Your Rector Hendrik Lehnert