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22 February 2005

Greater Scope for Universities and Academics

With its unique reform project "Impulse" the University of Heidelberg has succeeded in making systematic and efficient use of taxpayers' money — A symposium on 7/8 April indicates the opportunities and potentialities bound up with this new scope for universities and academics

When the year comes to an end, "December fever" breaks out at many university departments. The money left over in the department budget has to be spent quickly, otherwise it will be forfeited on the stroke of midnight, December 31. For some years now, this end-of-the-year panic has been a thing of the past at the University of Heidelberg. The "Impulse" project co-funded by the Volkswagen Foundation has transformed the old "cameralistic" accounting system (strictly annualised public-service-style budgeting) into one that works on commercial principles. This means that heads of department can simply carry over remaining resources into the next year and thus save up for such things as major acquisitions. Naturally this also gives them greater independence and flexibility.

In the course of the conversion of the accounting system and in the face of increasingly scarce resources, the entire financial system of the University has been overhauled. SAP's R/3 software has been introduced to back up commercial accounting and department budgets have been restructured. These budgets now consist of three pillars: basic provisions, performance-related resources, and a portion established on the basis of negotiations with the Rectorate. This new approach is not however limited to the departments and institutes of the University, it also extends to its service-providers, like the University Library or the Computer Centre. With the "Impulse" project now complete, a symposium has been organised for Thursday 7 and Friday 8 April. Experts from various leading European universities and from the world of politics and business will be coming to Heidelberg to discuss the new scope opened up to universities by this approach and the unique Heidelberg system of "decentralised resource responsibility".

The experts will have a number of things to report on. By its very nature, such a thoroughgoing restructuring process at a university was bound to run into considerable resistance and a variety of obstacles. This was already apparent at the application stage. In its stipulations in connection with the funding to be provided, the Volkswagen Foundation originally had a restructuring process at Faculty level in mind. The University of Heidelberg went one step further and extended the new approach to the department and institute level. The scientists and scholars in charge of the departments are after all in the best position to decide what is necessary and beneficial for those departments. Only in this way can resources be deployed effectively and efficiently.

The reform of the institute budgets was the major stumbling-block. In the last few decades these had been extended on the basis of such things as new professorial appointments. Accordingly, institutes with a large number of new appointments were able to bump up their budgets, while those with fewer appointments were not.

Such an approach to the provision of resources for institutes is however notably deficient in taking due account of performance. To offset this, the system has been modified to account for the number of students or the amount of external resources acquired. And finally there is the portion of the budget that is subject to negotiations with the Rectorate. This means that the Rectorate can agree with the institutes on goals like the improvement of institute library holdings. At the same time departments can point to unusual strains on their resources caused by such things as the education of students from other departments.

Carrying over resources into the subsequent year is not the only advantage institutes now have. For example, if resources provided for the hiring of new staff have not been exhausted, these can be used to finance new equipment — and vice versa. At the same time institutes have been empowered to decide themselves on new appointments for employees and service staff, meaning that when a vacancy occurs the head of the department is now free to decide at what level he/she intends to make use of it.

Such new freedom has its drawbacks, of course. Most of them lie in the additional administrative effort involved in the independent planning and deployment of resources. But Heidelberg's academics are convinced that the benefits outweigh the extra administrative effort. And taxpayers can be sure that their money is now being used more effectively.

Please address any inquiries to
Angela Schröder
IMPULSE project management
phone: 06221/543421, fax: 542618

Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

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