Cyprus Mail

Universities furious over budget blocks by MPs

By Poly Pantelides

HOUSE PRESIDENT Yiannakis Omirou is due to meet the rectors of Cyprus’ three-state funded universities today, ahead of a House education committee meeting tomorrow to discuss budgets.

The University of Cyprus, the Cyprus University of Technology (TEPAK), and the Open University have had millions of euros in funding crossed off, or blocked, by parliament.

The plenum discussed the budgets on July 11 amid long and tense discussions on some 60 amendments. Approved amendments included reducing allowances and benefits, freezing promotions, and banning overtime payment for high-ranking university staff. Other changes included a requirement for university staff to contribute 1.5 per cent of their gross salaries to be eligible for state healthcare.

But legislators also blocked funding connected with how the universities use their own self-generated funds, such as research grants competitively obtained through EU bodies. This has angered the academic community, prompting a wide-scale reaction. Academics have questioned politicians’ motives to curtail more than just their salaries and allowances, in what many of them have called an effort by politicians to take away universities’ autonomy.

The MPs said universities needed to provide more information about how they handled those funds, and prohibited the universities from using them, or accepting donations until they provided further explanations.

The University of Cyprus’ rector, Constantinos Christofides, said the immediate future of about 550 researchers was now at stake since their jobs were related to research projects totalling some €40 million. He also said that the university needed to make expenses in the summer if it were to be able to open its graduate school as normal in September.

The University of Technology’s rector Elpida Keravnou said that with MPs taking off for the summer, they might let matters slide leaving the university hanging.

DIKO MP Athena Kyriakidou who had pushed for a number of amendments said crossing off funds was not the same as abolishing them. The funds were still there and universities only needed to explain how they would use the money before parliament released them, she said.

“We will work in the summer and we are willing to release funds,” she said.

It was not immediately clear yesterday how much of universities’ budgets got slashed and how much of their budgets got crossed off, although the amounts come to millions of euros.

Kyriakidou told the Cyprus Mail she could not remember the amounts off hand. House Education committee members Nicos Tornaritis could not be reached. DISY MP Andreas Themistocleous who had pushed hard for a reduction in the universities’ budgets could also not be reached.

But Themistocleous – who previously argued against setting up the University of Cyprus’ medical school in September and then withdrew his objections – has been damning. “We are most definitely not willing to tax people and give universities millions. And then [universities] want to stop us from demanding explanations,” he said.

In an article, Themistocleous accused the “well-fed” academics of being insensitive in light of “the hunger and misery around them”.

Themistocleous and Kyriakidou have argued they are doing their job: checking where taxpayers’ money goes.

But many academics have accused legislator of trying to micro-manage the universities by demanding explanations for funds checked by and obtained from other sources.

“European programmes are under strict financial checks and do not need the blessing of Cyprus’ parliament. It takes a lot of cheek and narcissism to believe that you may understand (as an MP) the needs of a research programme in physics, chemistry, archaeology or literature,” said Marinos Pourgouris, an academic at the university of Cyprus, in a recent article.

His university has managed for example to harness some €8.15 million via grants by the European Research Council, which tends to reject over 90 per cent of grant applications.

The three universities had submitted budgets – including revenue from their own means – coming to a total of €175 million. The University of Cyprus’ budget was the biggest at €108, with revenues of roughly €40 million from funds collected via other means, such as EU grants. The university of technology’s budget came to some €54 million of which roughly €14 million was revenue from university-generated funds while and the Open University’s to €13 million with roughly €1.0 million came from other funds.

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