Two bodies running programmes for inter-university cooperation with developing nations had been threatened with severe cuts: VLIR-UOS cooperation projects in the part of Belgium where Flemish, a Belgian form of Dutch is spoken, and CIUF-CUD in French-speaking universities.
Both bodies receive their funding — about €35 million (just over US$46 million) and €31 million (nearly US$41 million) a year respectively — from Belgium´s federal government.
Belgium is a federal state with a complex political make-up: it comprises three regions (Brussels, Flanders and Wallonia) and three language communities (Dutch, French and German). The language and regional borders are not the same, so these administrative divisions do not overlap, and each entity has distinct powers and responsibilities, including in funding research.
As a result of its decision to devolve responsibility for university cooperation for development, the federal government announced in May that it would phase out its funding for VLIR-UOS and CIUF-CUD and, as part of this, only release 67 per cent of their 2013 budgets. This reduction was also part of federal budget savings to cope with the economic crisis and comply with the European Union´s demands for budget discipline.
"It was a disaster," says Verbrugghen. "We had to tell our partners: ´Hold your horses!´. This had an impact on our reputation, on our universities and academics. "Murielle Andersson, the secretary-general of CIUF-CUD, agrees.
For example, CIUF-CUD is launching cooperation programmes with three universities in Ecuador, Madagascar and Niger, and the funding uncertainties may have damaged their trust in their new Belgian partners.
"The risk we face is that academics lose their motivation. The longer we wait [for the programmes to roll out], the higher the risk," says Andersson.