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Dutch universities to take different approach to rankings

Published: 11th July 2023 Last updated: 11th July 2023

The Dutch universities will take a more critical stance towards global university ranking. These so-called league tables have methodological shortcomings and their assessment of the research achievements of universities is too one-sided, being merely based on the number of publications and citations. This is at odds with the Recognition & Rewards program, through which Dutch universities emphasize quality rather than quantity. This is the conclusion of an expert group advising the Board of Universities of the Netherlands (UNL).

Vice-Rector Magnificus Jantine Schuit:

Given the Recognition & Rewards program, these rankings have given us headaches for some time now. They do not do justice to the complexity of the work that is being done at universities. Therefore Tilburg University has made less use of these rankings and we all but ceased to communicate about them. So we are pleased that all Dutch universities will now be following this nation-wide advice and hope that things will also change at the European level

What are rankings?

University rankings come in different shapes and sizes. The expert group’s advice focuses specifically on league tables. These are rankings that try to capture a university’s performance in an overall score of accomplishments in research, education, and impact. In doing so, they claim to reflect the overall performance of a university. However, there is no universally accepted criterion to quantify a university’s overall performance. In addition, league tables emphasize research achievements, which are largely determined by the number of publications and citations.

The Dutch universities believe it is important to perform well in these international rankings, as many students, scientists, businesses, and governments consult them. However, the methods by which these league tables are made and the value assigned to them is at odds with the principles of the Recognition & Rewards program. As part of this program, institutions want to give more weight to different qualities in science, rather than looking at one single quantitative dimension to measure quality. UNL therefore asked an expert group for advice on how universities can best deal with the league tables in relation to Recognition & Rewards.

What is going to change?

The expert group has indicated that the use of league tables can undermine Recognition & Rewards. It has offered a number of recommendations for the short and long terms that can contribute to the desired culture change with respect to the league tables. The advice comprises recommendations at institutional, national, and international levels. Tilburg University has taken note of this advice, which is largely in line with the internal course already set regarding the reduced use of and communication about league table rankings. In the coming period, Tilburg University will explore ways, together with the other Dutch universities, on how to implement these recommendations, for instance:

  • contributing to alternatives for the league tables, such as multi-dimensional rankings;
  • no longer using league tables in internal evaluations or budget allocations;
  • publicizing the data that are provided to the league tables;
  • creating more awareness of the limitations of league tables;
  • trying to discourage the use of the league tables by the government;
  • promoting change at a European level, among other things, by exploring joint guidelines together with the European University Association (EUA) and experts from other European countries.

Developments at a European level are taken into account, the CoARA agreement (Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment) forming an important framework. This Agreement on Reforming Research Assessment sets a shared direction for changes in assessment practices for research, researchers, and research performing organizations and is a joint initiative of Science Europe, the European University Association (EUA), and the European Commission. All Dutch universities have recently signed this agreement.

The expert group’s advice focuses specifically on the use of and the communication about league tables. Other types of rankings, including topical or subject rankings and sustainability rankings, fall outside the scope of this advice and need to be assessed separately for their added value. The advice limits itself to league tables because they serve the largest group and unfairly claim to capture the performance of universities in one-dimensional rankings.

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