How to measure the quality of a university?

Universities take rankings less seriously

Ranking. Foto: Pixabay
Photo: Pixabay

When it comes to worldwide rankings, Dutch universities are doing okay, although their position varies from ranking to ranking — and that kind of says it all: how to measure how good a university is anyway?

In a statement published on the website of the association of Dutch universities, UNL, an expert group consisting of two scholars and several policy advisors says that the rankings “falsely claim to be able to summarise a university’s performance in a single number”.

Recognition and rewards
What’s more, the rankings are at odds with universities' efforts to recognise and reward academics in a better way. Dutch universities have been striving to evaluate their academic staff by more than just the number of articles they publish in journals (something that weighs heavily in the rankings): teaching, leadership, team efforts and public communication should count just as much.

“Is research more important than teaching?”, the experts ask rhetorically. “Or is it the other way around? If the weighting system focuses on one of the core tasks, universities that excel in the other are put at a disadvantage.”

However, it looks as though universities are torn. Although they express themselves critically about world rankings, at the same time they do embrace them in marketing activities. “For many of us, including the members of the expert group, this pragmatic approach feels uncomfortable.”

To avoid "undermining" the new system of recognition and rewards, the experts recommend a culture change. “Using league tables in an opportunist fashion must be avoided, while fair and academically responsible use is to be encouraged.”

The advice is to only use the rankings for marketing ends, not for internal evaluations. A further recommendation is to support alternatives that allow users to select their own criteria, such as U-Multirank, to help create awareness of just how random the weighting is. And, finally, to draw attention to More than our rank, where universities can list all of the things they do that aren’t visible in the rankings.

“Universities behave ambivalently towards university rankings”, admits the President of Universities of The Netherlands (UNL), Pieter Duisenberg. “It’s important to be able to determine our position amongst the world’s frontrunners, but this way it doesn’t reflect the breadth of the work we do.”

Dutch universities are therefore willing to work on a cultural change. “We are happy that the University of Twente, Leiden University, Maastricht University and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam are wiling to lead the way in this respect”, reads a statement by UNL.