University rector defends decision to quit ranking system
“Utrecht University [UU], like many other Dutch and foreign universities, has been critical of rankings for a long time,” Kummeling told University World News.
“UU has now chosen to no longer actively participate in rankings that do not adhere to principles of open science, as it is not in line with our values and ambitions and what we propagate in the ... academic community,” he said.
The university accepts that the absence of UU in the London-based THE magazine’s ranking may affect the perception of UU, he said. “But people are expected to choose to study, work or collaborate with UU based on content and quality, not on a spot in a ranking with limitations”, said Kummeling who advocates strategic choices, making UU “a university with a head and a heart”.
He said: “We continue to advise students to compare the content and nature of degree programmes. There are many tools available to do so responsibly. And we advise researchers and potential partners to continue to consider the nature of research programmes, our academic culture and working conditions.”
Student numbers – domestic and overseas – will not be affected either, Kummeling argued.
“We trust the knowledge and critical ability of our partners and do not expect that a place on a ranking will affect our international relations. Utrecht University will continue to be a good choice, now and in the future,” he said.
Previously the university, which has more than 40,000 students, 8,500 staff and a €1.1 billion (US$1.6 billion) annual budget, was 66th in the THE international rankings. In 2023, TU Delft (Delft University of Technology) was the highest-ranked university in the Netherlands, at 48th place.
Utrecht’s conscious choice to leave THE has been coming for many years, UU researcher Drs Jeroen Bosman, UU subject librarian for geosciences, said on X (formerly Twitter), also emphasising the cost/time investment of providing data.
The impossibility of capturing quality
In addition, the Utrecht University argued in a 29 September statement that rankings put too much stress on scoring and competition instead of open scientific research. “It is almost impossible to capture the quality of an entire university with all the different courses and disciplines in one number,” it said.
Meanwhile UU’s decision has received “positive reactions and from around the world, not just in the Netherlands,” Ruben Puylaert, the Universities of the Netherlands (UNL) spokesperson, told University World News.
“League tables give the impression that they can help students find a good university to study at,” Puylaert said. “However, this is highly debatable because rankings are actually much more about research than education. We want to explore how we can effectively present ourselves as universities without using league tables.”
A European University Association (EUA) October 2023 paper looking at the use of rankings by higher education institutions emphasised that rankings ”face sustained criticism for their choice and use of indicators, data collection methods, promotion of a single model of excellence, and lack of transparency on what they can – and cannot – tell their users about institutional quality and excellence”.
Meanwhile, other Dutch universities are also reconsidering their participation in rankings.
“This spring, we received a recommendation paper from a UNL expert group, ‘Ranking the university: On the effects of rankings on the academic community and how to deal with them’, concluding that league tables are problematic, with research being measured with irresponsible ‘bigger is better’ indicators,” Puylaert said.
“The expert group concludes that ranking cannot be done in a meaningful way and that the underlying data and methodology used for this purpose tend to lack transparency,” Puylaert said.
He added that scores in league tables are one-dimensional. “Universities should stop providing data to non-transparent league tables,” he said, citing the European Union’s January 2022 Agreement on Reforming Research Assessment, signed by more than 600 organisations including UU committing to avoid university rankings to value research work.
In the meantime, Dutch universities such as UU are also contributing to multi-dimensional alternatives to league tables, such as the 2022 world university and college comparator U-Multirank.
An international movement to resist the dominance of rankings can also be seen through the ‘More than our Rank’ initiative and CoARA (the Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment, responsible for the research assessment agreement), UU spokesperson Iris Kruijen added, which UU also signed.
Other ranking systems include the QS World University Ranking and that of the US Chronicle of Higher Education, but UU is not keen on participating in either of them.
The university recently stopped cooperating with QS, so it is up to QS policy how long UU will appear in this ranking, Kruijen added.
However, for the ShanghaiRanking, universities do not provide information, with the ranking relying on public and paid sources, the UU spokesperson continued, so “it is therefore possible that UU will still be ranked there, as well as in other rankings, including THE, that rely on public information.”
Collaboration and open science
The university’s keenness to focus on collaboration and open science is shown, she said, by its four strategic themes: dynamics of youth; institutions for open societies; life sciences; and pathways to sustainability.
Donald Pechler, the higher education and research collective labour agreement negotiator at the AOb (Algemene Onderwijsbond – the Dutch union for Academic Education and Research), also welcomed the decision.
He told University World News it is now UU’s aim to recognise and value science and individual scientists differently, “so scientists are no longer judged individually on the collection of research funding and on the publication of scientific articles”.
Pechler said: “With its action, Utrecht wants to make a statement that it no longer considers rankings important, for its staff, but also for the outside world.”