Most of those present at a conference held by the Rathenau Instituut last Friday said they do not feel it is necessary to have a top-quality university similar to Harvard in the Netherlands. They consider Dutch higher education to be world class, which is far more important.

This general consensus served to put one of the Rathenau Instituut’s leading lights firmly in his place, without giving any names. In a recent interview with De Volkskrant, Barend van der Meulen had recently advocated establishing one or two top-quality universities in the Netherlands.

World class

Addressing the conference, chief guest and former World Bank education economist Jamil Salmi asked: “Do you ever go to a sports centre? And is this world class? Do you ever drink world-class water? And do you entrust your money to a bank calling itself ‘world class’?”

Don’t be carried away by rankings

What Mr Salmi meant was that ‘world class’ is not always a meaningful concept. He effortlessly summed up all the weak points in international rankings: that exact sciences carry more weight than other fields of study, publications in English score better than publications in other languages, education plays a very minor role, and the importance of all the subscores is purely arbitrary. Moreover, universities offering broad-based programmes have the advantage, Mr Salmi added. Take a university like Wageningen, for instance, which is renowned in its own field but is not in the absolute top of international rankings. And insofar as rankings have any significance (“after all, they are only one indicator of a sound university,” Mr Salmi said), one should not attach an excessive amount of importance to them. Mr Salmi told his listeners: “I hear you sometimes complain that there are no Dutch universities in the international top 50. But the Netherlands as a whole has an excellent score.”

Top 50

Mr Salmi’s use of the word “you” also referred to Barend van der Meulen, head of the Science System Assessment Department at the Rathenau Instituut, who explained in De Volkskrant what was needed to achieve the breakthrough to the international top 50. Mr Van der Meulen urged the government to allocate more money to universities such as Utrecht and Leiden. The government should also use part of the research budget to attract leading international scientists to the Netherlands, he added, and should transfer a couple of independent research institutes such as the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research to top-class universities, so that their research is included in global rankings.

Keep it up

Other speakers at the conference followed Mr Salmi’s example and dismissed Mr Van der Meulen’s ideas. Pauline van der Meer Mohr, president of Erasmus University Rotterdam’s Executive Board, revealed that she and her colleagues at other universities now feel that this discussion is a thing of the past: all universities in the Netherlands are in the world’s top 200, which is incredibly good. And they were all agreed that we must keep this up, she added.

After the conference, Mr Van der Meulen admitted: “I agree with them in my heart of hearts. But we should realise that rankings do have a social impact, and one or two top-quality universities should be part of a healthy higher education and research system. After all, this will attract more first-class scientists to the Netherlands, which will benefit the entire system.” HOP