The Netherlands has the most ‘efficient’ academic researchers in the world, according to rankings publisher Times Higher Education. No other country performs so much outstanding research at such a low cost.

The Netherlands’ universities are all in the high tier of this global ranking – quite an achievement when you consider their relatively modest budgets. While American and British universities continue to dominate the league table, as they have done for many years, these institutions have a lot more money.

efficiency score netherlands THE

The British compilers of the THE list wanted to know who are ‘punching above their weight’. In other words, when you offset the universities’ performance against their budgets, which of them come out tops? In this comparison, the Netherlands actually beats countries like Sweden, Australia, the United Kingdom and Germany. But which conclusions can we draw from this?

'Here, you can choose a university with your eyes closed'

Wim van Saarloos, Vice President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences: “I agree that our per-euro performance is very good. The Netherland’s universities are all in the ranking’s highest tier. In the UK, you find the very best universities in the world like Oxford and Cambridge, but also a long list of less impressive institutions. Here, you can choose a university with your eyes closed, without having to worry about where you’ll end up. But our strong performance is actually the result of past investments. We have a lot more students nowadays, and slowly but surely we see more and more funding being diverted to education rather than research. On top of this, there’s the increasingly strong – and justified – call on universities to pay more attention to the application of their research, informing the public and scientific integrity. Pressure is increasing on all sides. And if this isn’t accompanied by extra money, this will ultimately put a damper on performance.”

'It can’t be separated from the high pressure of work in the academic community'

Bart Pierik, spokesperson for the association of universities VSNU: “We may be critical of rankings occasionally, but of course, we’re happy that Dutch scientific research plays such a leading role worldwide. This ranking shows that we’re effective and productive – which I take as a huge compliment. But it can’t be separated from the high pressure of work in the academic community. This is directly linked to this performance. We were pleased to hear the government’s announcement that it will be investing an extra EUR 400 million in scientific research, but actually we need even more money than that. The current workload of our researchers isn’t sustainable. We’re aware of this problem and the universities acknowledge that it needs to be resolved. Indeed: we’ve made agreements to this end in the new CLA. One of the contributors to this problem is that universities are feeling the squeeze in financial terms.”

'This ranking also shows the clear distinction between hbo and wo'

Barend van der Meulen, Head of Research at the Rathenau Institute: “Other countries are occasionally jealous of us, because you can’t deny we put in a very strong performance. But this ranking also shows the clear distinction made in the Netherlands between hbo (higher professional education) and wo (academic higher education). Sixty percent of our students are registered at a university of applied sciences, but these institutions aren’t classified as universities. While they do have lectorates that focus on applied research at hbo institutions, many of our hbo students actually don’t gain enough experience with scientific practice. Take hbo programmes like nursing or engineering and technology: these students could actually benefit from some experience with scientific practice in their subsequent careers. Everything shows that the Dutch universities are very efficient when it comes to research. But do the benefits outweigh the costs? Maybe we could decide to be a bit less ‘efficient’ and introduce more students to research practice.”

'It’s sad to hear that the government wants to save millions by introducing ‘more effective education’'

Marijtje Jongsma, Chair of the Scientists’ Union (VAWO): “First and foremost, it’s a wonderful compliment for the workforce of the Dutch universities: both the academic staff and the support staff – who play an indispensable role in ensuring such a high and consistent level of performance. In addition, it is the umpteenth indicator that we already work extremely efficiently in the Netherlands, and that striving for even greater efficiency doesn’t appear to be realistic. Which makes it sad to hear that the government wants to save millions by introducing ‘more effective education’. I think the employers will have a hard time explaining to university staff that they need to work ‘more effectively’. Our sector is already faced with huge workloads, structural overtime, unhealthy competition and a culture of fear due to an extremely high percentage of temporary appointments among academic staff.”

'A lot of academics are pushing against their limits'

Rolf van Wegberg, Chair of the PhD candidates Network of the Netherlands (PNN) also refers to the workload. “To start, we should be delighted that we are able to make such a big impact with relatively limited financial resources. That’s the good news. But a lot of academics are pushing against their limits. The pressure or work and the stress are almost tangible, as are the consequences for people’s mental health and work satisfaction. Maybe we’re asking too much of our academics right now. They have to be all-rounders: good managers, good researchers and good lecturers. The same person is required to handle all these different tasks, and this has consequences. Maybe we should simply ask some people to concentrate on educating, and others to mainly focus on research.”