How do Dutch universities rank worldwide? They do okay, but it does vary from ranking to ranking. Which kind of says it all: how do you go about measuring how good a university is?

An expert group (consisting of two scholars and a number of policy advisors) says that the rankings ‘falsely claim to be able to summarise a university’s performance in the most general sense of the word in a single number’.

Recognition and rewards

What’s more, the rankings are at odds with ‘recognition and rewards’ efforts. Universities don’t want to judge their staff merely by publications in academic journals (which weigh heavily in the rankings), but also by such things as teaching, leadership, team science or academic communication.

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

Universities often seem to be of two minds. On the one hand, they express themselves critically about the rankings, while at the same time embracing them in their marketing activities. “For many of us, including the members of the expert group, this pragmatic approach feels uncomfortable.”


To avoid ‘undermining’ the system of recognition and rewards, the experts have made recommendations for a culture change. “Using league tables in an opportunist fashion must be avoided”, is the idea, “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”, president of Universities of The Netherlands (UNL) Pieter Duisenberg admits. “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 done at universities.”

The universities are therefore willing to work on a culture 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”, a policy response by UNL reads.

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