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Current university rankings are not consistent with Open Science

31 October 2023

Rector Magnificus Henk Kummeling, Utrecht University

You may have heard: Utrecht University (UU) is not included in the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Ranking 2024. THE ranks universities worldwide on academic performance and reputation. Last year, UU came in 66th position in the ranking. Why is Utrecht University not included this year?

UU chose not to submit data. A very conscious choice: rankings put too much emphasis on comparison and mutual competition, while we want to focus on collaboration and Open Science. At Utrecht University, we believe it is impossible to capture the quality of all educational and research programmes in one rating. Universities differ in size, budget and ambitions. We excel in very different areas. And it is precisely those differences that make us collectively worthwhile.  Those same differences ensure that we like to join forces and collaborate with each other. Moreover, research shows that the methods and data used by the institutions responsible for creating rankings, especially the so-called league table rankings, are often questionable. Only last week, Chris Brink, former vice-chancellor of Newcastle University, illustrated this in his article in University World News.

As mentioned, inter- and multi-disciplinary collaboration and Open Science are UU’s guiding principles. I previously wrote about our ambitions in the December 2021 edition of this newsletter (see more in Frank Miedema’s open access book, Open Science: the Very Idea (2021), available here).

Together with many other Coimbra Group members we are part of an international movement to resist the dominance of the current rankings, for example through More than Our Rank and COARA. Other Dutch universities are also debating participation in rankings, jointly they have published a statement on the effects of ranking universities and how to deal with  these effects. We are not an opponent of rankings in general. They can be helpful as a benchmark to monitor one’s own development. But in order to be helpful rankings must be based on criteria and parameters that are transparent, verifiable and relevant to our own ambitions.

Over the last couple of weeks Utrecht University received many supportive responses from around the world. To some extent we are surprised by how often we are invited to clarify our reasons. University rankings have been controversial for decades. It is widely known that they are not consistent with Open Science. But universities are hesitant when it comes to no longer actively contributing to these rankings.

Yes, there is also concern. Especially among our international students and staff who may have come to Utrecht because of our position in the rankings. For some of them their future careers may somehow depend on the rank of ‘their’ university. Because that is the perverse effect that these rankings have caused: government agencies, employers, supervisory boards, etc. have come to value them as a simple way to assess excellence down to the level of individual students, teachers and researchers. Although it is tempting and easy to rely on simple figures for complex assessments, it is of course nonsense, given all the flaws entailed by these rankings.

As true academics we urge future students and PhDs to judge universities on the real quality of education and research, on their innovative potential, on the quality of their inspiring staff.

This is why we 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 considering the strength of our research programmes, our academic culture and working conditions.

In short: we expect people to choose to study at, work at, or collaborate with UU or any other university based on content and real quality. And definitely not on a position in a ranking. It would of course be very helpful if universities would join ranks by collectively passing on some of the current rankings and contributing to insightful overviews that give a better picture of our different qualities.