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27 november 2008 | Next year, the League of European Research-intensive Universities (LERU) has planned to admit new members. On what basis are universities invited to join this prestigious alliance? Just using the bibliometric ranking as the criterion would turn it into an exclusive North-West European club. LERU, however, aspires to foster top research as well as serving the public interest and to promote top research as such rather than the mere interests of its members. ScienceGuide spoke to Hans Stoof, the rector of Utrecht University and member of the board of directors of LERU.

LERU is the League of European Research-intensive universities. The term, ‘League’, vaguely reminds of the academic reputation of Ivy League universities in the USA. It is, perhaps, a pity that LERU is not an athletic conference like Ivy League, where Princeton Tigers compete with Yale Bulldogs. Contrarily to Ivy League, LERU is primarily a rector’s club. LERU is committed to education through an awareness of the frontiers of human understanding and the creation of new knowledge through basic research, which is the ultimate source of innovation in society. The purpose of LERU is to share the values of high-quality teaching in an environment of internationally competitive research, to develop best practice through mutual exchange of experience, and to advocate these values and to influence policy in Europe. Whilst Ivy League is a closed shop consisting of 8 universities in the North-East of the USA, LERU is open to a restricted number of new members.

In 2002, LERU started with 12 research-intensive universities. In 2006, 8 more were admitted, making a total of 20. In his office in Utrecht, Hans Stoof reveals to ScienceGuide how LERU is considering to admit some new members.

“Currently, we are a small group of high-quality, research-intensive universities. Sometimes we are asked by Brussels, who are you representing? Currently, we mainly have universities from the North-West of Europe. That is one of the issues we would like to address. In a couple of years we would also like to have some universities from southern and eastern Europe ”.

On the basis of what criteria are universities admitted?

“I think we should clarify the membership criteria through an externally facilitated review of the characteristics of existing and potential member universities and determine future policy on the membership and size of the league. It is our aim to solve this problem by first asking our Membership Committee for advice and hopefully to decide on this issue in May 2009. Universities should be research intensive universities. they should be amongst the best universities, as well. It is, of course, difficult to decide which universities conduct the best research. The bibliometric ranking is very authoritative in that respect. We are well aware of the limitations of the bibliometric ranking. In life sciences and natural sciences, for example, the bibliometric ranking might work very well, because most of the research results are published in peer-reviewed international scientific journals. However, for the social sciences and humanities, the matter is different. Their topics and publication outlet are often national. A researcher on Dutch medieval literature, is not likely to publish extensively in English academic journals, and consequently, this research will not much be quoted in those journals either. So we have to be careful when interpreting bibliometric rankings. Additionally , there ought to be a balance between quality and geographical distribution”.

It is clear that the rectors of LERU, whilst fostering first-quality research, are not blind for the political context in which they operate. In his office, Stoof shows ScienceGuide the bibliometric ranking. His dilemma becomes clear at once. Just using the bibliometric ranking as the criterion for admission would turn LERU into an exclusive North-West European club. LERU, however, aspires to foster top research as well as serving the public interest. LERU wants to promote top research as such rather than the mere interests of its members.

Enthusiastically, Hans Stoof tells about a lecture of a Utrecht University psychologist on a critical TV-documentary on the role of sexuality in Dutch society he just happened to see. “For us, it is important to have researchers who present their ideas not only in journals, but also in newspapers, on the Radio or on TV. A good scientist is often able to translate his or her research to the average people. You would like to have both in your university, good (fundamental) research as well as societal impact. Universities should not only be excellent in fundamental research, but just as well in applied science. Take the enormous problems in our society we are facing such as climate change, energy supply, health care for the elderly. It is clear that our politicians will not come up with the solutions. Only academics are capable of probing such problems. Universities, therefore, have an important role to play in our society. In that respect I would like to refer to an excellent recent LERU publication “What are universities for?” as written by Boulton and Lucas.


Why is it important that there is a LERU?

“There have been networks of international links since the early days of universities. However, more intensive collaboration between scholars and researchers from different universities in Europe is needed and has proven to be very fruitful. Therefore, it was good that the education ministers in 1999 in Bologna decided to create a European higher education area. One of the goals of that system was to stimulate the mobility of students within Europe. In every country, the bachelor-master system was established with the intention that a student with a Bachelor’s degree from Bologna could do a Master’s in Oxford, Paris or wherever, and that a student with a Bachelor’s degree from Utrecht could do a Master’s in Stockholm, Barcelona, etc”.

A further hallmark in the internationalization of European higher education was Lisbon, 2000, where the EU adopted a new strategy, transforming Europe in a knowledge economy that should be on a par with the United States by 2010. One of the goals for higher education was to make sure that at least 50% of the population would participate in higher education and, preferably, get a degree. It was also agreed that more money should go into the research and development programs of the different nations. The investment in R&D should go up to a level of 3% of the Gross National Product (public and private). For most countries, that implied a huge boost of money.

LERU aspires to be a player in the international arena. “When you have a league of, let’s say, 25 high-quality universities it makes sense to develop for instance common programs, collective proposals for grant applications, joint teaching programs and to collectively recruit talented students from e.g. China and India.”

Where do you see the most growing potential for European research?

“Definitely in the South and East of Europe. When we started the European community in 1965, material prosperity in countries such as France and the Netherlands was much higher than in, e.g., Portugal. Considering their starting point , it becomes evident that the development of countries in Southern Europe has been massive in the last 30 years, with their GNP often rising in double digits. Keeping the Lisbon goals in mind, much can be gained from rising enrollment figures in higher education. In the early sixties, maybe 5% of the youngsters went to universities, as compared to 15-20% right now. Countries in the South and predominantly in the East will go through the same development.”





What is your stance on rankings? Would a classification of universities as developed by Frans van Vught be helpful?

“With rankings, you have to be very careful. Some of the well-known rankings have criteria that say not very much about the overall quality of institutions. Whereas the Shanghai Jiao Tong ranking, for example, takes the number of Nobel laureates into account, which seems understandable, one of the criteria of the Times Higher Education is the percentage of foreign students you have. For instance, in The Netherlands, that criterion is particularly beneficial to the University of Maastricht. The University of Maastricht lies close to the borders of Belgium and Germany, and has, consequently, many students from Germany and Belgium. But it has nothing to do with the quality of its teaching or research.

One of the problems with rankings is that incomparable institutions are quite often put in the same list. The result is a mess. I think you should distinguish between five categories:

1.      Research intensive comprehensive institutions like Utrecht University

2.      Research intensive specialist institutions like the Erasmus University in Rotterdam (specializing in economics and medicine)

3.      Technical institutions focused on the application of science such as Delft university

4.      Institutions of the creative arts

5.      Broadly based institutions with almost no research money, like polytechnics and hogescholen.

You should not make the mistake of comparing institutes of the creative arts with a research intensive university. Excellence in the arts is very different from excellence at research intensive universities. Polytechnics and hogescholen are much more practically oriented than universities, although not necessarily less important to our society. We also need these practical people, to keep our economy going.”

According to Nuffic-chief Sander van den Eijnden, the international landscape of higher education will change much more radically than is accounted for by government policies.

“I think Sander van den Eijnden is right. In Utrecht, almost 7% of the students come from other countries. About 30% of our students have followed courses abroad, undoubtedly these numbers will increase. An unknown but substantial number of students go abroad on their own initiative.

Among the rectors of LERU, we do, however, worry about the mobility of our young researchers. When I was 31 or 32 years old, I went to the US for 1,5 years. At that time my wife could not get a working permit. For her, there was no other possibility than stop working and join me in the US with our six-month-old son. It is often profitable for a young scientist to go abroad for a while. Having a partner that wants to have a job as well, this may hamper these endeavours. I do not know how we are going to solve that problem. The average age for mothers to give birth to children is increasing. Here in the Netherlands, it is around 32 for highly educated people. I do not know how that will affect the exchange of our young scientists. Actually, you should put more creativity in that domain to solve those problems.”

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