Is ranking losing momentum?

Nieuws | de redactie
10 februari 2009 | The ranking debate is losing momentum. Higher education and policy makers should therefore invest in European systems based on matching and variety, HAN-president Ron Bormans argues.

Bormans – president of the HAN, a UAS in the East of the Netherlands and Board Member of – was invited to speak at an international conference on ranking in Leiden. He spoke with ScienceGuide to reflect on the key notions of his presentation there.

“The use of international ranking is being pushed in Europe, certainly in the Netherlands. Their validity is debatable, but rankings do provide some indications. Given their current prevalence they cannot be ignored. Even in the sceptical and critical climate of the Netherlands those at the top of the lists do embrace their status.”

At the same time, for Bormans rankings are of limited importance. “They fail to reflect the diversity of higher education, for example by their strong emphasis on research, especially in the science fields, and institutes with a long research tradition.” He  therefore argues for matching instead of ranking. “Connect specific students with a specific supply. Recognize the variety among and between types of institutions and the contexts, physical and otherwise, of HE-institutions. Fully acknowledge the importance of the labour market and recognize its relevance in the process among students of choosing a university.”

Ranking, then, should be the outcome of a clustering of individual matching results. “One can make rankings with clusters of similar study programmes, taking into account whether institutions put an emphasis on teaching or on research, whether their profile is regional, national or global. Such rankings should be linked with the European attempt at classification.”

Would this approach not isolate Dutch higher education from the rest of the world? Ron Bormans sees that risk, but stresses that aiming for a single global ranking system is ‘unrealistic’.  He therefore advises to create plural projects focusing on the Netherlands and Europe.

Although a Board Member of, Bormans is well known for his sympathy for the university ranking system of the German center for university development, CHE. “It fits within the Dutch matching ideology and is apt to encompass both research universities and universities of applied science.” A pilot with the CHE-rankings in the Netherlands however failed in some respects, partly because “the ranking revealed a bias that could be cultural and the student assessments which were involved lacked robustness.” For implementing a university ranking of this type in the Netherlands Bormans observes that too much hesitation is still present and he fears the momentum is gone.

What, then, could be the next step? “We should give due consideration to Europe, in order to be able to position ourselves in relation to Asia and Anglo-Saxon HE. We should also invest more in European systems based on matching and variety, tie these into classification and create conditions to facilitate data exchange.” It would also help if Europe would define a clear position on the future of rankings, Bormans concludes.

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