The UT falls outside the top 250 in the Times Ranking, is that bad?

| Rense Kuipers

Last week, the UT fell outside the top 250 of the Times Higher Education ranking. Is the university not doing well right now? Or are the lists meaningless? Five questions and answers about the UT in the rankings.

The UT now falls outside the top 250 of the Times Higher Education Ranking. How come?

‘University of Twente has fallen far in the international ranking of universities’, the Tubantia headlined last week, with the first sentence of the accompanying article being: ‘The University of Twente is not doing well’. Cause for panic, you would think. But that does little justice to reality. Yes, there is indeed a downward trend – also in other rankings (see the table later in this article). And you do not want to find yourself at the bottom of the list of all Dutch universities. But there are also the necessary comments, nuances and developments that deserve attention.

Firstly, it gets busier at the top. Just look at fast-growing China. In the 2016 ranking, when the UT achieved its highest ranking ever (149), the UT had to give way to just two Chinese universities. In the Times Higher Education Ranking of 2023, the UT gives way to fourteen. Has the UT fallen because it is going badly? Not directly, although the scores are slightly lower on ‘teaching’ and ‘industry income’, while on other criteria the score is fairly even or even slightly better. It is more plausible that other universities have overtaken the UT (and a number of other Dutch universities) for various other reasons.

The Times Higher Education ranking also has a reputation for having ‘reputation’ as a determining factor (counting one-third in their calculation). Logically, as a relatively young and small university, the UT loses out to the classic academic superpowers. And the data on which the makers base the rankings, is only up to date to a limited extent, with universities themselves supplying data from 2020 and citations going back to 2017. How much that says about the state of affairs at the UT in 2022 is therefore difficult to determine.

So apparently, ‘has fallen far’ - the words of Tubantia - is a bit of an over-exaggeration. In the past three years, the UT has been between 201 and 250 (The rankings do not get more specific outside the top 200). Now that is between places 251 and 300. More than 2300 universities have been included in the ranking, so you could also speak of a small shift. It is a matter of perspective.

This is how the UT ‘scored’ in the three most well-known rankings, in the editions from 2015 until 2023 (which have recently been published)

Okay, but what do the rankings tell us?

That also heavily depends on someone’s perspective. The average Dutch pre-university school student will not quickly look at a ranking, but rather browse through the Keuzegids, or attend an open day or a ‘student for a day’-day. Whichever of the thirteen Dutch universities you choose, they are all known for their high-quality education. But outside the Netherlands, the position in a ranking weighs relatively heavily. International students are generally inclined to make their university and study choices dependent on a ranking. And precisely because these Dutch universities are doing relatively well – also in the rankings – they are very popular with international students.

Apart from the students, you still have the slice of policymakers, managers, KPI and spreadsheet fetishists, governments and the business community. Everyone is looking for something to hold on to; to determine strategies, to enter into a collaboration or not, to test whether financing is ‘effective’ and to measure ‘quality’. Such a ranking offers some guidance and reference material.

What are the UT’s ambitions when it comes to rankings?

The previous Executive Board, through the then-rector Thom Palstra, expressed the ambition to be structurally in the top 150 of the Times Higher Education ranking. With the results of last week, that ambition seems further away than ever. The current Executive Board has ‘no direct objective’, says spokesperson Laurens van der Velde. ‘However, a number of the aspects underlying rankings are explicitly reflected in our policy. For example, think of strengthening cooperation with the industry, the quality of education or our academic reputation. But rankings are a means, not an end in themselves. The moment the policy is successful, this may also be reflected in our rankings, but that does not necessarily translate one-to-one.’

Are there any better rankings as an alternative?

Also in that case, reputation weighs heavily. For many years, the dominant rankings are the QS ranking, the ARWU (or Shanghai) ranking and the Times Higher Education ranking. Those are the rankings with the most attention and popularity. But there is also the Leiden Ranking, where the achievements of universities are measurable in different ways. And what to think of U-Multirank, which is co-founded by our own CHEPS: a ranking which has no ‘winners’ or ‘losers’, but ranks on the best match.

Maybe a student-to-be will find themselves a better home after consulting the Leiden Ranking or the U-Multirank. But those rankings are dwarves compared to QS, Shanghai and Times.

Is it better to give no more attention to rankings?

That is roughly the message that Derek Jan Fikkers, director of Strategy & Policy at the UT, recently shared on the platform Innovation Origins. According to him, the rankings mainly stand in the way of innovation and creativity. His call will no doubt be heard by supporters of the recognizing-and-rewarding movement. That is the emerging academic gospel which – in a nutshell – wants to look less at quantitative factors and more at qualitative ones. And it is precisely this movement to which the Dutch universities have committed themselves, now also on the European level.

And yet, the universities still find it difficult to shake off the yoke of the rankings, as was shown last week. Because not even a day after the European commitment to recognition and appreciation was confirmed, the University of Groningen and the rector of Wageningen University cheered about their results in the latest ranking.

The UT is ‘critical of its position in the recent Times ranking’, says Van der Velde. ‘But at the same time, we are also proud of our recently achieved (shared) position worldwide in THE Impact Rankings on Sustainable Development Goal 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure.’

Such reactions indicate that value is indeed attached to the ever-popular rankings, no matter how much criticism there is and how much they go against the philosophy of ‘recognizing and rewarding’. For some, these are meaningless lists and competitions, for others a necessary evil. And at the University of Oxford, which has topped the Times rankings for seven years in a row, they will say the last ranking confirms that they are the best.

That is the reality in 2022. Who knows what we write in ten years’ time.

Stay tuned

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