European rectors rally around joint position on rankings

Rectors’ conferences representing six European sectors have agreed to work on guidelines on university rankings, EUA conference hears

April 21, 2023
Winners of London's first marathon, Dick Beardsley, from Excelsior, Minnesota (L) and Inge Simonsen, from Norway, cross line as joint winners to illustrate European rectors rally around joint position on rankings
Source: Getty

Rectors’ conferences representing six European higher education sectors have agreed to work on a joint position on university rankings, as their umbrella body drafts an accompanying set of guidelines.

The informal alliance came together after a meeting of the European University Association’s (EUA) governing council on 19 April in Gdańsk on Poland’s Baltic coast.

Representatives for France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland and the UK agreed to assemble a group of experts and rectors to “come up with a common line” on university rankings, according to Pieter Duisenberg, the president of the Association of Universities of the Netherlands.

“We discussed the, let’s say uncomfortable, relation that universities have with rankings,” he told a panel session on the topic at the EUA annual conference the following day. “We concluded from that discussion that if we wanted to change our approach to rankings, that we had to do that together.”

Mr Duisenberg invited other national rectors’ conferences to join the “movement”. Responding to the invite, EUA president Michael Murphy said the umbrella body was developing its own guidelines on “appropriate use of rankings and appropriate engagement with the rankings systems”.

“It is very welcome that your initiative is taking place, as we need national experiences and the diversity of Europe to be brought to bear on the exercise,” he told Mr Duisenberg, adding that the guidelines would come out by the end of 2023. The parallel efforts were announced at the end of a critical session on rankings, in which panellists discussed the merits of a potential rankings boycott.

Elizabeth Gadd, a research policy manager at Loughborough University and chair of the research evaluation group for INORMS, an umbrella for research management bodies, said a boycott would “achieve a headline but it probably wouldn’t achieve much more than that”.

“What we really want is obsolescence, not destruction of the rankings,” she said, after suggesting it would be “tantamount to financial and reputational suicide” for universities to boycott rankings, but that league tables were “ultimately an offence to our intellectual integrity”. She said academics and students should “demand as consumers” more transparency over rankings’ margins of error.

The well-attended session opened with video pitches from Times Higher Education’s chief global affairs officer, Phil Baty, and Gero Federkeil, head of international rankings at the Centre for Higher Education thinktank and managing director of the U-Multirank system.

Mr Baty said THE’s impact rankings, which are tied to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, had “redefined excellence” in higher education, whereas Mr Federkeil emphasised the “multiple excellencies” of his system.

“We need to ask whether redefining excellence in higher education is the job of unappointed third parties that are themselves unaccountable,” said Dr Gadd.

She said the “more than our rank” initiative, which Loughborough was an early adopter of, was “a narrative CV for universities”, referring to the shift towards more qualitative evaluation of individual academics.

Speaking on the panel, Vincent Blondel, rector of the University of Louvain and a newly elected EUA board member, said his university had “never made any decision” based on rankings, while Joan Guàrdia Olmos, rector of the University of Barcelona, said league tables were of little interest to his community beyond an “excuse” to do more internal analysis of performance data.

Speaking to THE, Mr Duisenberg said he was happy so many rectors’ conferences had shown an interest in collective action. “We love the rankings, and we hate them,” he said.

Most of the audience at the Gdańsk University of Technology raised their hands when asked by Professor Murphy if they would welcome guidelines on rankings, although less than a tenth said they would act on them if guidance went against their financial interests.

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