Romanian universities cry foul over ‘political’ new ranking

Institutions set to be rated on metrics including the number of classrooms and dormitories that they have

July 25, 2018
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Romania’s biggest research universities have reacted angrily to a government proposal to rank institutions on what they see as flawed metrics, claiming that it is part of a politically motivated attack on their independence.

Under the proposals, universities would be scored on metrics including their number of classrooms or dormitories, and the proportion of students from the local area.

Daniel David, vice-rector for research, competitiveness and publications at Babeş-Bolyai University, the country’s top-ranked institution, said that Romania’s University Consortium – a group of five universities that tend to do best in international rankings – had been “shocked” as the government has unveiled its plans over the past couple of months.

Other proposed metrics are based on whether university research is covered in newspapers or on television, and the quantity of publications – regardless of where they are published, he said.

The rankings – the latest controversy in a higher education system long plagued by claims of political interference and manipulation – were akin to claiming that a football team was better than Barcelona because it had racked up more victories in a lowly league, Professor David argued.

Judging universities on their proportion of local students would put Romania’s larger research universities, which strive to recruit from across the country and internationally, in a “very peculiar position”, he said.

Overall, only about a fifth of the proposed metrics match with those used in international rankings, he has calculated.

The worry among University Consortium members is that the real reason for the proposed ranking – which is currently out for consultation – is to undermine their status in favour of local institutions. In statements, both the consortium and Babeş-Bolyai, based in the north-western city of Cluj, have accused the government of acting politically.

“They just want to attack big universities that are independent from the political regime,” said Professor David, who fears a new ranking could be used to cut universities’ income.

Even before this latest ranking controversy, Romania’s biggest universities have been at loggerheads with the government after cuts to student places that they claim were targeted at them.

In April, the Ministry of Education claimed that the University of Bucharest was running courses with too few students in order to create jobs for lecturers, rather than preparing graduates for the labour market.

The university has accused the ministry of arbitrary cuts and threatened to start litigation; the ministry has insisted that the cuts are not politically motivated, but are instead about prioritising areas such as energy and nanotechnology that are key to the country’s economic future.

For its part, Babeş-Bolyai has lost several hundred student places, said Professor David. “It’s a general policy of the ministry to attack the big universities,” he claimed.

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, a Romanian professor of governance at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, who specialises in anti-corruption, said that Romania lacked an “agreed upon, publicly consulted and permanent criteria and a system of funding based on per student capita rather than general performance. Like this, the government can always intervene brutally in the university budgets.”

Requests for a comment by Times Higher Education to the Ministry of Education went unanswered.

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