In Search of Excellence? Debating the Merits of Introducing an Elite Dutch University Model

Report by Alex Rushforth

Should the Netherlands strive for excellence in its university systems? Will maintaining quality suffice? This was the topic of a recent panel debate at the WTMC annual meeting on 21 November 2014 in De Balie, Amsterdam. Organised and chaired by Willem Halffman, the session focused on an article published by Barend Van Der Meulen in the national newspaper De Volkskrant, which advocated the need to produce two excellent universities which excel on internationally published rankings, thereby creating a new top-tier in the Dutch higher education system.

Both van der Meulen and Halffman presented their views, with an opposing position also coming from Sally Wyatt. Completing the panel, CWTS’s very own Paul Wouters provided results from recent empirical work about rankings.

Barend van der Meulen’s call for an elite university stemmed from the fact Dutch universities perennially sit outside of the top-50 in Shanghai and Times Higher Education rankings. For him the message is clear: the Netherlands is repeatedly failing to enhance its reputation as an elite player among global universities, a position which ought to cause concern. Van der Meulen stated that his call for an elite university model is part of a need to create an expanded repertoire of what universities are and what they should do in the Netherlands. The pursuit of rankings through this vehicle is therefore tightly coupled with a rejection of the status quo. Rankings are a social technology which ought to be harnessed for quality improvement and as tools through which to promote democratic participation by equipping students and policymakers with tools to make judgments and exert some influence over universities. Alternative modes of evaluation like peer review provide closed systems in which only other academics can make judgments, leaving university activities unaccountable to external modes of evaluation. This ‘ivory tower’ situation reminiscent of the 1980s is an image Van Der Meulen wishes to escape from, as ultimately it damages credibility and legitimacy of universities. The reliance on public money for research and education makes the moral case for university improvement and accountability particularly pressing in the Netherlands. For Van Der Meulen, the ‘good enough’ university (see Wyatt’s argument below) is not enough, given that excellence is imposing itself as a viable and increasingly important alternative.

First to oppose the motion in favour of elite universities was Willem Hallfman, whose talk built on a reply co-authored with Roland Bal, also in De Volkskrant. In the talk Halffman questioned the very foundations of the idea that ‘excellence’ ought to be pursued. Drawing unflattering comparisons between the research budget of Harvard University and that of the entire Netherlands, it was argued that competing within a global superleague would require a radical expansion of existing research budgets and wage structures across the Dutch university system, which he felt unrealistic and unreasonable against a backdrop of crisis in public finances. As well as reproducing national elites, Halffman also questioned the desirability of ranking systems which promote academic stars and the consequences this brings to institutions of science in general and Dutch universities in particular. Football-style league tables provide poor models on which to rate universities, as in contrast with sport where a winner-takes-all logic is central, for universities embodying a broad repertoire of societal functions, it is not clear what ‘winning’ means and how this would be made visible and commensurable through performance indicators.

Sally Wyatt recounted her personal experiences of the shock she encountered when studying and working in British universities in the 1980s, having grown-up in Canada within a period of prosperity and social mobility. These experiences fired a series of warning shots not to go down a road of pursuing excellence. When a move to the Netherlands came about in 1999, it promised her an oasis away from the turmoil the British university system had faced as a result of Thatcherite policy reforms. With the emergence of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and its ranking logic comes also a rise in managerial positions and policies, decline in working conditions, and a widening gender gap. Gone also was a latent class system engrained in the culture of universities, with dominant elite institutions the site of social stratification reproduced across generations, which rankings merely encourage and reinforce. Despite erosion of certain positive attributes in universities since her arrival in the Netherlands, Wyatt argued that the Dutch system still preserves enough of a ‘level-playing field’ in terms of funding allocation to merit fierce resistance to any introduction of an elite university model. For Wyatt sometimes it is better to promote the ‘good enough’ than to chase an imperialist and elitist vision of ‘excellence’.

Drawing on work on university and hospital rankings carried-out with Sarah De Rijcke (CWTS), Iris Wallenburg and Roland Bal (Erasmus MC, Rotterdam), Paul Wouters’ talk advocated the need for a more fine-grained STS investigations into the kinds of work that goes into rankings, who is doing it, and in what situations. What is at stake in studying rankings then is not simply the critique of this or that tool, but a more pervasive (and sometimes invisible) logic/set of practices encountered across public organisations like universities and hospitals. Wouters advocated a move towards combining audit society critiques (which tend to be top-down) with STS insights into how ranking is practiced across various organisational levels in universities. This would provide a more promising platform through which to inform debates of the kind playing-out over the desirability of the elite university.

So the contrast between positions was stark. Are rankings – these seemingly ubiquitous ordering mechanisms of contemporary social life – something the Netherlands can afford to back away from in governing its universities? If they are being pursued anyway, shouldn’t policy intervene and assist a more systematic pursuit up the rankings which would enable more pronounced successes? Or is it necessary to oppose the very notion that the Netherlands needs to excel in a ‘globally competitive’ race, particularly given the seeming arbitrariness of many of the metrics according to which prestige gets attributed via ranking mechanisms? Despite polarization on what is to be done, potential for extending STS’s conceptual and empirical apparatus to mediate these discussions seemed to strike a chord among panelists and the audience alike. No doubt this stimulating debate touches on a set of issues that will not be going away quickly, and is one on which the WTMC community is surely well placed to intervene.

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