By Richard T. Griffiths (Associate Editor Diplomat Magazine and Professor International Studies, LeidenUniversity).
Earlier this year, the influential Times Higher Educational Supplement (THES) published its rankings for universities based on their international reputations. As usual the list is dominated by Anglo-Saxon universities but Asian countries are beginning to make an impression. And as usual. not one Dutch university made it into the top fifty, though five managed to figure in the top one hundred – Delft, UvA, Utrecht, Leiden and Wageningen. But does it mean that there is no top university education to be found in the country? Of course not.
There is plenty of top education and research in the Netherlands, it is just not all to be found in one place. A university is an administrative unit, not a teaching or research unit. The aggregated figures represent the efforts of many different faculties and even more opleideingen. The THES provides world rankings for six subject clusters, and Dutch faculties appear in the top-50 in five of them. Wageningen (21) for Life Sciences, Leiden (26) for Arts and Humanities, Delft (32) for Engineering, Rotterdam (48) and Maastricht (49) for Health and medicine and Utrecht (50) for Social sciences. It is only in Physical Sciences that no Dutch university is represented.
We can repeat the exercise at a lower level, which we can conceive of as departments, if we use the slightly less renowned QS indicators for 2013 (which were published in May). It allows us to access 29 subject rankings. In 23 of them, Dutch universities appear in the top-50, and in all but one they are represented in the top 100. I have shown the top-50s by university:
Amsterdam (UvA): Computer and Media Studies (7) Linguistics (15), Sociology (16), Psychology (16),Geography (21), Computer Science (35), Politics and International studies (38), Philosophy (47) Medicine (47)
Amsterdam (VU): Sociology (33) Psychology (46)
Delft: Civil Engineering (4), Chemical Engineering (10), Environmental Science (17), Mechanical Engineering (18), Electrical Engineering (42)
Leiden: Pharmacy (11), Linguistics (23), Law (26), History (28), Politics and International studies (35)
Maastricht: Psychology (37)
Nijmegen: Linguistics (35)
Rotterdam: Medicine (26), Statistics and Organisation (40), Economics (40), Accountancy and Finance (40)
Tilburg: Economics (45)
Utrecht: Geography (21), Sociology (21), Law (35), Psychology (40), Education (43), Earth and Marine Science (46), History (48)
Wageningen: Agricultural Science (2) Environmental Science (10)
In brief, we clearly have university teaching and research that can hold its own with the best in the World. So why no top universities? Part of the answer lies in the fact these indices all favour large universities. In the Netherlands, however, the system has been fragmented by historically determined disciplinary and religious divisions and by a political ideal of regional accessibility. Thus, of the thirteen universities in the Netherlands, two were specifically Catholic (Nijmengen and Tilburg) and one Calvinist (VU, Amsterdam). Two originated as specialist Economics institutions (Rotterdam and Tilburg) and three as technical universities (Delft, Eindhoven and Twente) and when, in the1970s, it was decided to establish a new university, it was placed in Maastricht.
So, if you cannot fuse institutions and you cannot privilege ‘national champions’ then the only option left is to allow the proven, better faculties and departments more freedom to internationalise their teaching and research. The Ministry of Education continually weighs and assesses teaching and research and lays a heavy hand of bureaucracy on each and every new initiative. Give the best their head and allow them to develop new English-language courses alongside the present Dutch ones (and finance them immediately instead of after a delay of two years as at present). In this way they will attract thousands of new students who in three or four years’ time will travel the wrold as ambassadors for the quality of top Dutch teaching and research. And see then what happens to the Netherlands reputation in international rankings.