Friday, December 9, 2022

Do Dutch Universities Teach?

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DIPLOMAT MAGAZINE “For diplomats, by diplomats” Reaching out the world from the European Union First diplomatic publication based in The Netherlands Founded by members of the diplomatic corps on June 19th, 2013. Diplomat Magazine is inspiring diplomats, civil servants and academics to contribute to a free flow of ideas through an extremely rich diplomatic life, full of exclusive events and cultural exchanges, as well as by exposing profound ideas and political debates in our printed and online editions.

By Richard T. Griffiths (Associate Editor Diplomat Magazine and Professor International Studies, Leiden University).

A new ‘fact’ is being created – Dutch universities don’t teach. Last November an opinion piece appeared in NRC Handelsblad observing that the good performance of Dutch universities in the recently released university rankings was due entirely to their research record. This good research disguised a poor performance in their teaching. Was this not, the article asked, the result of the perverse incentives ruling in universities whereby the rewarding of research was leading to a neglect of teaching? That weekend, the Minister for Education, Culture and Science, Jet Bussemaker, appeared in an interview in television programme, Buitenhof. Yes, she agreed, there was something wrong with the system, but the government had already introduced incentives for the excellent well-motivated student in the form of Honours Classes and University Colleges. And even if the rest was a mess, at least the system produced good graduates. She had obviously had media training – always end on a positive note!

So what was at issue? Every year the Times Educational Supplement (THES) produces a ranking of world universities. Few news articles go beyond the main numbers – the Dutch never seem to get into the top-50, but all of them figure in the top-200. But for the top-200, the THES also publishes the more detailed breakdown of the figures into different components, including one for education, which makes up 30 per cent of the final index. Each component is measured on a scale of 0-100, where 100 is the score awarded to the best performing university. If we look at that, and at the twelve Dutch universities that figure in the top-200, we see that on average they score 50,5 overall, but only 37,9 for teaching.

We can examine this at two levels. First, we should take account of the fact that most of the teaching ‘score’ derives from qualitative judgments – which universities do the respondents think are the best at teaching. Now, I have a fairly large international experience, but I would baulk at ranking even the universities with which I am familiar for their teaching abilities and commitments. Leave that aside, and we can address a far more serious criticism. One would be excused for thinking that teaching is part of the ‘structural’ components of a university – one that was not amenable or susceptible to sudden change.  Well, if the THES is to be believed, all Dutch universities took time-off from teaching last year, but none so much as Utrecht (whose score in that one year fell by 24,3%) Leiden (which dropped by 22,4%) and Wageningen (which lost 21,4%). If this is the nature of the underlying statistics, one should be cautious about basing conclusions upon them.

At a second level, we could look at the relation of teaching to top research and top performance. In the June 2013, I wrote an article suggesting that although Dutch universities had not penetrated the top-50, Dutch faculties certainly had*. Let us return to the list I published then and, using the latest data, take the best performing Dutch university in each ‘faculty’







Total Research Teaching
Life Sciences Wageningen





Engineering and technology Delft





Arts and Humanities Leiden





Social Sciences Amsterdam (UvA)





Clinical, Pre-clinical and Health Rotterdam






If we do this a different picture emerges. There is indeed top quality teaching at Dutch universities, alongside top quality research (and the results would have been even more favourable on last year’s data). This teaching is available to all students who opt for these faculties, and not to an elite being targeted by  ‘honours’ classes and ‘university colleges’, which seem to be the flag-ships of reformist discourse.

It is good to be critical of higher education, but it is wrong to be blind. There is much that is  good in the Dutch system, but there is also room for improvement. However, the bottom-line is that Dutch universities can teach, and do teach… and often do so very well. Perhaps the next non-debate should be ‘do Dutch students study?’.

*International Standing of Dutch Universities: Always a Bridesmaid? The Diplomat Magazine, June 2013.

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