The Risk in Ranking: Why UCU Might not be the Best

by Eun A Jo 

Many students admit: “Rankings are arbitrary.” Yet, have you ever read the “accreditation and rankings” page of the UCU website and felt strangely proud and reassured? You know, those big bold letters: “UCU again best college in the Netherlands”? While Elsevier, the magazine ranking us first, self-promotes their “extensive and influential survey,” many students are not aware of their evaluation criteria and therefore rely on their system almost blindly. Others have suspiciously alleged that the undisputed ranking of the Utrecht University must have had some influence over their views on UCU as well.

Or, on a more casual level, did you “like” the Facebook meme which ostentatiously claimed that all students studying at university colleges in the Netherlands first applied to UCU?

“I think the rankings are nonsense. Every UC has its stronger and weaker fields,” says first year Maarten van der Heiden. “The tendency that UCU and AUC are more popular could be just because they are in good locations.”

Still, besides the initial attraction to the simplicity of ranking, the notion seems inherently and inevitably embedded in our sense of pride. At least one hundred UCU students on Facebook openly expressed their enjoyment of the school’s renowned status. Some blatantly acknowledged UCU’s superiority with comments to the meme, like “It’s funny because it’s true” – and of course, another couple of “likes” on such comments followed up.

This is not only a UCU-fever though. UC Maastricht (UCM) joined in the college-hullabaloo by posting a webpage stating UCM is the best college in the Netherlands. This claim was based on the Keuzegids Hoger Onderwijs 2012, a ranking issued by the Information Center for Higher Education (ICHE).

“We are particularly delighted with this splendid result,” says UCM Dean Harm Hospers on the webpage. ”Our first position ranking is due to the exceptional efforts and dedication of the UCM staff and the lecturers of the other faculties.” Clearly, even the authorities recognize the correlation between higher ranking and a deserved sense of pride.

When asked about their perspective on rankings of university colleges in the Netherlands, Klaas-Henk Binnendijk, a representative from Roosevelt Academy Student Association, willingly admitted that the ranking does reflect at least some aspects of the school. “RA is not linked to a university and has a small-scaled environment, so the school gives more attention and focus on every student. This is visible in the academic part of the rankings.”

Yet he also mentioned that the low rankings for Roosevelt Academy in facilities were justified because they do lack quite some facilities.

Amsterdam University College (AUC) respondent Saskia Hendriks specifically pointed out the strengths and weaknesses of the ranking system in general. “At AUC, the questionnaires that are used for University College rankings – together with our own internal, more extensive evaluations – are used as tools to constantly monitor and work on the quality of education and services.”

“Methodologically, there are many flaws in the questionnaires that determine the ranking of the colleges,” says Hendriks. “Some measure the quality of research, others measure the satisfaction of students, but none really manage to grasp the quality of education.”

Evidently, each school has a more or less balanced opinion and is yet unable to completely dismiss rankings as merely arbitrary.

“One should approach rankings with caution,” says Hendriks. “[Though] it is understandable that they are an easy tool to compare colleges to one another and are news-worthy to spread.”

Not surprisingly, third year Manuel Buitenhuis shared the same opinion: “I think we should be careful with these rankings. Even though it’s nice to be able to brag about UCU to others, it’s still a list made on the basis of a narrow sample.”

Regardless of its accuracy and validity, perhaps it’s really time to move on from our obsession with rankings. “We should be focusing on making this place better than it already is, instead of our ranking in some arbitrary list,” says Manuel.

Should the apple look good or taste good?

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