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?

What’s next? How UCU Students Cope with Making Choises

by Laura Boerboom & Robert van Schaik

Spring break is rapidly approaching and UC’s third years are making important future plans. At least, they should be. The Boomerang asked around: are our graduates ready to be released into the wild?

Studying to obtain a master’s degree, getting a job, taking a gap year: there seem to be endless possibilities for UC graduates. According to a recent poll conducted by The Boomerang, a little over 40 per cent of the current third year students will enroll in a masters’ degree.

One would say that choosing a master implies making a career choice. Yet, surely a significant amount of these students is continuing their studies just for the sake of learning more. This is admirable, but perhaps just a way of postponing choosing even longer. Why are third years still not making concrete choices after three years of free-fall discovery and testing every field of the academic world?

It might have something to do with the UCU environment. “Our close-knit community has an impact on us,” says sixth semester Anton Kabisch. “My brother lives in Germany and has one group of study friends but a totally different group of friends for extracurricular activities. Having all of your friends and your academic life on one heap might make you think less about the future.”

Despite UCU students often being very ambitious, this exemplifies the common situation on campus: living here makes it hard to look beyond the gates. The academic structure allows students to keep options open. Liberal Arts & Sciences requires students to take at least two tracks, leaving two (or more) fields of education open for future academic study. It’s exactly this broad-mindedness that hundreds of students each year are attracted to.

Yet, at a certain point choices have to be made and not surprisingly, this is what makes studying at University College Utrecht difficult. Choosing what one does not want, can help with choosing what one actually does want. “Courses at UCU are very theoretical, but I wouldn’t say this stops people in making choices,” says sixth semester Martina Boyuklieva who wants to do a master in European Union Law. ” The course International Corporate and Tort law greatly inspired me. When I put this field of study into practice during an internship in a law company, I was so bored by the administrative work I decided this wasn’t my cup of tea.”

Others have also discovered by practice that they don’t want a specific type of job. A first year majoring in Law says he discovered that a job at a big Dutch law firm would not suit him at the UCU Career Conference. “They told me they were only looking for students who had studied Dutch law. Once you’ve been selected as an employee, you get to travel to countries abroad once in a while, to help out with the legal aspects involved in business deals, and if you stay with the company for 20 or 30 years, you get to become a partner –then you retire. That’s all the excitement there is.”

Utrecht’s Liberal Arts and Sciences students are craving for possibilities to put their newly acquired knowledge into practice. According to first semester Ashley Vandepol, who studied in Canada for a year, UCU has an exceptionally specific focus on theoretical knowledge. “In Canada, people are involved in field courses even in the first year. And not just the sciences students: law students, journalism students, all of them have mandatory lab courses.”

It seems our seniors know what they want on the short term, but have no idea what type of career they want to dive into. “I can’t look 10 years into the future, and even if I could, that would be very boring,” says third year Sophie Vriezen. She is looking forward to a master in Science and Regulation at the London School of Economics. “I have no idea what I want to do in the future; I just want to be successful in what I do. My career will probably be around the field of law.”

Sophie says her friends want to be in research in ten years; but don’t know whether they want to work in an international corporation, as an expat or set up their own business.’

It’s the comment we’re getting over and over again: “I don’t know, let’s wait and see.”

Will students ever be able to make up their mind? It might be that UCU is an ivory tower, that students don’t get enough chance to put their acquired knowledge into practice or that students at UC are simply interested in too many fields to make a quick and painless decision.

With the end of three years of study looming for the class of 2012, time is running out. Sometime after walking through the campus gates for the last time, they will discover for themselves what path to take in life. For some it might just take a little bit longer.

So imperfect, so nice: Is UCU Ready for a new Accreditation?

by Elena Butti

Do midterms stress you out? Are you fed up with continuous evaluation? No worries: here’s your chance to evaluate UCU instead. 

UCU goes through an accreditation process every five years. The Dutch-Flemish Accreditation Commission (NVAO) is an independent body of experts, financed by the Dutch Government. In 2007 it wrote a report about our College and is coming back no later than September 2012 to re-evaluate UCU. Students will also have a say.

What has changed in these five years? What did the commission conclude in 2007 and has UCU improved since then? Despite a remarkably good overall report, three main criticisms were addressed: lack of structure, ‘bubbleness’ and not being international enough (!). Let’s discuss these issues one by one.

Lack of structure

“UCU started as a small community where things happened very organically and unsystematically,” says ASC Academic Affairs Officer Omri Preiss. “It’s something that has allowed it to grow so well. But now it’s time for a more systematic and structured way of organising our institution.”

College Council Chairman Dr. Francesco Maiolo confirms that this was perceived as a need even before the report. “Every institution has a ‘revolutionary,’ energetic moment in the initial phase of its existence, but this cannot last forever. After a while, the initial push turns into routine and inertia. This is when it becomes indispensable to have a plan, to ask ourselves: what do we want to be as an institution? Where do we see ourselves in 10, 20, 30 years? What role do we want to play in Europe and in the world?”

“UCU is becoming more experienced and professional every year,” says ASC Chair Liesbeth Dingemans,. “Some new projects are being developed like the writing of a self-evaluation report every semester with the input of teachers, students and the administration.”

Preiss adds: “Tutors now meet every week for updates and training, and a big survey to rate UCU will be submitted to all students soon.”

Here is where you come in: what grade shall we give to UCU’s structure? I give it a B. Everybody knows it’s necessary, but an actual change has yet to come.

‘Bubbleness’

Ever felt a sense of ‘claustrophobia’ in the bubble? You’re not the only one. The 2007 accreditation report expressly states that UCU should strive to increase “community service” and “social responsibility” among students. In other words: people, break the bubble.

“The bubble is a good place to start,” says Preiss, “and it is part of the core idea of UCU. You meet a lot of different people and discover yourself vis-à-vis them, plus you create a strong and useful network for your future career. But it’s important that people don’t lose contact with reality.”

Director of Education Fried Keesen stresses that the Administration is trying to be an example in this respect by setting up ‘outwards-oriented’ projects like the Ethiopia one.

Also Committees like ComCo, HumCo and Cultural Cookery also play a role here. “We can now show that the environment around us benefits from the very presence of UCU,” says Keesen.

But is it enough? I’ve decided to grade UCU’s level of interaction with the real world with a C. My judgment was confirmed when I asked a friend: “What was the last time you went to the city centre?”

“You mean the centre of the Quad?” he answered.

Internationalisation

The 2007 report stated that, as internationalisation is a key element of UCU’s educational philosophy, this parameter had not yet been met to a sufficient extent.

Are we an international college or a Dutch college with a lot of international people? Tricky question. It’s true that an overabundance of ‘krokets’ in DH and a recurrence of explanations in Dutch during class “to make the concept more clear” propel me towards the second option.

However, my attitude changes when I bump into a German-Spanish friend and a Scandinavian-Portuguese friend of mine trying to practice their Chinese while eating some Italian pasta al pesto. Oh, and there was some weird Russian music in the background.

So really, when it comes to be international, UCU deserves an A. An overabundance of Dutch croquettes can be forgiven.

Is UCU prepared to face the commission once again? The answer is up to you – when they arrive, the independent experts will also want to hear your voice.

True, UCU might be a small, messy and disorganised bunch of people that look nothing but cute when trying to compete with Harvard or Yale. But it helps that the lack of bureaucracy allowed me to simply email the highest heads of the administration and have a chat with them with a cup of tea.

True, it could well be that we live in a fake world out of touch with reality. But it’s so nice to feel safe and at home in this “gezellig” little bubble.

UCU –so imperfect, but so nice.

A UCSA Newspaper – By students and for students of University College Utrecht (UCU)