SBE has once again been ranked against other institutes recently by The Financial Times, Elsevier and CHE. But just how important are rankings and accreditations, how are they formulated, and how are they chosen and used? To answer these and other questions, Talkin’ Business talks to Dr. Tom van Veen, SBE’s Associate Dean for internationalization and strategic development. The triple accreditation, from AACSB, EQUIS and AMBA, is a clear demonstration of the international standing of SBE’s research and education. These rankings, which are particularly important in today’s knowledge society, also show that the School competes with the first best universities worldwide offering comparable programmes.
Each year, the Dutch magazine Elsevier conducts a survey of universities and higher education institutes in the Netherlands. Their 2009 ranking produced outstanding results for SBE. The Economics and International Business MSc programmes were ranked first in their categories, as were the Fiscal Economics and Econometrics and Operations Research BSc programmes. Second places were awarded to BSc Economics, BSc International Business and the MSc Management of Learning programme. This year’s Financial Times list of the world’s top universities offering Master’s in Management programmes listed SBE in 29th place overall. SBE is one of only three Dutch institutes in the FT top 50 ranking this year (with RSM ranked 10th and Nyenrode in 40th place).
The German Centre for Higher Education Development (CHE) analyzed the master’s and doctoral programmes of European universities in the fields of economics, political science and psychology for their ‘Excellence Ranking 2009’. For each field, universities could be awarded a maximum of ten stars based on their results on different indicators, focusing largely on research strengths and internationalization. Sixty-nine universities throughout Europe, including seven in the Netherlands, received one or more stars in the field of Economics. CHE awarded SBE with no less than eight stars – one more than any other European university.
A place in the mindset
All of this is good news, but what is their importance for prospective students? “The Elsevier ranking is especially important for Dutch students,” says Tom van Veen. “They make it clear in which areas the different faculties perform well and less well. For students from other countries, the international rankings are the most important. They are essential for a university or school to capture a place in the mindset of a prospective student. If your university has no ranking or a poor ranking, you have no place there at all.”
Tom van Veen agrees the 2009 rankings look good, although he notes that they have been similarly positive for SBE for some years. Other universities make every effort to improve their position in them of course, and UM is no exception. “The differences between the Dutch universities are not so very large however, so you have to carefully put the rankings into perspective,” he argues. “In terms of the Financial Times rankings, it’s a pity that only the top 50 is shown, while many more universities would like to take part. I’m disappointed that SBE dropped two places to 29th this year of course, but it’s still a very high ranking.”
What does SBE actually do with the rankings? “Rankings are an excellent way of identifying opportunities for improvement,” he explains. “In the Elsevier rankings, for example, SBE didn’t score well in test locations and in the time taken to mark tests. If other universities perform better in this respect, then SBE formulates a policy to make improvements. The test locations are evaluated and improved, and we look at how we can shorten the time taken to mark tests.”
Assessments do need to be made as to whether actions that may be taken to address the findings in the rankings make a good fit with SBE’s strategy however, and whether the outcomes produced would justify the investment required. “In the ranking of the Financial Times, for example, internationalization and the ability to speak multiple languages play an important role.
At SBE we have a strong focus on language skills in the bachelor’s programmes, but less so in the master’s programmes. The FT rankings therefore mean that SBE must consider whether we should also give a stronger focus to language skills in the master’s programmes. Ultimately, all the different universities are trying to capture a bigger share of the same market, so if the competition decides to give a higher priority to offering language skills training to students, this may well be reason enough for us to look at this too. In this way, you can move up the ranking.”
Dr. van Veen goes on to explain that SBE’s ultimate goal is to build a good international faculty, and that this strategy is very specific. “Should Dutch students decide, for example, that they think it’s important for teaching to be done in Dutch, SBE would not immediately act on this, since key points of the strategy are that the School should have an international character and a broad diversity of students. The rankings are therefore more of a compass that indicates what you might be able to improve. They give us points for consideration, as long as any adjustments fit within the strategy.”
Weighing up participation
So how does SBE choose in which rankings and accreditations it should participate? “Well, there are actually quite a few different accreditations and rankings, and you can’t participate in all of them,” Tom van Veen says. “In the area of international accreditations, there are three – the AACSB, Equis and AMBA – that are extremely important for SBE. The Dutch NVAO accreditation is essential in the Netherlands. At the moment, SBE will continue to focus on these, but should a new accreditation be presented that’s interesting for us, then we’ll make an effort to participate in it. In terms of international rankings, in addition to the FT and CHE, the Business Week and Times Higher Education rankings are also interesting.”
“As a school you have to weigh up which rankings you want to participate in. For some, like the FT and CHE, you can propose yourself for inclusion. The Times Higher Education ranks institutes without them asking, but they do ask you to submit data. You also have to do a cost-benefit analysis when it comes to rankings. You can certainly spend a lot of time on being included in a ranking, but if that particular ranking doesn’t actually produce results, it’s better to spend that time elsewhere. Meanwhile, SBE can’t be considered for some rankings, because too few students follow a particular programme, or because the programme hasn’t been offered for long enough.”
He also notes that the challenge that many rankings present is that their criteria are unclear. “On the one hand, this can come down to the ‘tricks of the trade’ not being well known,” he explains, “but on the other it can be due to the criteria being changed from year to year. It doesn’t make sense, therefore, for us as a school to be too strongly driven by the rankings. Developing and following a strong vision and strategy is more important. Within the context of the strategy, the rankings serve the role of one of the indicators we can use in order to improve aspects of our programmes.”