The numbers game: SBE associate dean Huub Meijers on why university rankings matter

Rankings: according to those who compile them, they represent expert opinions on quality. And nearly everyone else, it seems, has an opinion about those opinions: news media, employers, policymakers, taxpayers, prospective students and parents, and alumni looking back on their education and their alma mater.

Maastricht University, the youngest and most international of the Netherlands’ universities, scores very well in a number of these tables: according to Times Higher Education, it’s the 6th best young university in the world. The School of Business and Economics (SBE) has gathered its fair share of plaudits too, this year claiming three number one MSc programmes, according to the Keuzegids Masters rankings.  

But what’s in a number? Do SBE’s academics and educators think rankings are useful? We put the question to Huub Meijers, associate dean of education at Maastricht University School of Business and Economics.

“I do think we should consider rankings and be concerned about them, because what we hear from students is that choosing Maastricht as a place to study depends – among many other aspects – on rankings. Many of them find it important that their institution does well in the rankings, and that is one of the reasons that they chose Maastricht. From that perspective, I think they are very, very important.

“It’s not so much the rankings as an outcome, as a kind of competition, that are important, but the underlying surveys or material on which rankings are based. They can help us in defining in what aspects we at SBE are good at, and what aspects can we improve in. Where can we get better? What do students think about us? The rankings, as such, are not that important, but they can help us to see where, in the entire spectrum of a student’s view of the school, we can improve. Is it about the teachers, the facilities, IT, employability? These aspects are often measured in rankings, and I think they can teach us a lot.”

Do senior academics and administrators really look at rankings and make changes as a result?

“Whenever rankings come out, we always start a discussion, not only among management but also among academics. Some academics think rankings are really important; others have some doubts; others think it’s not very useful to look at rankings. There is a big range of views, and there’s always a discussion. There’s no general view.

“But if you want to see what’s important, take the Keuzegids. It’s not so much about whether you’re ranked one or two, but about what we learn from the NSE, the National Student Survey that is underlying the rankings. The NSE is quite detailed, and students give their opinions about many, many aspects of our school: examinations, feedback, facilities and a broad range of factors. And if the response rates are high – as they normally are at SBE – these are also reasonably reliable, so they really say something, at least from the students’ perspective, on us as a school, and from that we can learn. It could be that we don’t agree with the students’ view but realise that there is something there that concerns them, and we know we should have a careful look at it; it could also be that we see that we need to improve some aspects.”

The National Student Survey seeks the views of current students. But what about surveys of alumni looking back on their studies years later?

“I find the results from open question surveys very important. What I learned recently from alumni, for instance, is that some aspects of what they face in the business environment are not included in our programmes, so in that sense, we can learn that we should pay more attention to, say, the impact of digitisation on organisations. We look closely at what alumni tell us about what aspects might have been missing in their education, from the perspective of someone now in the working world. You always need to think: is it the university’s place to address all those issues? But nevertheless, it gives us good food for thought, and for discussion.

“More generally, I very much enjoy staying in touch with alumni. I see how they are developing out in the world, and when they give feedback through LinkedIn or other social media, or directly by email, then you feel quite proud that they have been here and you have been one of their teachers. You like to think that you have played a small part in their development, and that is one of the main driving forces to work in education: to help developing people. When you see the results, it’s a source of pride. “

Do you hear from alumni regularly?

“I have LinkedIn contacts from people all the time; they also send a message if they are in Maastricht and they want to have a coffee or to do something for our current students. Two weeks ago, two alumni were here in the neighbourhood, so I organised a meeting with my current students, and they had a lively discussion about how they had developed after leaving the university and the trajectory they took. That’s always very nice; I love that.”

Many alumni are proud of their alma mater, but there seems to be a particularly warm feeling among Maastricht graduates.

“I think because we have Problem-Based Learning, we are closer to the students. The distance here between cohorts, and between the teachers and the students, is less. Anyway, I suspect that that’s a factor; I cannot compare too much, but I imagine that it works like that.

“In the discussion we had with these alumni, one said that what was so important about Maastricht is how it helped him learn to communicate. He said, ‘90% of my work is about communication within teams, and you learn how miscommunication can be very detrimental to teamwork. What I learned in Maastricht is to be very efficient and effective in teamwork, in communication, so to get your message across. Not to get lost in the details, but to keep focused on what your message is. That’s a very important aspect of the PBL setting in Maastricht, working on communication in teams’.

“The other alumnus said, ‘What I learned was how to work in an international environment’. They both work in a consultancy company with many international clients, and many locations in the world, in and outside Europe. He said that the whole experience of internationalisation and learning to deal with different cultures – both in other countries and within teams – was important. Learning what the value of appointments is, or the value of a yes or a no; all these aspects are different in different cultures. He said he learned at SBE to think about these factors, and that he used that knowledge every day at work.”

What do you wish rankings were better at measuring?

“It’s a difficult question. Where rankings are based on underlying surveys that are broad and ask about many aspects of studies and where you can show that these factors are really inherent and really characteristic of that university or of that programme, then, I think, rankings do matter. Sometimes you have rankings based on particular numbers that give only a partial view of a programme of study, and then it all depends how your programme fits into that partial view. If you do well on that partial view, then you score high in that particular ranking, even if you might be quite bad in aspects that are not included in the ranking. In that sense, those rankings are a sort of partial measuring rod. This can lead to skewed results which do not represent the truth. You can argue that a completely true picture never exists, of course, but I think you know what I mean.”

Are you surprised that such a high percentage of Maastricht students participate in surveys that feed into rankings?

“The contact between the faculty and the students is very close; the distance between us is very short. I can’t prove it, but I have a feeling that this helps also in students feeling a part of SBE and therefore a bit more inclined to fill out surveys than at other universities and other schools.”

Alumni often say that what they learned here is valuable. How long does it take to know how good your education was?

“As educators, we believe in what we do, and that’s immediate. Last week I gave a lecture and I got feedback from the students there and then; they were enthusiastic in the lecture. In the longer term, there is the positive feedback you get from employers of our graduates, and from alumni. That’s when we really know we are doing a good job. And when alumni tell us what we can do better, that’s valuable information too. Our goal is moving forward, and these are all signals we can use to help us.”


Photo: (c) Michel Saive

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