Organisation - September 24, 2009

Quality with flying colours

Most of Wageningen's university chair groups and graduate schools have done exceedingly well, with even higher scores than in the previous round of external reviews. The university's policy on quality is bearing fruit, concludes Martin Kropff. However, there are also some weaker groups bringing up the rear. These will be getting coaching from the rector.

Who are Top-scorers of Wageningen UR?
The Wageningen graduate schools were thrilled to bits when the international review committees presented their findings verbally in June at the close of their three-day visit. The words 'good' and 'excellent' were frequently used. This really gives recognition to the importance of developing knowledge at a time when the emphasis tends to be on applying knowledge. 'I think that we have four excellent groups, all of which deserve a top score of five', was the guess of Fre Pepping of the VLAG graduate school. But they still had to wait for the reviewers' final reports, which have been trickling in during the past few weeks.
The committees reviewed the research and training programmes of five of the seven Wageningen graduate schools this time. The environment school WIMEK and the development school Ceres had already been assessed eighteen months previously.
The external reviews also covered the chair groups responsible for research in the five schools. Most of them have exceedingly good scores. 'We want to get a minimum score of 4 for quality on a scale of 1 to 5. Eighty percent or 66 of the 82 chair groups made the grade. We have a strong position internationally', says a proud rector Martin Kropff - who is in charge of the quality policy. Every  school has higher scores than in the previous review about five years ago. The best Wageningen graduate school is Experimental Plant Sciences (EPS), which scores 4.5 for quality. This is one of the reasons why this renowned top school received extra money last month from Minister Plasterk for PhD education. The graduate school in nutrition, VLAG, comes close to this status with a score of 4.4. The social sciences, mostly associated with the Mansholt Institute, have the lowest score: 3.9.
Prof. Arthur Mol, the new director of this graduate school, has mixed feelings. 'Seven years ago, we were nearly one point lower in the review. We have therefore made a big jump in quality and productivity. On the other hand: it's still not good enough. EPS is a real global top performer, while we have some way to go.'
The Wageningen standard for excellence in research has been raised in the last few years by making the quality policy more stringent. Although a score of 3 in the review reports stands for 'good', the rector and the graduate school directors do not consider that good enough. Chair groups which have scored a 3 for quality get the chance to explain to the graduate school director and their knowledge unit how they intend raising that score to a 4.
Prof. Mol: 'Over the last five years we have been harping on about the need to publish in international journals, in addition to writing books. Go for the quality magazines and publishers. We also hand out yellow cards to people who perform below par, and give top performers a pat on the shoulders.'
'The tools we have for measuring quality are getting better', says Kropff, referring to the bibliometric systems that keep tabs on the number of publications per researcher in the last five years, the journals published in, the topics and how often he or she is cited by others. 'Quality has become visible.' Feedback on these performance indicators and discussions about making improvements have given rise to a different publication culture and noticeably better quality in many chair groups, according to the rector.
These days, detailed bibliometric data is even used to assess the quality of professors-elect.  Having acclaimed training programmes in the graduate schools also paid off, says the rector. 'Giving PhD students a good education raises the quality of publications.' Kropff sums up: 'Years of quality-oriented policy are bearing fruit'.
For a few groups, however, quality has gone down. For example, Human and Animal Physiology is last with an embarrassing 2.5 for quality. The graduate school WIAS and the rector can explain this. The group was already performing below par when the former professor left. The then rector wasted much time in finding a successor; the hiring procedure produced two candidates who both eventually withdrew, and so the procedure had to start all over again. As a result, for more than four years this small group was bogged down with teaching assignments and was not being properly managed. The low score reflects that situation: hardly any research was done. But Kropff has full confidence that Jaap Keijer - appointed as professor last year, and who 'has an excellent record of publications' - will jack up the group's research quality. The pep talk has already taken place.
The panel feels that the university can draw useful lessons from this, which are also applicable to strong groups to make sure they stay strong. The university should speed up the process of finding successors, or even to have a successor in the starting block before someone leaves. However, this is not always possible in practice, responds the rector. You can prepare for someone's retirement, but the sudden departure of a professor is hardly foreseeable. Furthermore, Kropff wants to be able to first appoint a committee to decide if a chair should be continued, and if so, whether the chair objective should be modified. Hiring can only begin afterwards. 'This process requires great care', says Kropff.
Other criticisms and advice from the review committees are mostly about the management of research:

  • Graduate schools have very few funds of their own for introducing better managed and coordinated programmes. The Director, Mol, agrees: 'I have no funds for maintaining a quality policy. All I can do is provide information to the director of the knowledge unit, since he ha the resources.' Kropff: 'We allocate a few million euros of our strategic funds to the graduate schools. They can therefore set up their own policies. Coordination will have to be introduced in other ways, as our system has limited basic funding.'

  • The university should give new chair groups more money to develop. An example is the new group Host-Microbe Interactomics, which did not receive any score for quality from the committee. The committee thinks its research area is interesting, but it does not have enough support from the university. Kropff says that each chair receives a basic funding of two hundred thousand euros, which he does not intend to increase. He does admit: 'Our current funding model (funding based on output, such as reimbursements for diplomas and PhDs, ed.), makes it difficult for new groups. It's better to place new groups under one or more existing groups so that they can share education and management tasks with those groups.'

  • Small chair groups are vulnerable and seldom make it to the global top ranks, contended several committees. Better to have fewer but more solid chair groups. 'The current number of groups is fine, but we will not spread ourselves even more thinly', is the rector's reply. 'At the moment our motto is: new for old.' Small groups can get ahead by forming clusters. 'I can certainly see that happening', says Kropff. 'Professors retain their autonomy on content, while administration, secretarial work, research tasks and equipment are shared. This will lead to increased efficiency.'

  • The university offers talented graduate students and post-docs poor career prospects, contended several committees. Each year, the university has twenty job vacancies for university lecturers, replies Kropff. 'We could just fill them, but our new career policy is to only employ talented people who will progress and have the potential to become professors.' The new tenure track system should give post-docs a clearer picture of their scientific career prospects.

P.S. How to get cited
P.S. Wageningen's top citations
P.S. How to measure quality
Get a group of about five foreign professors to come to Wageningen for three to five days. Let them talk to professors, lecturers, PhD students and other members of the graduate schools. These committee members are working in the same fields and often know if a school has an international reputation. Before their visit, they have gone through a large amount of paperwork: the self-evaluation reports in which the schools describe themselves, their professors, their plans, research activities and educational programmes. These reports are also full of numbers: the number of publications, citations and other bibliometric data. The schools also perform a SWOT analysis, specifying the weaknesses and strengths, and the opportunities and threats to come. The self-evaluation reports also outline what the schools have done with the recommendations of the previous external review. Many months of hard work have gone into preparing these documents, and their efforts are complimented. The review conclusions are expressed in scores from 1 to 5, with a short explanation for each group. The score of 1 is as good as a death sentence, 2 is a fail, 3 means you count for something in the Netherlands, 4 means you have an international reputation. 5 is reserved for the groups that are global leaders, or 'close to God' as a committee member said at the previous external review.