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‘The world does not benefit from scientists being ‘one-trick-ponies’

Utrecht University pioneers for a new system of recognition and rewards

Photo credits: Ivar Pel

More publications, more citations, more grants. The focus in the academic world seems to have shifted completely towards research quantity and individual triumphs. Scientists are stimulated to mind their journal impact factors and H-indexes, while there is hardly any room or appreciation for their teaching skills or contribution to solving societal issues. Utrecht University in the Netherlands passionately believes that this system of ‘publish or perish’ needs to change and goes to great lengths to make it happen.

“Have you ever noticed that when someone wins an award or receives a grant, you always see a picture of one particular man or woman?”, says Henk Kummeling, Rector Magnificus at Utrecht University. “You hardly ever get shown the context, the team, that allowed this person to win the award. It reflects how we assess people and how we set an example for young scientists, reinforcing the idea that there is only one way to achieve academic success.”

A catalyst for change
“We need to extricate ourselves from the situation where scientists feel they need to focus exclusively on getting over specific hurdles and on becoming a professor. It encourages unwanted behavior that is detrimental to collaboration.


We consider our university to be a catalyst for change and aim to significantly contribute to finding solutions to complex, societal challenges such as wealth inequalities, climate change, migration and healthy lifestyles. We are much aware that these issues cannot be solved from only one perspective.

Therefore we stimulate collaboration, exchange and co-creation across borders of academic fields, and with a wide range of partners and the general public.

We continuously look for new possibilities to make science more open, effective, reliable and relevant to society. And one of the most important elements in our transition to open science is to do more justice to and make more use of the diverse talents of our academics. Among other things, we have taken the initiative to get this topic high on the agenda in the League of European Research Universities, because Utrecht University is greatly dedicated to renewing the current academic system of recognition and rewards.”

The Utrecht way
But how do you change such a deeply ingrained system? Paul Boselie, professor in Public Administration and Organisation Science, and chair of the recognition and rewards working group, describes the way his university takes on this mission as ‘the Utrecht way’. “Some say it’s impossible to transform the system, but from research we know that even in the most institutionalized contexts there is always some leeway. We make use of that and effectuate culture change by doing it ‘the Utrecht way’.

We use an unconventional implementation strategy in which we don’t tell people what to do top-down. Instead, we offer plenty of room to explore, discuss and try new things; we invite people (backed up by funding opportunities) to experiment, start pilots, connect with others and to widely share insights. This results in team spirit and in a driving force in which colleagues inspire and enthuse each other, followed by successful initiatives being implemented on a larger scale across the university.”

‘I would not be sitting here today’
As a young scientist Manon Kluijtmans was not predetermined to have an academic career. “If it hadn’t been for ‘the Utrecht way’ that Paul describes, I would not be sitting here today”, says the professor at the University Medical Centre Utrecht, vice-rector Teaching and Learning, and Academic Director of the Centre for Academic Teaching.

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“After obtaining my doctorate I spent quite some time working on education and policy matters, for instance designing and coordinating a master’s programme. At the time this was not really considered to be an academic activity; I just followed my heart and interests.”

To my pleasant surprise I then got the opportunity to attend advanced programmes to further develop educational leadership and - scholarship. This - and a changing culture - allowed me to develop an academic profile with a focus on education. I proudly contributed to the conception of the Utrecht Education Incentive Fund, which gives teams of lecturers the time and means to innovate education alongside their research activities. This simultaneously contributes to their grant earning capacity and strengthens their CVs.

A more recent example of how a bottom-up initiative really made a difference, is a group of young scientists that managed to transform the way PhD-candidates are being assessed within the Graduate School of Life Sciences. The number of publications is no longer the main focus. PhD-candidates now also set individual development goals and are invited to reflect on their most prominent achievements, using the PhD competence model. Support is growing to implement this new evaluation method in all Utrecht’s Graduate Schools.”

One of our greatest contributions to a better world may well be the students we educate.

To further enhance the didactic skills of lecturers, in 1990 - as first Dutch university - Utrecht implemented a University Teaching Qualification, which lecturers are still obliged to obtain today. Since then all Dutch universities have adopted this qualification and Utrecht has added a Senior University Teaching Qualification for associate professors.

The university introduced awards for outstanding lecturers, and in 1999 launched the Educational Leadership Programme, which evolved into a breeding ground for talented educators.

In 2004 Utrecht adjusted its professorship policy to offer more balanced career options and allow for chairs with a primary focus on education. Later the Senior Fellow Programme was launched: a career track to foster educational leadership and boost the number of education-focused full professors.

A social network and platform was launched to enable lecturers to exchange knowledge and experiences (TAUU) and an annual two-million euro grant programme for research on educational innovation was introduced.

As of 2017, all knowledge and expertise developed for and by lecturers has been incorporated in the Centre for Academic Teaching.

Synergy between education, healthcare and research
Associate Professor at the Faculty of Medicine Niels Bovenschen, was appointed as Senior Fellow in 2017 and Principal Fellow in 2020. His mission is to create synergy between education, healthcare and scientific research at the early undergraduate level. In 2019, Niels won the university’s Outstanding Teacher Award.

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“I have always combined leading a research group with teaching, which gives me a lot of satisfaction. Other researchers have often asked me why I am involved in teaching, especially early in the millennium, when the amount of published papers and acquired grant money were clearly prerequisite when it came to making it to the next academic rank. But times have changed.

A clear shift is seen towards a more contextualized set of development goals in which teaching and research are equally important. This reinforces people’s talents and the overall educational quality, which is essential for society. By training the next generations, you contribute to a better world. My drive is to make a difference in other people’s lives. When I see that my students understand what I teach and can subsequently generate new ideas with this knowledge, I get instant and intrinsic rewards. For me, this is what generating impact is all about.”

Paul Boselie: “Who is a good leader? Who knows how to put together a brilliant research group and take team science to another level? Which colleagues can teach others how to involve the general public or apply their scientific findings in professional practice?

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The world does not benefit from scientists being ‘one-trick-ponies’. In Utrecht we are committed to introducing more diverse career path opportunities in which academics develop themselves in a broad spectrum of research, education, team spirit, societal impact and leadership.

People differ and not everyone has to be excellent in all domains at the same time; we want to give room for profiles and focusses to fluctuate over time. Individual and organizational development go hand in hand, so we don’t want people to just ‘tick the boxes’.”

Manon Kluijtmans: “The key in our transition is that people should be doing things because they are motivated to develop and make a positive contribution to the world, not because they want to outline their career steps.”

Changing the rules of the game
“Doing a lot of ‘other things’ definitely made me a better scientist,” says Marij Swinkels, a PhD-candidate at the Utrecht University School of Governance. Marij spends a fair share of her time on public engagement and teaching. Among other things, this resulted in her winning the university’s Silver Medal and the faculty’s Social Impact Award for her project inclUUsion, that increases access to higher education for refugee students. She also received the Teacher Talent Award.

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“Still, there seems to be an implicit ranking in people’s minds that some parts of the job - publishing - qualify you more as a scientist. We reinforce that image by using terms like ‘teaching burden’. But we are just as much teachers, leaders, advisors, people who explain their research to a broader public, organizers of conferences and mentors to others, as we are researchers.”

If I had obtained my PhD ten years ago, I probably would have left academia thinking there was no room for people like me. But the intensifying debates and institutional alterations have made me want to stay and see where we are heading.

Utrecht is clearly ‘changing the rules of the game’. Temporary teacher contracts are, for instance, now for at least four years and there are more and more opportunities for teaching and public engagement fellowships and qualifications. I feel lucky to be able to explore how I can be a part of this window of opportunity to change the system once and for all.”

‘Not who we want to be’
“To be clear,” Manon Kluijtmans explains, “we are not changing the system because we’re not coping in the old system. On the contrary, we are doing really well in international rankings that measure the number and importance of scientific publications. But it is simply not (solely) who we want to be. Thanks to our excellent and steady position in traditional rankings we can afford to think and act out of the box, and be a pioneer. Utrecht University will continue to explore and seek connection with others, linking thinkers to doers, so new insights can be applied. To generate broad societal impact and not just scientific excellence based on numbers of publications.”

Previous CHE-articles by Utrecht University: (digital) educational innovation and public engagement

Founded: 1636 (learn more about the history of Utrecht University)
Number of students: 33.000
Bachelor’s programmes: 54
Master’s programmes: 153
Number of dissertations per year: 600
Nobel Prize winners: 12
Academic Ranking of World Universities 2020: 52 (see Utrecht in other rankings)
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