Research on professors ‘short sighted’

Many media outlets reported on Tuesday that ‘30 per cent of university professors give poor lessons’. Research institute Goudsteen & Company drew the conclusion from interviews with 14 university professors who had been chosen as Professor of the Year, including RUG professor Anton Scheurink. But statistically-speaking, the research is one big flop.

One year ago, physicist Anton Scheurink had a ‘pleasant conversation’ with one of the people behind the research. He talked for an hour and a half about topics such as his vision for education, priorities and value. Thirteen other Professors of the Year, spread throughout the Netherlands, were asked the same questions. Scheurink now has serious doubts about the research: ‘Statistically, that can’t be right. I don’t know what to make of all of this.’

According to the external research institution, 30 per cent of professors give poor lessons, 45 per cent are labeled ‘good’, and 25 per cent are considered ‘great’. The percentages are based on the responses of the 14 interviewed professors. ‘Of these professors, 28 per cent did not want to answer the question’, Scheurink reads aloud from the research paper. ‘The interview was a while ago, but I dare say that I belong to that group. It comes down to a conclusion based on ten people. That is absurd.’


‘The research in itself could be interesting’, says RUG statistician Casper Albers. ‘Professors of the Year will have good tips for their colleagues and at the end of the piece, there are a few good suggestions. These are probably obvious, such as the fact that more money should go towards education and that there should be less pressure on research, but it couldn’t do any harm to pay attention to them.’

‘The thing that I object to strongly is the quantitative implementation. It is strange to draw such conclusions based on ten people. Furthermore, I am limited in being able to observe how other professors give their lessons. You do not sit in with each other during a lecture. I don’t know how a great professor would look at it differently’, says Albers.

Another stated conclusion of the research is that the University Teacher Qualification (BKO), proof of the didactic competency of teachers, has hardly any added value: 50 per cent of the professors received this automatically, 29 per cent took BKO training and 21 per cent had to hand in a dossier in order to be granted the qualification.

Well organised

‘I don’t know what the statistics are saying’, Scheurink says to himself aloud. ‘A mere 29 per cent of the respondents, four people in total, trained for a BKO. I belong to the group who trained for it; at the faculty where I work, the BKO training is well organised. In the beginning it was a lot of work, but I learned a lot from it. The 50 per cent of the 15 people who automatically received one does not really say much about the total.’

‘In the interview, I immediately said that I was more optimistic about the education nowadays. In comparison to how things were in the past, there are many things that have been improved. For example, not long ago, education quality was absent as a criterion when employing researchers at the university. There are certainly interesting suggestions in the paper. It looks nice, with nice little arrows and diagrams. But the conclusions are very ‘short sighted’ says Scheurink.

Wrong conclusion

Research institute Goudsteen & Company is in complete agreeance with Albers and Scheurink’s criticism. ‘We have done research into excellent professors’, says Peter Langerak from the research institute. ‘We were curious about their characteristics and the academic culture in which they work. We have described that. The conclusion that 30 per cent of teachers are bad can’t be made.’

Yet this conclusion is indeed suggested in the press release about the research. ‘Prize-winning excellent professors […] estimate that 30 per cent of university professors operate poorly’, is printed in bold in the first and second paragraph. But that is not the focus of the press release, says Langerak. ‘The point is that in academic culture, scoring well in terms of research is found to be especially important and that these excellent professors, drawing from personal motivation, are committed to improving the quality of education. But positive news is apparently no news.’