Case Study

Ghent University

Interview conducted 20 October, 2020  Compare case studies

In response to an institutional culture that had become overly reliant on quantitative indicators for research assessment, and from a desire to promote a less competitive academic environment with a renewed focus on collaboration, Ghent University developed a new conceptual framework for research evaluation. The process for change at Ghent University was initiated on multiple levels, and concrete administrative actions were propelled by feedback from faculty and researchers. Policy development is a shared responsibility between the institution’s Research Department and Personnel Department (HR). In 2016, Ghent University adopted a Vision Statement for evaluating research at Ghent University. In 2018, the university introduced a new career and evaluation policy for professorial staff. In 2020, the university’s Board of Governors approved a policy brief to further develop the university’s research assessment policy. In 2022, Ghent University became a signatory of the Agreement on Responsible Research Assessment.

Interview originally conducted October 2020. Case study updated August 2023.

Who: Organization profile

Country Belgium
Profile of institution comprehensive university or equivalent
Number of FTE researchers > 1,000
Further information Principles of research evaluation Career path and evaluation policy for Professorial Staff
Organization of research evaluation Institutional/university level
Who is involved? academic leadershipacademic researchersHR staffpolicy staffresearch department staffresearch support or management staff

What: What changed and the key elements of change

In response to an institutional culture that had become reliant on quantitative indicators for research assessment, and from a desire to promote an academic environment that was less competitive and more collaborative, Ghent University developed a new conceptual framework on research assessment. Their approach, outlined in a Vision Statement in 2016, helps to:

  1. Strike the right balance between indicator-driven and peer-review-driven assessment methods.
  2. Guarantee that each of these methods is properly applied.
  3. Build sufficient flexibility into the system.

The framework can be applied to the evaluation of individuals, research groups, or by the University’s special research fund and is guided by eight principles. To help implement the framework, and in response to feedback and concerns from academic staff, Ghent developed guidelines for using indicators in the evaluation of research.

In October 2018, building on the framework, Ghent University introduced a new career and evaluation policy for professorial staff. The policy specifies that evaluations will occur every five years, as imposed by national law, which is less frequent than before, and will “focus on talent-oriented support and coaching of the professorial staff in the different phases of their career. To do so, a personalized HR committee has been set up for each professor.” These committees support and challenge personal and professional growth, give feedback and, eventually, evaluate the professor. Under the new policy, the evaluation process includes (among others) narrative self-reflections. Professors are asked to reflect on their most significant achievements in various dimensions and to describe their ambitions for the next five years. They do so within four pillars: (i) research, (ii) teaching, (iii) institution and societal engagement, and (iv) leadership and people management.

Ghent University introduced a new professional recruitment policy that extended the same principles of openness, transparency and merit-based qualitative assessment to their hiring practices. The predetermined hiring criteria (viz. the competencies, qualities, etc.), co-created by the department faculty and recruitment committee, are a priori communicated. Research teams and graduate research supervising bodies have also started to evolve their requirements for graduation, shifting away from using journal-based metrics to qualify for a PhD and towards recognizing and rewarding more qualitative contributions. 

In 2022, Ghent University became a signatory of the Agreement on Responsible Research Assessment. The University’s 2023-2028 Research Strategy highlights developing specific action in accordance with the changing landscape in Europe with respect to the collective transitioning of European universities towards responsible research evaluations after being part of the Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment (CoARA).

Why: Motivation for change

Researchers and faculty, as well as the university leaders, noticed a growing systemic research culture problem. The quantitative evaluation models contributed, for instance, to a culture of “publish or perish” and were unable to properly grasp the opportunities afforded by new approaches such as interdisciplinary research. This led to a wider debate about the evaluation of research.

The previous career model for professors was criticized as a mainly output-driven process that focused on measuring people’s performance by counting their achievements through quantitative indicators (publications and citations in high-impact journals, etc.). Much emphasis was put on a priori defined individualized targets. The system also put a high administrative burden on the professors and faculty staff, with a lot of paperwork to fill in, at a high evaluation frequency. All this resulted in increasing competition between academics, higher work pressure, and growing dissatisfaction.

Leadership decided not to wait for other institutions to enact change and began to create a system where the desired values were emphasized in career progression and academic evaluation policies.

The dynamic for change at Ghent University was mainly top-down. University leaders wanted to change the culture to create a new one with a shared understanding of what research excellence should encompass: high quality research and teaching, academic freedom, increased societal impact, improved wellbeing, and supporting Open Science and research integrity.

The aim was to create a challenging, high-quality, and stimulating career framework for professors. When the moment of evaluation (and thus promotion) comes, Ghent University no longer looks at the academic output alone. Instead, the university takes a more qualitative, integrated, and talent-oriented perspective.

The basic idea was to introduce a system that takes a more holistic approach to researchers’ careers, opening ways to foster and reward vision development on long-term ambitions (at the individual and group level), collaboration, and connections to the larger group.

Ghent University plans to build a single, holistic evaluation model that recognizes and rewards research quality, academic teachings, teamwork, leadership, and management, in addition to social impact, value creation, and boosting interdisciplinarity.

How: Processes and dynamics for developing, implementing and managing change

Institutional change at Ghent University was initiated at multiple levels: concrete administrative actions were propelled by feedback from faculty and researchers. Administrators from the Personnel Department (HR) and the Research Department were involved in developing the new processes, as research assessment is a shared responsibility between the Research Department and HR. HR plays a crucial role in assessment at Ghent University, and championed and implemented the new policies. 

The 2016 Vision Statement was drafted on the Research Council’s initiative and was approved by the university’s Board of Governors. Change at Ghent University has been a continuous dialogue and iterative process to translate new perspectives on the evaluation of research into the university’s research and evaluation policy as well as in the assessment and appraisal procedures organized by the university.

Obstacles faced to change the assessment systems included limited awareness of research assessment reform and its potential benefits; lack of evidence on potential benefits of research assessment reform; resistance to research assessment reform from researchers; lack of institutional capacity (e.g., skilled staff, support structures); and alignment of institution assessment procedures with nationally and internationally dominant procedures.

To increase the engagement of the research community, the new policies and practices were accompanied by training sessions, engagement, and discussion with faculty and researchers. This helped increase the awareness of the potential benefits of assessment reform, and mitigate the insecurities and resistance that arose as a result of the changes. Templates for the various reports required under the new policy, as well as portfolios of academic activities in the four dimensions (research, education, people management, and leadership, and institutional and societal engagement, are made available to support professorial staff. Some professors did feel a bit insecure about how to deal with the qualitative character of the career evaluations and the fact that they have to talk openly about their long-term ambitions and performance (instead of using the measurable, quantitative criteria for evaluation). However, feedback shows that the professors actually enjoy the open feedback culture and that they feel supported by the HR committee. As of 2023 there has been a change in perception, a more widespread adoption, and an increasing knowledge of qualitative assessment approaches within the faculty and staff. It was noted that support has been catalysed in light of the formation of CoARA, an international initiative to advance responsible research assessment. Initial fears are progressively becoming replaced by confidence in the process of change. In addition to the open feedback culture, these changes have been supported by the HR committee members who can act as neutral parties to listen to and resolve questions and feedback across departments.

As of 2023, Ghent University has also iterated on their policies. For example, relying on clear guidelines to address pitfalls like unconscious biases in qualitative review processes. University administration is also relying on the available tools and guidelines or documented learnings from the other European institutions in CoARA.

When: Timeline for development and implementation

Ghent University has been working continuously on its evaluation culture since 2013. Internal dialogue and debate between relevant stakeholders, e.g., within the Research Council and between the Research and HR Department, produced the principles and criteria for the evaluation of research.

In November 2016, the Board of Governors approved the Vision Statement for Evaluation Research at Ghent University, which introduced the eight principles that must guide every evaluation of research.

In 2018, Ghent University opted for a radically new evaluation and promotion model for professors. The process was designed in part to give "responsibility" and academic freedom back to the professorial staff. The basic idea is that organizational trust and academic freedom works best if people also take up responsibility in return. Ghent University has found that this requires additional support and created personalized HR committees for each professor.

In October 2020, the university’s Board of Governors approved a policy brief to further develop the university’s research assessment policy. The implementation of the new evaluation and assessment culture is still ongoing, and, since 2022, is being inspired by the commitments that are part of the Agreement on Responsible Research Assessment.


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