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Monday, November 12th, 2012

The Rankings Rankle

The latest Maclean’s university rankings came out last week. It’s a big seller for Maclean’s and biggest con in Canadian post-secondary education. In Canada, where virtually all universities are public, funded to a similar base per student, and regulated to maintain the same standards, it’s a manipulation to make hay with rankings.

I remember sitting in a meeting with the Provost of one of Canada’s larger universities. That morning, Canada’s self proclaimed national newspaper had ranked that institution dead last in student satisfaction. The Provost made an eloquent argument for why such rankings can’t be considered a serious and fair assessment on whether any university is the right choice. Then, a few minutes later, as if another switch was turned on inside her head, she made a new argument for why her university which was then ranked number one by Maclean’s, was based on those rankings, in fact the best. If a first year student used that logic in making a comparative argument in an essay, they’d be marked with a big red “F”. But I guess even a Provost can pick her own polls.

Years ago, a friend of mine worked for the research company doing the first ever Maclean’s rankings of Canadian universities. Whne he saw what was going on, he excused himself from the project. He said the data was seriously flawed to make any qualified assessment on rankings institutions. This fellow had a real education in statistics, policy and communications, and today runs one of Canada’s more successful market research firms.

My favourite tool for rankings universities was a website for American schools, now seemingly defunct. It had about twenty well known US institutions on a list which each time you refreshed the browser, it re-ordered the universities. It gave instructions to keep refreshing till your university is number one, and then print it to show your parents !

At least in America there is some sense in considering the wide gap between the top few hundred institutions and the next few thousand. There’s a real difference between Harvard and Podunk College. But a significant difference in the US top 100 ? Really ??

Canadian academics love to espouse Canadian values of universality of world-class medicine and education. Yet these same learned faculty and administrators lose their research minds and logic to buy into rankings which are entirely misleading. It goes a step farther to intellectual dishonesty when they use the rankings to sell their institution to an eighteen year old. When Canadian universities use Maclean’s to confound naive families in Asia (which are used to a system of haves and have-nots and have no clue about Canada) that their university is better, it borders on the same misrepresentation they accuse education agents of. Even some Canadian government officials abroad use Maclean’s, much to the dismay of many of their public institution clients whom it discriminates against (but Maclean’s is the lazy and easy answer for those who don’t know how Canada actually works).

Too many who should know better, willingly buy in to the myth, hype and of course the crass self-interest. That’s what Maclean’s wants. Every one to buy – especially the magazine. Even if you are buying a load of ….


#1Syed HumzaNovember 12, 2012, 5:53 pm

This article, has really expelled the cloud fogging my most important decisions in choosing a great university, not by rankings or prestige, but quality of education and the whole social learning experience as a whole
the one-on-one session i had earlier today as part of BSS really inspired me, to think over, my academic future

#2Hiba FazlNovember 26, 2012, 12:19 pm

@ Syed Humza. If it is making you think, half of the job is done. You are right in saying that choosing a university is much more than just rankings. Its about making the right decision after having gathered all facts. CUAC Pakistan feels proud that we were able to give yourself and your friends the opportunity to be part of interactive sessions on Canadian Education. Good luck with your future!

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About Mel

Mel has consulted universities, colleges, governmental and non-governmental organizations in the field of international education since 1997. He is co-founder of Higher-Edge, the parent of Overseas, Overwhelmed, and a director of the Canadian University Application Centre. He is a former award-winning CBC reporter and holds a Masters degree from Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.

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