It's that time of year again when news media attempt to assess universities by way of "report cards" or "rankings." We have already seen a new addition to the ranks of list-makers with the publication in October of the Globe and Mail's "University Report Card" that ranked universities on the basis of a satisfaction survey of university students.
The problem was that not enough students responded from each school to present a fair representation of all schools. And the student respondents, as might be expected, weren't always knowledgeable in their answers. I am sure the University of Waterloo was pleased to hear its nonexistent law school ranked ninth in the country in reputation. Perhaps there is a lesson here for university presidents who are obsessed with increasing their university's reputation in annual rankings - abolish a program and watch its reputation improve.
The Globe's attempt at rating universities will be followed this month by the Maclean's university issue that rates participating Canadian universities. This Maclean's issue is its most profitable. Many students and their parents use it to help them choose among schools. Maclean's provides a very general overview of its ranking methodology on its website but does not provide sufficient detail for anyone to critically assess what they are doing. The magazine evaluates universities on student body, classes, faculty, finances, library and reputation. Various weights are assigned to these factors. The factors each have several subcomponents such as number and dollar value of faculty grants and class size, among others.
What Maclean's and the Globe and Mail don't report are the actual differences among schools. Rankings obliterate the size of differences. All one can tell from a rank order is that one school rates higher than another - not whether the differences between the schools are meaningful. That is why categorizing institutions rather than ranking them would be more useful. Although categorizing institutions would not sell as many magazines or newspapers as ranking, it would be representative.
The use of rankings by Maclean's and the Globe and Mail is in fact a disservice to parents and students since it creates an impression the schools at the bottom of their lists are inferior and not worthy of selection. In fact, one of the hallmarks of publicly-funded post-secondary education in Canada is the overall quality of our universities and the high probability that students will get a good education wherever they go.
What Maclean's and the Globe and Mail should be assessing is the commitment of the federal and provincial governments to support of post-secondary education. The decrease in real dollars in core funding since the early 1990s has more of a negative effect on post-secondary education that anything one university can do to affect its ratings.
I have no doubt the Globe and Maclean's will continue to publish rankings as long as issues containing those lists make money. It would be nice, however, if they would categorize rather than rank institutions and incorporate indicators that reflect the role that governments play in education. What might some of these indicators be?
What good is it to know a school is No. 1 if you can't afford to go there? What is the distribution of the student population from different socioeconomic groups? Who goes to the professional schools in law, business, medicine and dentistry? What percentage of students are offered grants and scholarships? How many students drop out for financial reasons? What is the average debt load of graduates from the university? What was the percentage increase in tuition across the university? Did it exceed the cost of living?
Quality of Faculty
The quality of a faculty is not measured simply by the number of PhDs and grants they secure. What about a measure of the amount of time faculty spend working with students outside the classroom? Low incomes motivate faculty to look elsewhere for jobs, as does lack of adequate academic facilities. What percentage of the university's budget is spent on academic salaries and academic operations? What is the average salary by rank of faculty at the university? What percentage of courses offered by the university are taught by full-time, tenure-stream faculty? Universities are one of the few employers who do not provide their employees with tools and resources needed to do their jobs. Does the university provide each faculty member with a computer? Do faculty have adequate lab and office space?
Equity and Diversity
Do the student body and faculty reflect Canadian society? What percentage of students are women and visible minorities? What percentage of academic staff? Is the university committed to increasing the status of women and visible minorities? Does the university have in place policies that promote equity and that deal effectively with harassment of any kind?
Parents and students should want to know the history of labour relations at a university. Are they selecting a school where there is a long history of poor relations between the university and its employees? Are they likely to encounter a strike by full- or part-time faculty, librarians, teaching assistants, support staff or other workers? Will they have to deal with the stress of a nasty environment arising from those poor relationships?
Academic freedom is the hallmark of an educational institution. Do faculty feel free to express their views, no matter how controversial? Does the university respect and subscribe to the principles of academic freedom? Does the university have a commercialization agenda that takes precedence over academic freedom? What role do corporations play in funding and directing university policies and goals?
Maclean's and the Globe have recognized that people tend to be fascinated by lists. Every one of us will look to see where our school wound up in this year's rankings. Keep in mind the limitations in those lists and the problems that they cause. It is time for Maclean's and the Globe to start focusing on the serious issues confronting post-secondary education rather than simply trying to profit from them by assessing which school has the nicest pub.