Wednesday, August 16, 2006
MOVING TO FRONT FROM AUG. 14, SINCE THERE IS NOW A LIVELY COMMENTS SECTION.
Story here; an excerpt:
Eleven Canadian universities advised Maclean's magazine on Monday that they will not participate in this year's survey that assigns rankings to each institution because of concerns about the methodology and the validity of some of the measures.
In a letter to Tony Keller, the magazine's managing editor of special projects, the universities said they have expressed their "considerable reservations" to Maclean's for some years, but to little avail.
"Thus far, these serious concerns have gone largely unaddressed, and there is still no evidence that Maclean's intends to respond to them," they said.
The universities said they already publish a lot of data online about themselves and intend to add more to allow people to make valid comparisons.
"However, it is truly hard for us to justify the investment of public funds required to generate customized data for your survey when those data are compiled in ways that we regard as oversimplified and arbitrary," they said.
The letter was signed by the presidents of:
- University of Toronto
- McMaster University
- University of Ottawa
- University of British Columbia
- Simon Fraser University
- University of Alberta
- University of Calgary
- University of Lethbridge
- University of Manitoba
- Université de Montréal
- Dalhousie University
The universities said they found it inappropriate that the survey collects data on a wide range of things — such as class size, faculty, finances, library and reputation — and then arbitrarily assigns weightings to generate a single ranking number....
It will be interesting to see what effect this has on the credibility of the Maclean's rankings. (Canadian readers: do they have any credibility? Comments are open for non-anonymous postings.) Certainly the fact that the two preeminent research universities in Canada--Toronto and British Columbia--are participating in the boycott should help. One wonders, though, why McGill was not a signatory (do they fare especially well in Maclean's?).
Of course, the other interesting question is why leading American research universities haven't followed suit? I suppose the worry is that it would be very hard to get schools to stick to an agreement not to participate. Schools like Harvard and MIT and Stanford can weather whatever abuse U.S. News would dole out to them if they didn't complete the surveys, but other schools could ill afford it, especially those (like Duke or Penn, among many others) that tend to be systematically overrated in U.S. News relative to other measures of academic quality.
It will be interesting to see what happens in Canada.
UPDATE: My colleague Les Green's observations, from the comments section, deserve to be read:
The systematically overrated Canadian universities are indeed over-represented among the non-signatories.
But the Macleans rankings have nothing like the influence in Canada that US News rankings have in the US. There are a number of reasons for this. One is that the quality gap between the top Canadian universities and the bottom ones is nothing like the gap between the top and bottom American universites, so the value of rankings to the prospective student is much less. This is in turn partly explained by the fact that there is no equivalent to the spectacularly rich private US schools in Canada; but neither is there any equivalent to the starved public degree-mills or the bizarre little religious and ideological enterprises that pretend to teach at a university level. Regulation puts a quality floor under Canadian tertiary education (and perhaps, controversially, also a ceiling above it). Then there is a much more pronounced regional culture up here. UBC is indeed a very good research university; but it isn't drawing many top students from Ontario or Quebec (the largest provinces). Most Ontario students just aren't all that interested in the differences, if any, between UBC and Simon Fraser. Finally, remember that the US-Canada border is, for the monied classes, porous. Occasionally one or the other of the better Canadian universities pretends to be the "Harvard of the North." But well-to-do parents aren't fooled. The Harvard of the North is *Harvard*. Finally, it seems to me that, bad as it is, US News is actually *better* at ranking than is Macleans, whose staff obviously lack the competence and contacts to do even a mediocre job of assessing the quality of Canadian universities.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Canadian philosopher Thomas Hurka at the University of Toronto writes:
Interesting that you posted about the Canadian universities and the Maclean's ranking. One issue that was brought up years ago by the Alberta universties but got no response from the magazine is the following. Perhaps the most important factor in the overall Maclean's ranking is average grades of incoming students. But, as Les Green noted on your site, Canadian universities much more than US ones draw the bulk of their students locally, from their own provinces. And high school grading practices in different provinces are very different, e.g. Alberta has province-wide exams, which lowers grades (because you're not being graded by your own teacher, who has a stake in your success), while Ontario has a cash scholarship for averages above 80%, which
inflates grades (since teachers want their students to get the cash). This systematically favours Ontario over Alberta universities, and in particular favours Queen's U, which has the highest incoming average in the country. It wouldn't be too hard to adjust for these differences -- just control by the percentage of a university's incoming class that's out-of-province and normalize by average grade 12 results per province. But Maclean's refused to do anything like that. No doubt that partly
explains why all three Alberta universities are among those pulling out of the exercise, while Queen's is not.