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Top universities rail on Maclean’s ranking system

Twenty-six Canadian universities refused to provide information for Maclean’s annual university rankings

McGill found itself at the top of the medical-doctoral category in Maclean’s annual University Rankings, based on a tabulation system which over half of the ranked universities denounced as inaccurate and unjust.

Now in their 18th year, the rankings pledge themselves to providing basic, essential information to prospective university students, but Chris Mota, Concordia University’s Director of Media Relations, thinks they do not accurately reflect the quality of the institutions surveyed.

“I don’t know that the whole ranking exercise is the best way of looking at things,” said Mota. “Comparing universities is like comparing apples to oranges.”

Mota echoed the dissent expressed by 11 universities – including the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia – in an August 2006 letter to Maclean’s. The letter critiqued the publication’s research methodology: calling the the rankings “oversimplified and arbitrary” and questioning the legitimacy of expending public funds to aid a study for profit. Fifteen additional universities echoed their displeasure in the following years.

Though altogether 26 universities – slightly more than half of the 46 universities ranked – refused to provide Maclean’s with the annually requested information for the 2006 rankings, they appeared in the rankings nonetheless. Maclean’s filled the 2006 gaps using public sources or 2005 data, adding in that issue that “the rankings have always been contentious…since they place universities under the microscope.”

For their part, McGill administrators found no complaint with the rankings. President Heather Munroe-Blum called them “absolutely great for the University,” when asked at the Town Hall, adding the importance of publicizing McGill’s excellence.

As a regular champion of the medical-doctoral category, McGill’s support is unsurprising; the abstaining universities, however, maintain that their contention is with the rankings and not with their standings. This claim acquired greater credibility when a top-five mainstay, the University of Toronto (UofT), joined the dissenters’ ranks. U of T President David Naylor, whose university came second to McGill this year, denounced the rankings in April 2006 for resorting to a simple, aggregated “number one, number two, number three.”

The dissenting universities feel their complaints have been largely ignored. Since 2006, the extent of Maclean’s mention of the controversy is an annual addendum explaining that lack of participation from some universities has forced the magazine to reduce its rankings indicators. In 2007, Maclean’s also began to use entirely public sources of data to inform the rankings rather than appeal to the universities themselves – a move that did not appease the dissenting universities so much as it eliminated Maclean’s need for their participation.

However, this change was enough to draw one dissenting university back into the fold. Sophie Langlois, Université de Montréal’s (U de M) Director of Media Relations, explained that Maclean’s decision to collect data from public sources relieved the burden on universities to collect the data themselves, so U de M reaffirmed support of the rankings in 2007. Langlois added, however, that U de M has less of a stake in the issue than the other abstaining universities.

“My feeling is that rankings are not received in the same way for francophone students [in CEGEP] – I’m not sure if they look at it the same way as Canada-wide high school students.”

Regarding the rankings’ purpose and fairness, Munroe-Blum cited the need for a university to constantly monitor indicators of its success, and praised the rankings’ publicly sourced information as fair and objective. Munroe-Blum added that the rankings have great implications for institutional pride and recruiting assistance.

McGill Registrar Kathleen Massey echoed the latter sentiment.

“It’s about reputation. We have a strong reputation that is reinforced by Maclean’s rankings, which many students and parents use as one means of deciding which university to attend,” Massey said.

This, according to Concordia’s Mota, is in fact part of the problem – “that parents and children make decisions based on this unscientific information.” By failing to recognize diversity among universities, Mota said, the Maclean’s rankings oversimplify university quality.

But as Massey pointed out, Maclean’s is only one form of publicity; not only do many other respected rankings exist, but McGill’s outstanding research work is also publicized through a variety of general media. Supplements like these to the Maclean’s rankings provide accurate portraits of universities and enable well-rounded decision-making.

The standoff between the Maclean’s rankings and the dissenting universities seems to have reached a stalemate. They all, however, agree that the Maclean’s rankings are no shortcut to an informed decision.

“It takes a lot of research to make a qualified decision,” Mota said, “but this is the wisest way to shop.”

Two Maclean’s staffers did not return The Daily’s repeated requests for comment.