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Margin Notes

The rankings that rankle

BY LÉO CHARBONNEAU | NOV 25 2008

The university rankings season has finally come and gone – good riddance. In Canada, we had Maclean’s 18th annual rankings (could it really be 18 years already?) and the seventh incarnation of the Globe and Mail’s University Report Card, this year retitled the Canadian University Report. There is also the Times Higher Education – QS World University Rankings and the somewhat idiosyncratic Shanghai Jiao Tong Academic Ranking of World Universities, the only one of this bunch that apparently has no commercial activity associated with it.

I add that last note, because we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that most of these rankings are commercial activities meant to sell copies of a publication or at least bolster its “brand” – think of how much the university rankings have become an extension of Maclean’s magazine, for example. I should note, however, that there is much useful information and reporting accompanying these reports, but at their core there remain those damn rankings that rankle.

It seems universities have learned to live with rankings, but it’s always an uneasy relationship. Some universities condemn the methodology, while others are quick to tout their latest standing, knowing that they’re supporting a process that is not entirely wholesome.

University of Toronto President David Naylor made the admission directly in an oped in the Ottawa Citizen in April 2006: “My institution has found Maclean’s useful for one thing only: Marketing. None of us really believes that the ranking has much intellectual rigour.”

Rankings, he went on, are a good measure of success in things like sports and sales, “where winning generally comes down to a single number. But no single measure can accurately reflect even a mid-sized university, where hundreds of professors and lecturers teach hundreds of courses across disciplines as varied as engineering and religion.”

A colleague here at University Affairs suggested I do a mock ranking of the rankings, parodying the questionable methodologies, assumptions and categories, but I think I’ll pass.

Rather, let me point you to a ranking that in its own way is nearly a send-up of the whole rankings business: in the latest contest run by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, Mount Allison University came out on top as Canada’s “most vegetarian-friendly” school, followed by University of Victoria, McMaster, University of Western Ontario and University of Toronto. Mount A was chosen for its “vast number of vegetarian and vegan choices,” including its Italian tempeh mock sausage, the vegan enchilada bake and vegan sloppy Joes.

There, now that’s a wholesome ranking I can sink my teeth into.

Addendum (Nov. 26): The OECD Observer has an article on the problems with rankings, or league tables as they’re called in the U.K., in its current issue.

ABOUT LÉO CHARBONNEAU
Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Yves GIngras / December 3, 2008 at 17:39

    For those interested in a more detailed analysis of the methodological problems with the indicators included in university rankings, I wrote a recent paper on that topic accessible at:

    There is also an interview on the subject with a French press agency at:

    http://www.chss.uqam.ca/Portals/0/docs/media/Entretien%20AEF%20-%20nov2008.pdf

    Cordially

    Yves