Maclean’s 2011 University Rankings

I reached into my mailbox today and pulled out the famous (infamous?) Maclean’s University Rankings issue.  I use the term infamous because my alma mater, the University of Manitoba, has been ranked last place in its category for as long as I can remember.  As a U of M grad I think I’m actually under some sort of alumni contract that says I must downplay these rankings as much as possible!  All kidding aside, I don’t think there is an accurate way to measure universities.  There is so much variety between experiences within the same classroom, never mind across faculties, or even multiple campuses.  For example, I know many of my friends in the sciences never visited the library throughout their whole degree, yet the quality of your library plays a huge part in the rankings.  That being said, I give Maclean’s major props for taking such an in-depth look, and for fully publishing the formula they used to rank the ivory towers of academia.  I’m not saying it’s a bad formula, instead I’m saying that a “great formula” probably doesn’t exist.

Yay! We’re #15!

Without further ado, let’s take a look at how Maclean’s decides to place a value on our universities.  The first step is to break the school down into three distinct categories.  There is “medical doctoral” (more or less a full-service university that offers everything, including PhD programs, only 15 in Canada), “comprehensive” (a graduate faculty of some kind that still does research, also 15 in Canada), and “Primarily Undergraduate” (limited graduate studies, 19 in Canada).  I think this is an extremely important part of the test.  Again, my bias shows through here, but the University of Manitoba is constantly trashed for being last in the medical doctoral category, yet people have to realize that simply by being in the category it has a lot of built-in advantages compared to other schools.

The Magic Formula

After we sort the universities, the real number crunching begins.  There are six main components to the ranking formula.  They are:

Students and Classes (awards that students have won, and faculty-to-student ratio)

Faculty (awards and grants awarded to faculty members)

Resources (research dollars and operating budgets)

Student Support (scholarships offered, and student services)

Library (money spent, books-per-student)

Reputation (polls of various “educational stakeholders”)

and the Winner Is… (*insert drum roll here)

So, taking these into consideration Maclean’s gave top billing to McGill in the medical doctoral category (followed by Toronto, UBC, and Queens), Simon Fraser in the comprehensive group (runners up awards go out to Victoria, Waterloo, and Guelph), and among primarily undergraduate schools, the maritime powerhouse Mount Allison rules the day (with Acadia, UNBC, and Lethbridge also ranking high).  In total, Maclean’s looked at 49 schools, and I applaud the journalistic effort and the much-needed attention they bring to Canada’s education system.

Oh They Told You That You Were Special Because You Paid Tuition To Them?

Now it’s time to fulfill my alumni obligation and point out some of the flaws in the system.  First and foremost, I have to point out that while these rankings are fun to read, and likely do good things by encouraging competition, they mean almost nothing to the average student.  There are very few employees who will be swayed by a particular school.  Much more likely is that a certain faculty may carry some prestige, and even that is probably overrated.  Universities like to believe that throwing their name up in bold on your resume will assure instant results, but that’s just not true at all.  The University of Manitoba for example has some fairly prestigious professional faculties, while our undergraduate programs don’t exactly shine.  To me, a Bachelor of Arts or Sciences is only worth so much in the workplace no matter where it is from.  This was reaffirmed for me two weeks ago when we had someone comment on our site that they had entered the workforce with a BA (history major) from Oxford (ya, that Oxford) and yet still was unable to find a job despite the prestige he thought his degree carried.

Who Knew The Library Was So Important – Anyone Know What It Looks Like?

When you look at the nuts and bolts of the ranking system, there is much to be desired.  I’m not saying that I could come up with a better way of doing it, but just take it with a grain of salt.  Here are my biggest beefs in no particular order:

  • How many awards faculty wins is hardly relevant to the average student
  • The Library component is weighted way too heavily in this age of instant access to online academic journals, plus if it’s going to be ranked that high they should give points for great sleeping spots (which they don’t)
  • The flip side of having more resources is that you will likely pay more to go to school there, price is not factored in at all

Finally, the reputation section of the rankings gives me the most pause.  Maclean’s says that they poll university officials, principals and guidance councillors, CEOs, and recruiters.  All of these people have their own intrinsic biases, not the least among them their own alumni allegiances (which naturally tilts the poll to the ones that have produced the best graduates).  The idea of reputation is just so subjective.  I mean, say a university has fairly low entrance requirements, some might see these as a positive for their reputation since they are allowing more kids to experience university, while some would say this lowers the standards of the school.  The idea of reputation is also kind of self-fulfilling.  At the U of M we all knew we were always dead last in the rankings (which is the only poll of its kind that I’m aware of ) so if anyone would have asked me how good our school was, my only frame of reference would have guaranteed I said we were likely last in our category.  I’m sure I’m not the only student like this.

I Can’t Complain Too Much

At the end of the day, I think there is more positive than negative that comes out of the Maclean’s rankings.  I personally found the articles to be much more informative than the actual rankings and will probably soon be commenting on them.  While I don’t consider the rankings accurate and I can sympathize with the anger over the negative publicity that my old school receives, I still find them entertaining.  I also like any documentation that makes universities accountable and transparent.  There is far too much “elitism” in circles of academia, and not nearly enough checks and balances to hold everyone accountable.  One way or another, it’s worth checking out.  Congrats to all the winners, and to those of us that were cellar dwellers, I just released the official 2011 My University Money School Rankings based entirely on good times had, and the Bisons came out #1 baby!

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11 years ago

I always look at the Macleans ranking with a dose of healthy skepticism.

Sure, they always rank UBC as one of the top schools, but to be honest, I didn’t think it was great, and I have a lot of classmates/friends who didn’t think so either.

The rankings/categories are too generalized and who does the decision making, anyway?

They should have a “student choice one” LOL.

11 years ago

It was nice to see Lethbridge ranked #4. I think there’s a direct correlation between me starting work there 3 years ago and their rankings improving from #9 to #4. ;)

11 years ago

I remember reading Waterloo’s piece after I was enrolled in Waterloo only to find out that it was pretty much the same piece as when I applied. I almost want to buy another one to see if it is still the same, but never liked these rankings. I agree that the faculty is what you want to focus in on. My calculus was based on a book that a University of Manitoba Prof wrote. Not my favorite subject, but Prof. Donald Trim wrote a really good book. It is funny you mentioned the Oxford chap again too. I recently came… Read more »

11 years ago

I wonder what mine is! Washington College in Chestertown MD (small school, but college was wonderful!!).

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