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Let’s focus on education, not university rankings

Michelle Stack is an associate professor at the University of British Columbia and author of Global University Ranking and the Mediatization of Higher Education.

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings is out and Canadian universities are holding steady. It is hard to keep track of news about rankings. There are more than 20 rankings that claim to be international, and more than 150 national and specialty rankings. That said, the Times Higher Education is one of the big three, and it influences everything from decisions students make about where to go to school to government policy.

Rankings are about business, not education. Universities provide information to the Times Higher Education (and other rankers), and the rankers sell back products and services to universities. Universities wishing to move up the rankings should spend money on expensive amenities and hire top-dollar faculty (Nobel Prize winners are the best for rankings) who will rarely teach. To pay for all this, universities will likely need to increase tuition fees. Moving up in the rankings also requires a shift in resource allocation to marketing, issues management (keep bad news out of the public eye) and products and consulting services offered by rankers.

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Students and their parents are an important market for rankers, but the Times Higher Education Rankings tell us remarkably little about the student experience or how a university contributes to the communities that support it. Students don't learn how a university deals with sexual violence or racism on campus, the assessment of students about their learning or faculty thoughts on the conditions for learning.

Rankings raise questions around who to trust and who decides what world-class education means. McGill, for example, was ranked No. 39 in 2015 by the Times Higher Education (second-highest ranking of all medical schools in Canada). During the same period, it was on probation and given two years by the Committee on Accreditation of Canadian Medical Schools to improve its performance on issues ranging from supervision of medical residents to a lack of diversity. Based on CACMS's most recent assessment, McGill's medical school has improved and subsequently lost its probationary status. Today, the Times Higher Education granted it 42nd place.

At an international roundtable on rankings held at UBC in May, researchers from around the world spoke about how university leaders and government policy makers used rankings to make resource allocation decisions and even immigration policy. When I give talks about rankings, I sometimes ask, "What is the best university in Canada?" Usually someone says, "University of Toronto." But when I ask, "What do you know about what actually happens at U of T? How do we know it is best, and best at what?" often little is known beyond reputation. This is not to pick on the University of Toronto or to argue it is not an excellent school. I did my PhD at U of T, and had a great experience, but I also had a great experience at Carleton University, University of Alberta and Red Deer College.

Rankings measure research production and funding, but not the ethics of the knowledge production. Retractions, including in top-ranked journals, appear to be on the rise, and universities aren't always forthcoming about fraud. Take, for example, the famous Karolinska Institute, which issues the Nobel Prize. In 2012, academic leaders at the KI were warned that there were serious concerns about ethics and the veracity of superstar surgeon Paolo Macchiarini. In 2016, he was found to be guilty of gross scientific misconduct and an investigation alleging involuntary manslaughter (of patients) against him is continuing. A report in 2016 on the affair concluded that a competitive research environment and groupthink was partly to blame for the lack of timely action on the part of the KI leadership. Last year, the KI received a Times Higher Education ranking of 28, and today it is in 38th place. Again, I am not saying the KI is a substandard institute, but I do question what we don't learn from the metrics used by the rankers.

Perhaps more than any other time, universities need to resist fake news and be leaders in expanding conversations through rigorous thinking and teaching. We need public conversations about how to sustain a healthy public post-secondary education system that helps individuals reach their potential. Rankings are seductive but it's time to focus on education.

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