When the Maclean's university rankings are published each November, a number of things invariably follow. Universities on the lower end of the scale will criticize the process. Most of those coming out on top will be heralding the quality of education at their institutions. Meanwhile, prospective students are left scratching their heads, not sure what to believe.
It's no surprise then that a number of universities, including the University of Calgary, are choosing to back out of the most recent Maclean's project, a graduate survey asking recent alumni to rank their experience. The eight-question survey is admittedly simple, asking recent grads to rank things like 'quality of teaching' and 'entire educational experience' on a scale with options ranging from 'very good' to 'very poor.'
The schools backing out have criticized the survey as unscientific because of its low response rate and statistical faults. These are fair criticisms for any peer-reviewed scientific study, but for a comparative survey designed for public consumption, they're more like public relations maneuvers. Another criticism is that asking for the opinions of grads doesn't reflect the situation for current students. Fair enough, but anyone involved in the post-secondary system, whether as student, staff or faculty, knows that improvement is slow. No level of investment can turn things around in a year or two.
It's certainly no surprise the U of C has refused to participate; we came in dead last when Maclean's included graduate data in its annual ranking in 2004.
What is surprising is that nearly half of Canada's publicly-funded universities are not participating in the special June issue, including some that did well last time.
Nearly all universities will still be on-board for the full-blown November rankings, however. But the graduate survey isn't that different than Maclean's usual methodology. The difference is in the PR impact.
After all, alumni criticism is the most damning kind an institution can receive. It's easy to refute dissenting opinions when they come from outsiders, but when they come from those you are supposed to serve-students-it's trickier to spin your message with a straight face.
Whether the survey is scientifically sound or not, participating universities are to be ranked on the same criteria. The playing field is level.
If the U of C-or any other dissenting institution-is confident students are happy with the quality of their experience, they would do more than participate, they would actively encourage all alumni to fill out the short survey. Instead they're refusing to pass the survey along, and Maclean's has promised to collect data with or without their participation.
It remains to be seen whether the ploy will cause more harm than good, but prospective students will be scratching their heads more than ever.