Opinions

U of C in race to the bottom

Rankings aren't everything, but they do count for something

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The U of C failed to place in the top 200 in the Times Higher Education list of the world's top universities, an annual ranking that has undergone some revisions for this year. The U of C, which placed 170th in 2008 and 149th in 2009, seemed to be holding strong. The new results don't phase provost Alan Harrison though, who stated that they are unimportant to university administration. While there are surely problems with any type of ranking, Harrison's comments are disappointingly defeatist.

The list is one of the most popular world rankings, published for the past seven years. With a newly revamped methodology, the list claims to represent a new level of sophistication. The Times partnered with data provider Thomson Reuters for the first time to broaden their approach, as well as adjust the weight criteria are given. Second, by lowering the weight of factors like reputation, the list is meant to more accurately depict the performance of schools. The factors used this year are broken into five categories: teaching (30 per cent), research (30 per cent), citations (32.5 per cent), industry income (a measure of innovation, 2.5 per cent) and the international mix of staff and students (5 per cent).

Surprises abounded. While Canadian heavyweights like the University of Toronto and McGill placed highly, schools often considered on par with the U of C, like the University of Victoria and McMaster, made the top 200. Much effort goes into justifying these types of lists and a similar amount goes into shouting them down. The U of C's approach, which has been to discredit the ranking, sounds like poor losing.

Rankings such as these serve two important functions. First, the best of them quantify in a transparent way some of the criteria that should be necessary in a great university. Of course, different schools have different goals so each will decide to spend the money they have available in varied ways. It is idle to deny that any of the factors are unimportant, however. Calling these traits important is not the same thing as accurately measuring them, but if the U of C feels it has been misrepresented it is worth their time to point out in what way, rather than dismissing the ranking altogether.

The second function is an obvious one: it shows the international community where different schools are placed. Harrison rightly notes that this year's performance is unlikely to change enrollment. Yet if the quantitative factors such as the professor to student ratio and the number of papers published are going down compared to other universities, this should be a cause for concern. It need not reflect so poorly on administration. After all, with a tightening budget it is surely a difficult time to produce research. The majority of research money comes from provincial and federal funding though, so can our poor performance not serve as a call to arms? Besides, compared to other countries Canada has weathered the economic recession quite well. Admitting that the university has work to do with the help of the provincial government shows responsibility.

There is a cautionary tale in all this, however. University of Alberta president Indira Samarasekera made it a goal for the U of A to be among the top 20 research universities by 2020. Without clear measurements, critics will rely on rankings such as the Times's to decide if that goal is fulfilled. Ranking goals are unnecessary to be a successful institution. Yet clear, quantitative and motivating goals are still necessary. The campus community needs to know that administration does have something in mind for its future and that it is working to better itself. A better time to realize this goal could not be at hand. If it also happens to increase our rank in the world, it won't do any harm.

. . The Gauntlet Editorial Board

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