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Editor's Notebook: The rankings game

Editor's Notebook: The rankings game

The annual Globe and Mail and Maclean's rankings are out, and omnce again Queen's has scored well. However, Review Editor Ken Cuthbertson wonders if there is any real value in such rankings.

As you may have read or heard by now, Queen’s again has fared well in the annual rankings of Canadian universities that are done by the The Globe and Mail newspaper and Maclean's magazine.Queen's scoring more “A” grades than any other school In the Globe and Mail's 2010 “Canadian University Report”,  and in the Maclean's rankings, Queen's once again made the Top Five in the medical-doctoral category.

The skeptic in me says that we should take all such rankings with the proverbial grain of salt. After all, how do universities move or down from one year to the next? And why, I wonder, does any University excel in one set of rankings while it fares less well or doesn’t appear at all in others? The latter was so for Queen's in the case of The Times Higher Education 2010 World University Rankings of the so-called “Top 200” universities.

I confess I was surprised – and a tad disappointed – when Queen's wasn’t among the nine Canadian schools on The Times’s list. I found this puzzling, given the University’s extensive international ties and the fact it’s the only school in Canada with an overseas campus – in this case the visionary Bader International Study Centre (BISC) at Herstmonceux Castle in southern England. As the cover story in our print edition (“Reaching out to the world,” p. 22) reports, the BISC has emerged as the focal point of the University’s ever-expanding presence on the global stage.

So what gives with those Times rankings? It turns out that Queen’s didn’t respond to the Times’ request for information owing to significant concerns about methodology. The University’s decision not to be “a ratings chaser,” as Principal Daniel Woolf recently put it, makes a lot of sense to me.

The “feel good” factor aside, at the end of the day all university rankings are a game of chance in which the people dealing the cards – “the house” – stand to benefit above all others.

Rankings issues are moneymakers for those publications that produce them. And why then do universities take part in the game, diverting prescious resources and dutifully spending countless hours compiling the data that feeds the rankings machinery?

The answer is that universities have become entangled into the business of hawking their wares. Just as automakers sell cars; many universities now sell degrees. Potential students and their parents have become consumers of "educational services."

A recent study done by researchers at the U of Michigan confirms that rankings have a significant impact on applications and admissions. That speaks volumes about the way so too people nowadays view post-secondary education. That, I think, is problematic. It’s also unfortunate.

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A petition to amend the University’s Charter has been sent to Ottawa. The proposed amendments, which would reduce the size of the Board of Trustees, would also give the University Council the flexibility to
determine its size and composition. “Parliament must approve the amendments to our 1912 Royal Charter that are required to implement these changes,” explains University Secretary Georgina Moore. “The process is expected to take several months, but we’re now on our way.”

The Board formally and unanimously endorsed the changes to its membership at its October meeting; members of University Council recently voted on-line in favour of proceeding. Council members also authorized the suspension of the election of Graduates and Benefactors to the Board, given that these categories of Trustees would be phased out under the revised Charter. The number of faculty, staff, student, and University Council representatives on the Board would stay the same.

The Board plans to shrink from 44 members to 25 to increase effectiveness and efficiency. It’s currently one of the largest university boards in Canada.Reducing its size reflects a general trend among modern charitable, not-for-profit and corporate boards. The roles and responsibilities of both the Board and the University Council would stay the same.

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IN ADDITION TO HIS TWEETS AT twitter.com/queensprincipal, PRINCIPAL DANIEL WOOLF has started a blog. He reports that his posts “will probably not be very frequent, but sometimes one needs more than 140 characters to say something.” You can find the Principal’s blog at www.queensu.ca/principal/index.html.

[Queen's Alumni Review 2010-4 cover]