Rankings ignore student experience – Gardner
By Colleen MacPherson
The results of the annual Maclean’s magazine ranking of Canadian universities “doesn’t hold a lot of weight with students,” according to the president of the U of S Students’ Union, in part because this year’s 10th-place finish “says good or mediocre, but that’s false – the U of S is a great institution.”
Speaking at a news conference Nov. 7 following release of the 2005 rankings, Gavin Gardner said the process is an inaccurate measure of real student experiences because there is no mention of cost or quality of education. “I don’t think people make a decision on where to attend (university) based solely on Maclean’s,” he said.
The U of S held onto 10th place out of 15 medical/doctoral institutions in Canada, the same showing as last year. At the top of the list, the University of Toronto and McGill tied for first place, with McGill moving up from second last year. Also ahead of the U of S are, in descending order: Western, UBC, Queen’s, University of Alberta, University of Montéal, Laval and Sherbrooke.
Gardner went to say the annual assessment has “pitted universities against each other – they’re trying to one-up each other in a magazine.” He described the Maclean’s ranking as “a ploy by a magazine to boost its readership. It’s a PR student, and it would be taken as that.”
In his response to the rankings, President Peter MacKinnon reiterated that he pays attention to Maclean’s because others pay attention, but “we don’t judge ourselves exclusively … by the Maclean’s rankings.” As for the 10th-place finish, “I guess the story line is we held our own”, but he pointed out the difference between first and 15th is not the difference between a strong and weak university – “we’re talking about nuances”.
Among the individual indicators considered in the survey, the U of S took the biggest jump – four spots – in alumni support, moving to 10th from 14th. The biggest drop came when Maclean’s measured the number of classes taught by tenured faculty. There, the U of S moved to ninth from seventh last year. This, said MacKinnon, could reflect a large turnover of faculty, a demographic that is “a reality of our life”. He had high praise for new, junior faculty members but it will take time for them to achieve tenure.
And although there was no change in the ninth-place finish in the reputation survey, MacKinnon said there is “no doubt” the University’s reputation has grown. This he attributed to, among other things, a strong academic direction and the fact “we’re staying true to our sense of place”.
The president pointed out the University maintained top spot based on class sizes for third- and fourth-year students, an indication “we’re paying attention” and devoting the necessary resources to the classroom.
Responding to Maclean’s, he added, is “part of the accountability of the University to its communities, (and) we’re much more vigorous in reporting to the community where we’re doing well, and by the way, where we’re doing not so well.” The upside of the ranking process is it has raised the profile of issues around post-secondary education both in Saskatchewan and in Canada, leaving MacKinnon optimistic there will be a renewed investment in universities. Significant commitments to post-secondary education in Ontario and Alberta are “very encouraging signs”.
MacKinnon was also asked to respond to a StarPhoenix story in which Maclean’s editor-at-large Ann Dowsett Johnston referred to him as a “miracle worker” as well as “a province-builder, if not a nation-builder”. He said, “I’ve been around long enough to know not to believe my own press clippings.”
He was also asked about being touted on local radio as someone destined to head a major Canadian university like the U of T, to which he replied he is “happy to be president of the University of Saskatchewan”.