Understanding university rankings

Wed, Oct 31, 2012

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Montreal_McGill_collage_FINALEvery year, a new batch of rankings is released, comparing McGill to its peers around the world. We know rankings are important, but what do they really mean, and why do they matter?

This year, McGill was ranked 18th in the world by the QS World University Rankings, making this the ninth consecutive year that McGill has ranked among the top 25 schools. Just last week,  McGill ranked or tied for first in four categories in the Globe and Mail’s annual Canadian University Report in which current undergraduates rate their university on everything from quality of teaching to residences to research opportunities.

We spoke to some McGill experts to try to make sense of the plethora of annual rankings.

Don Bargenda, Senior Planning Analyst in McGill’s Planning & Institutional Analysis unit (PIA), not only helps interpret rankings as they are released each year, but he and his colleagues actually gather and send the information which several organizations use to grade McGill.

How does McGill go about considering the different rankings as they are released each year?

DB:   We assess all rankings to understand the methodology employed, the quality of data used to compile them and what the results tell us. Many rankings are compiled using publicly available data only, such as the Maclean’s University Ranking and the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities. Others, like the QS World University Rankings and the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings, request data directly from universities.

What would you say are the rankings that are seen to be the most prestigious, and why?

DB: Some rankings are aligned with commercial interests. Maclean’s, for example, is in the business of selling magazines. Thomson Reuters, who compile the data for the THE ranking, and QS both offer peer benchmarking services using the data that produce the rankings. The most prominent rankings also tend to be those that are well marketed.

Do you find there is a lot of variation year to year in terms of how rankings are decided?

DB: Each ranking uses a different set of indicators and applies a level of importance, or weighting, to each indicator to produce an overall “score.”  For a given ranking, results can vary from year to year due to changes in methodology. If one looks closely at the results you will often see that 1/10th or even 1/100th of a point on a 100 point scale can separate many universities.

What should McGill grads bear in mind about university rankings, and McGill’s place within them?

DB:  In the rankings, size matters. The amount of research funding a university attracts or the number of publications attributed to a university’s researchers is influenced by the number of researchers a university has.  Research funding and publication culture among academic disciplines also has an effect on the results. Also, health researchers receive larger research grants and publish more often on average, so it makes sense that the top tiers of most world rankings tend to be populated by universities with medical schools.

What, from your analysis, appear to be some of McGill’s strengths?

DB: McGill performs very well in rankings that attempt to measure performance relative to size, such as Maclean’s and QS.  Both of these rankings include surveys to compare academic reputation, while QS also compares reputation among employers. The strength of McGill’s reputation, well-earned by its alumni and academics, are reflected in the results.

We also asked two experts in student recruitment, Jocelyne Younan, Assistant Registrar and Director, Service Point, and Lauren Penney, Enrolment Manager, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, how McGill’s standing is incorporated into recruitment efforts.

Why do you think rankings matter?

LP: Although McGill has a very strong standing, we are always looking to increase our performance – for recruitment, research showcasing, partnership building, or otherwise.

How much (if at all) do university rankings matter in terms of recruiting students?

JY: Rankings are a very important element to the overall recruitment picture, as [positive rankings] validate our strong reputation and world renown.

LP: At the graduate level of study, rankings can influence whether a student knows about us, and can influence whether they apply and accept their offer. Of course, there are other factors. Graduate students are often looking for the best quality researchers and leaders in their fields to work with, not simply the overall reputation of the school.

How are rankings used to attract students through websites, in-person recruitment or other marketing collateral?

LP: We point to rankings on our own websites and social media networks geared to recruiting graduate students. In presentations to future students and in online webinars, we showcase strong rankings for our particular research areas and programs.

JY: We use results as a marketing tool in advertising… [but] we focus more on programs offered, admission requirements, location, services, residences and so on.

In your experience, do prospective students ask about how McGill ranks or is this something that they are already aware of?

LP: When we ask our own admitted students to rate the importance of features of the graduate program to which they applied, being a ‘recognized leader in students’ field of concentration’ always ranks high. When we ask them what influenced their decision to accept McGill’s offer, the following four are the top responses: program quality, program reputation, McGill’s reputation, quality of professors.

Are there regions of the world that appear to place more importance on rankings?

LP: Reputation, especially for international students, is an undeniable influencer in the area of student recruitment, especially in fields such as science and technology, and especially in Asia, particularly in countries like China, India, and South Korea, and as well in South America.

Hear from current students about how McGill’s place in the rankings affected their decision to study here.

McGill grads: what are your thoughts?

We were curious how McGill grads felt about university rankings. When we asked the question on Facebook, 94 per cent of you stated that you feel “intensely proud” when McGill does well in the rankings. If you didn’t get a chance to vote on Facebook, please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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