Editorial: Rankings? What rankings?

In the ever-competitive world of post-secondary education, everyone vies for whatever edge they can get. Students forego sleep to complete assignments and study with the aim of being seen as the best in order to win scholarships or acceptance into honours or graduate programs. In much the same way, the University of Calgary competes in an ongoing war of perception. For universities, rankings are big business — they tell the general public how well institutions are being run and students are being taught. Given the stakes, consistency is key.

The University of Calgary, it seems, hates rankings. Administration has, in the past, all but said as much, refusing to cooperate with the Maclean’s rankings in 2006 along with 20 other schools after consistently finishing outside of the top 10. Maclean’s continued with the rankings anyway using third-party information and when the U of C rose to seventh position last year, administration didn’t jump back on the bandwagon. The U of C similarly hasn’t made a big deal about shooting up the Times Higher Education rankings. Since appearing deep down in the rankings in 2005 — boasting an abysmal 282nd position — the school has inched upwards, reaching 149th spot in this year’s edition. The U of C’s Achilles’ heel has been consistency.

Despite rapidly improving stature in many world rankings, the U of C faces a conundrum — they haven’t improved much relative to other Canadian schools. To the average student, the U of C isn’t competing with schools in Amsterdam or Singapore. Given that most Canadian students can’t afford the high international tuition rates outside of the country, the U of C is in hot competition with other Canadian schools to attract the best students. In that sense, consistency can either make or break a school’s reputation.

And the U of C is really bad at consistency. The university ranked 78th in the world and fifth in Canada in the Webometrics ranking, measuring the “web performance” of schools. Tenuous definitions aside, the Webometrics ranking is not high profile. The rankings that are high profile, though, return consistently mediocre U of C performances: ninth among Canadian schools on the Times rankings, sixth on the SMImago research rankings, eighth in Canada on the Research Infosource endowment rankings and seventh on the Maclean’s rankings. What this kind of consistency says to prospective students is this: the handful of schools that consistently rank ahead of the U of C are probably better. Maybe you should go to the University of Toronto, University of British Columbia or, gasp, University of Alberta instead of here.

That said, the U of C is missing out on a huge opportunity by ignoring their placement in these rankings. Instead of spinning this the way their public relations people spin everything else — multiple groundbreakings for a library is apparently standard procedure — the U of C is allowing the numbers to be spun by everyone but them. As such, they’re losing the impact rankings have on student recruitment. The best students will still probably gravitate towards the best schools, but by promoting the U of C as the seventh or eighth best in the country and a school that’s leapt forward in international rankings over the past half-decade, prospective students may see this university as a growing force rather than as an academic middleweight.

The U of C is striving to be seen as a world-class university, making changes both cosmetic and not — faculty amalgamation, new buildings and the construction of a quad — to appear like they’re one. To truly be like the big boys, though, the U of C has got to play the rankings game like they do. That means along with shiny new buildings, faculties and quadrangles, they’ve got to figure out a way to utilize their world and Canadian rankings in a positive light. Otherwise, administration will find themselves running “that crappy school south of the U of A.”

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