November 21, 1996

Students, professors get top marks

by Daniel McCabe

We're still number three. That's the verdict from Maclean's. The magazine's popular universities ranking issue hit newsstands earlier this week. As was the case last year, the University of Toronto took top spot in the category for large universities with medical schools and a broad range of PhD programs. Queen's came in second.

Vice-Principal (Academic) Bill Chan says the Maclean's rankings highlight a number of areas where the University is performing exceptionally. "In the things that are really important--the quality of students and professors--if one accepts Maclean's numbers, then McGill has done extremely well," says Chan.

McGill comes in first among the large universities in three areas relating to student quality. The University has the most students with national academic awards, the most students who graduate on time and the most students who enter university with at least a 75% average. McGill places second in two other student measurements--percentage of students from out of the province and highest average entering grade.

McGill professors were judged to be the best in the country in earning grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. They came in second in their category for securing funding from the Medical Research Council and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. "When you look at these indicators, McGill professors clearly outperform their counterparts at other universities," says Chan. "We can all take pride in the quality of our professors."

Undergraduates who grumble about the large number of students in some of their classes might be taken aback to hear that McGill fares better in this respect than do other research-intensive universities. McGill comes in first in its category for smallest average class sizes in first and second years and in third and fourth years.

The University doesn't do quite as well in other sectors. Libraries continue to be an area where other schools earn better grades. McGill is ranked next to last in terms of the percentage of its budget used for acquisitions. The University ranks 10th for the percentage of its budget spent on library services and ninth for library holdings per student.

"We have improved slightly--the numbers are better than last year," notes Chan. "We've been devoting more resources to improving our collections."

McGill also does poorly in terms of the percentage of its budget used for student services, trailing 11 other schools in this area. Comments Chan, "McGill students have very strong input when it comes to setting student service fees. Our students are the ones who wish [the fees] to remain at reasonable levels."

Victor Dwyer, education editor for Maclean's, says the latest figures collected from universities indicate some interesting trends. "In general, the percentage of first-year courses taught by tenured faculty is going down. That may be a result of universities trying to save money by using graduate students or untenured lecturers more often. Or, it could just be that there are fewer tenured professors at Canadian universities--big numbers of tenured professors have left as a result of recent buy-out packages offered by the schools."

Dwyer says fewer students are traveling to other provinces to study for their degrees. "Students are probably finding it cheaper to stay at home." Students also seem to be taking longer to complete their degrees.

The professors teaching in Canadian universities are more likely to have PhDs than was the case a few years ago, says Dwyer. "That might just be supply and demand. There are so many applicants with PhDs right now for every faculty position that opens up."

Reports in the U.S. media this summer accused some American universities of falsifying the data they forwarded to US News & World Report for that magazine's university ranking issue. Dwyer says Maclean's is cautious when it examines the information supplied by Canadian universities.

The magazine employs a statistician to scrutinize all the figures it receives. Maclean's asks universities to send the Association of Universities and Colleges in Canada a copy of all the data they submit to the magazine--if some of the stats published by Maclean's strike a university as odd, it can review them with the AUCC. In addition, Maclean's asks Statistics Canada and the granting agencies to double-check some of the information.

Chan isn't much of a fan of the Maclean's exercise. "I don't feel they give students the proper information." Chan believes it would be far more useful to compare universities on a department-by-department basis--how the different physics departments measure up against one another, for example.

Chan also worries that the Maclean's rankings have become overly influential. "It does provide some useful information, but when students are trying to decide which university to attend, they should seek out as many sources as they can for information."

"If we are too influential, it's because there is nobody else out there doing this sort of thing," counters Dwyer. He agrees with Chan that his magazine's ranking should be only one of many resources students use to select a university. He also advises universities to prepare themselves for increased scrutiny in the near future.

"Look at Alberta. The government there is now requiring its universities to fill out a report on performance indicators, such as student satisfaction and the employment rate of graduates. A portion of the universities' funding will be tied to how well they do. I think we'll see that sort of thing more often."