15 August 2006

Methinks They Doth Protest Too Much

Among the academy, the great hue and cry rings out:
Eleven of Canada's universities are refusing to participate in the Maclean's university ranking issue, saying they find the magazine's survey methodology to be “oversimplified” and “arbitrary.”

In a letter sent yesterday to Maclean's, the coalition said they will not provide any data to the magazine for its popular, yet controversial, annual fall survey of universities. The letter was signed by the presidents of the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary, the University of Lethbridge, the University of Manitoba, the University of Toronto, McMaster University, the University of Ottawa, the University of Montreal and Dalhousie University.
Problems with quantitative methodology? Heavens! Say it isn't so! Of course quantitative methodologies are problematic, arbitrary and subjective, as is any methodology. All approaches to research - be they quantitative or qualitative - are subject to the design, standpoint, and intent of the researcher, and are therefore subjective. It's merely a matter for the reader of any research to choose (or at least be aware of) the subjectivity. Bonus points to the researcher who locates her/himself in the research and makes her/his standpoint explicit.

But inquiring minds want to know: Does the boycott by the eleven schools have anything at all to do with the inconvenient truth that almost none of them (SFU was the exception), made the top ten (comprehensive) ranked schools in Canada according to Macleans over the last few years?

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5 comments:

Candy Minx said...

Interesting topic...and I can see why you are saying they might be bitter.

but I still think it's kind of cool that they are boycotting and I might venture to say that I think there are many other reasons to choose a school than the reasons McLeans judges the schools stature.

I think location, politics, lack of politics, nature, campus layout, family, rent, friends and weather are all important factors in choosing a school. At least they seem a lot more important when one looks back on ones choices made earlier in life? No?

Hey digging your blog, quite a different you voice you have and I enjoy reading your perspective. Um, thought I'd let you know I linked your blog in a post today at my blog.

cheers,
Candy
http://gnosticminx.blogspot.com/

Mark said...

Without a doubt, Candy. In addition to questioning the motives of the boycotting schools, one must also critically question the motives and methods of Macleans. Is Macleans conducting valid, useful and rigorous research? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Is there a commercial interest that affects the methodology or the framing of the research? Is Macleans providing a service that might be desired by those searching for universities, irrespective of whether Macleans is the best source of that service? These are far more interesting questions.

As far as relative rating is concerned, I am moved to ask why the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, that represents 89 such institutions across the country, doesn't sponsor the type of data collection and analysis that would aid prospective students to choose a school. Perhaps the member institutions like to be graded as much as the students do (with equivalent opinions about the fairness of such an exercise).

Among the more useful resources are those of student voices themselves, like Rate My Professor.

Downes said...

"Does the boycott by the eleven schools have anything at all to do with the inconvenient truth that almost none of them (SFU was the exception), made the top ten (comprehensive) ranked schools in Canada according to Macleans over the last few years?"

Of course it does. Because this fact demonstrates very clearly that the rankings are flawed.

I mean, look at the list: "University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary, the University of Lethbridge, the University of Manitoba, the University of Toronto, McMaster University, the University of Ottawa, the University of Montreal and Dalhousie University."

This could *be* a list of the top ten. One or two of them might be questionable in the top ten. To suggest none of these would be in the canadian top ten is to have a very skewed (and "arbitrary") understanding of the word "top".

Mark said...

Your point, Stephen, while indisputable, highlights the problem I have with the protest: it is motivated entirely by the figure of the results without appropriately probing the ground of quantitative methodologies in general, which for most of these schools is the preferential, so-called scientific, approach. The way I read the protests (and the interviews I have heard) strongly suggest to me that the apparent methodological problems are more likely the nominal justification for these schools dropping out.

Turning the whole thing around, if there were truly methodological concerns that are shared among thoughtful academics, why not a peep from Waterloo, Victoria, Guelph, Memorial, U Regina, U New Brunswick, Carleton, Concordia, York and Windsor - last year's winners of Maclean's pageant? I'm sure that they were polled by the presidents and provosts of Canada's Ivy League to join the protest.

Downes said...

From the University of Regina: What Maclean’s has done is asked students to “distinguish between very good and good. Frankly if any student was to do that for a class project, they’d be failed.”
http://www.carillon.uregina.ca/11.25.04/story4.html

Guelph: although Guelph is pleased with its performance in NSSE, the University does not support using the survey’s results for university rankings. “NSSE is just one of a suite of tools Guelph uses to gauge institutional performance and accountability,” he said.
http://www.uoguelph.ca/mediarel/2006/06/post_5.html

I think if I pushed this a bit I could find criticisms from every university named, even Waterloo.