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Maclean’s rankings mischaracterize U of C

By Melanie Woods, March 5 2015 —

The results of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) were published last month in Maclean’s magazine. The NSSE is an annual student questionnaire designed to measure student engagement at universities across North America. The University of Calgary is among the lowest-ranked institutions in nearly every category. 

At the U of C’s worst, it ranks 63rd in “student-faculty interaction” and 68th in “effective teaching practices.”  This dismal performance is a far cry from the much-publicized “top university under 50 in Canada” title the U of C was awarded earlier this year by the unrelated QS rankings.

These rankings are a product of our need to compare ourselves to others. Like many students, I feel a swell of pride when my school does well. When I hear the U of C is comparatively bad on a national scale, I’m immediately defensive.

The gut-instinct is to celebrate these rankings when they’re good and shove them under the rug when they’re bad. But there can be a disconnect between the criteria of various ranking systems and the U of C’s goals.

Administration paraded the QS rankings when they were announced in October. The U of C was ranked favourably, so president Elizabeth Cannon took every opportunity to use them as proof of the success of the Eyes High initiative.

The QS rankings reward the success of large research universities like the U of C, McGill University and the University of Alberta for areas like research and technical innovation. And that’s what many students come to these universities for. 

The University of Calgary is good at what it’s trying to be — a large, young university with a focus on research, engineering and corporate involvement. Despite the looming threat of funding cuts from the provincial government, the U of C constantly receives grants and donations to further technical and industrial research. The university participates in groundbreaking innovation and is building its prestige, one brick and fancy new floor-to-ceiling windowed building at a time.

The NSSE favours smaller institutions because it looks at the student experience rather than what the university produces. An institution like Quest University in British Columbia will obviously come out on top of “faculty-student interaction.” Their enrolment is much smaller than the U of C’s and their class sizes are regulated to 20 or less.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Quest is a better university than the U of C, nor do the QS rankings mean that the U of C is better than Quest. They both have strengths and flaws. And different ranking systems are judging both schools according to their own strengths.

The research prestige that large universities like the U of C strive for comes at the expense of the classroom experience. Meanwhile, the intimacy of an institution like Quest means they won’t be able to match the innovations of larger universities.

There may come a time when the U of C has reached a level of innovation that administration finds satisfactory, and will return focus to the areas that the NSSE measures. The U of C can always improve in areas where the school is ranked lower, and I’m sure administration isn’t trying to make the student experience worse. But right now, the U of C’s priorities lie elsewhere.

These unflattering NSSE results aren’t the end of the world. For what the U of C is actively trying to be, it’s doing all right. 

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