University ranking system too often based on wrong criteria

Every year, Canadian universities wait with anticipation for comparisons  of their institution relative to others in periodicals like Maclean’s Magazine.  Depending on the results, there is rejoicing or muttering.  But too often such rankings are based on the wrong criteria say the authors of a new report called Missing Pieces II.

education

In their report, Denise Doherty-Deorme and Erika Shaker are critical of the assumptions and methods in which these reports have been used to devalue some, or promote others.  For example, universities are often ranked according to their ability to compete in an environment of dwindling resources.

Such contests force schools to compete without any consideration of the fiscal restraints under which they are forced to operate.  The authors consider factors that take into account how institutions serve the society  –equity, accountability, quality, and accessibility.  According to the report,  B.C. has one of the best post-secondary education systems in Canada.

B.C. ranks number one in equity.  The authors define equity as access to post-secondary education regardless of gender,  place of origin, or socioeconomic status.  Our province has high percentage of low-income citizens with a post secondary education — just one of five areas of research in the area of equity.

We are also number one in public accountability.  This is a measure of how well education serves general public needs, as opposed to narrow interests of corporations or private donors.   Rankings are based on each province’s commitment to funding education.  Private funds come with strings attached.

B.C. ranks second in quality, with New Brunswick coming in first.  Quality is determined by not only the amount of funding for post-secondary education, but where the spending priorities are.  It includes student to faculty ratios, and keeping full-time faculty.

Attracting and keeping full-time faculty is vital to high quality education. The trend towards part-time faculty reduces the quality of education.  Since part-time faculty are looking for regular work elsewhere, a consistent commitment to education is hard to achieve.

Only two provinces, Quebec and B.C. have increased full-time faculty in the college sector.  In the university sector, only Prince Edward Island has increased full-time faculty, and B.C. has reduced full-time faculty the least.

B.C. is fourth in accessibility, which is the freedom to obtain and make use of post-secondary education.  Newfoundland P.E.I. have joined  B.C. and Quebec in freezing tuition fees.  Manitoba has actually lowered tuition fees.  Alberta has increased fees by the greatest amount — 209 percent in the last decade.  Quebec is ranked first in accessibility, followed by Nova Scotia and Manitoba.

Low tuition fees have also had the effect of increasing the quality of education, I think.  Low fees have increased demand for courses from B.C. students and out-of-province students from Alberta. This has some Albertans complaining of a brain-drain to B.C.  Post-secondary institutions have reacted to student demand by raising prerequisites.

In turn, higher quality students has increased the quality of instruction.  In my twenty-eight years of teaching in high schools and at the post-secondary level, one lesson I’ve learned is that the level of  my instruction is determined by the skills of my students.

Too much of the public analysis of post secondary education has taken the form of the forces of simplistic rankings devoid of context.  Such methods serve only to reinforce the rhetoric of restructuring — rewarding institutions that  move away from public  accessibility and towards market accountability — without  examining  the  source  of  this  rhetoric and its harmful influence.

Affordable education should be regarded as an investment in the future. Well paid wage earners return that investment through higher taxes.  They problem with privatized education is that it ignores the contribution that low-income students can make to society.

The lesson that Ireland learned is worth paying attention to.  They made post-secondary education free.  It took a decade for it, and other economic measures, to pay off, but now Ireland is regarded as an European tiger.

Although Missing Pieces II is not exhaustive, nor does it claim to be, the authors make use of a wide range of information from students, activists, educators, researchers, Statistics Canada.  The full report is available from the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives at http://www.policyalternatives.ca/

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