February 3, 2004  
Volume 97, Issue 68  

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UBC denies fudging Maclean’s stats

By Dan Perry
Gazette Staff

The annual Maclean’s university rankings have developed a reputation as an authority on university education in Canada, but how much can they be trusted?

A report in yesterday’s National Post claimed internal documents from the University of British Columbia revealed the way the school tinkered with its data to manipulate the rankings’ methodology.

However, UBC’s director of public affairs, Scott Macrae, denied the Post’s allegations that the university had manipulated class size statistics specifically to increase their standing, saying that although there were discussions of setting lower class size caps, no such action was taken.

“UBC did not manipulate data,” he said. “We don’t need the Maclean’s survey to tell us some of our classes are larger than we’d like them to be.

“Smaller classes are required for academic reasons — if we can manage that within our resources, we create smaller classes. If those improvements increase our Maclean’s ranking, that’s a bonus,” Macrae added.

Maclean’s editor-at-large Ann Dowsett Johnston, who has operated the magazine’s ranking process in its current form since 1992, told The Gazette that the survey is too methodologically sturdy to be co-opted by clever university reporting practices.

“We ask for the information and we work very hard with a large group of admirable people. These are publicly funded institutions and I believe they are reporting responsibly,” she said, adding the universities are ranked on a complex series of 20 indicators. “No one indicator can unduly affect the ranking.

“I think universities are extraordinarily complex places, and with the funding challenges universities are facing, universities are trying to offer what they can to help students,” Dowsett Johnston said, adding it is natural to expect some schools to have become alert as to how the criteria work.

University Students’ Council VP-education Dave Ford said many problems in the ranking system lie in the misrepresentations therein.
“For one, the big problem is [the Maclean’s ranking] forces universities to compete, often times artificially representing the quality they can provide — and it diverts attention away from the major problems. They’re not talking about deferred maintenance, class sizes or faculty shortages,” he said.

“Universities are doing all they can to manipulate the figures in order to compete in the Maclean’s rankings. It creates a tension between talking about actual issues at universities and presenting a glossy image,” Ford added.

Dowsett Johnston defended the rankings, saying they are, in fact, in the best interests of the students. “We’re trying to be alert to what has been asked in the rankings — our position is that we ask for this information for the benefit of students and parents.”



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