McMaster's rankings in "world surveys": perspective on the improved ranking position

*Covering higher education is my specialization as a journalist. I’ve worked for both of Canada’s national news outlets that cover higher education and been a delegate to the World Summit for Innovation in Education held in Doha, Qatar. *

McMaster University is one of the premier research universities in the world. This year, the institution jumped to 65 from 93 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. It also increased in the QS World University Rankings from 162 to 159.

McMaster University’s public relations department is quite happy and so they should be.

My role is to bring a little perspective to the discussion.

The THE rankings formula changed this year and McMaster was a significant beneficiary of this. The formula now weighs different faculty citations upon the normal production of papers within the discipline. Whereas Health Sciences researchers publish multiple times per year, the humanities publish less often. The liberal arts faculties were weighed with the same citations per faculty formula as the “hard” sciences.

This change is significant for McMaster and is the primary reason for the increase.

McMaster enjoyed a significant boost when the QS World University rankings changed their formula in 2007.

McMaster jumped in the first year of the new formula to 108 from 155 under the earlier formula. The institution started to decline in the following years:

**McMaster University QS rankings 2007 – 2011**
Much of this “decline” is not a decline for McMaster at all. Other institutions are better able to change their institutional focus and priorities to better perform towards the benchmarks of the ranking formulas. They have less undergraduate students, there are privately funded (unregulated tuition) and enjoy larger endowments.

Institutions will react to the new THE formula and McMaster could see its ranking dropped during the next few years.

These rankings are not necessarily an effective benchmark for institutional achievement or progress. They reflect the priorities of academics and the worldview of members of academia.

This can conflict with public policy goals. The more undergraduate students enrolled at a university, the more drag upon its academic ranking. At present, the Ontario government is making increased enrolment a public policy goal.

Service to local community is not ranked by academics. Targeted recruitment in poor neighbourhoods is a public policy goal.

Service to the world community can increase institutional reputation. McMaster’s School of Nursing is well-known in the Persian Gulf and South Asia. The School assisted developing nursing education in those regions and the institutional reputation of McMaster is greatly increased by this work.

What the rankings do tell us is that McMaster University is a desired university for academics and this is great news. We need not focus too greatly or prioritize these rankings too much. They are benchmarks of interest, not public policy goals.