Questions and answers

Canadian universities withdraw from Maclean's survey

- August 14, 2006

See also: Text of the letter to Maclean's

Q: Why are universities taking this action?


  • As research universities, we take the proper use of data very seriously. WeÕre all teaching institutions, so itÕs important to us that students make decisions on their future based on good information.
  • The problem with the MacleanÕs ranking is it lumps every facet of a university into a single number. At best, that single number is useless; at its worst, itÕs misleading.
  • Consider what happens if students in English rank a university #1 out of 10, but students in Engineering rank it #10 out of 10? The place gets a combined ranking of 5.
    • ThatÕs misleading to the student looking for the best English program.
    • ItÕs misleading to the student looking to avoid the worst Engineering program.
    • Finally, itÕs meaningless for the student who is interested in Nursing.

Q: Does this decision to withdraw have anything to do with the universities' rankings?


  • No, this has has nothing to do with any individual university's prospects in the rankings Ñ the co-signatories represent a breadth of rankings and prospects, and a wide range of strengths and weaknesses.
  • Dalhousie has long held that the system used by MacleanÕs does not accurately reflect the various strengths of different universities. We have been Òranked” with some of the countryÕs largest postsecondary institutions and are pleased to be in that company. We share concerns about the credibility of the survey with many of these institutions. 
  • Like other universities across the country, we object to a misuse of data Ð especially when this ranking is presented as a tool to help students make decisions about their future.
  • In fact, the ranking does the opposite: it obscures the choices students have to make by reducing a whole university to a single arbitrary measure. 

Q: How are students supposed to get information about universities now? DonÕt universities have an obligation to be transparent about their strengths and their weaknesses?


  • Absolutely. Universities have a duty to be transparent, for three reasons:
    • As public institutions, we have that obligation to the taxpayers in our provinces.
    • As educational institutions, we have an ethical duty to be open to students and their families who are trying to make the right personal decisions about their future.
    • As research institutions, we have an ethical duty to make our research transparent, so it can be shared by colleagues around the world.
  • Transparency goes to the very heart of what a university does.
  • In fact, thatÕs exactly why we object to the MacleanÕs ranking exercise. CanadaÕs major universities have hundreds of programs. The magazine reduces them to one number, one that obscures reality.
  • For our part, we at Dalhousie try to provide prospective students with the right kind of data to allow for a more thorough decision. That data, accessible on our website, includes:
    • Satisfaction levels for Dalhousie students compared with those at other universities
    • Student evaluation of the quality of teaching
    • Percentage of students who graduate
    • Percentage of students who are satisfied with university services
    • Investment in facilities renewal
  • In our own research, we have found that the MacleanÕs survey results are not among the top five influencers for prospective Dalhousie students. Our web site, viewbook, brochures, email contact and campus tours all have greater impact. Prospective students use a number of information-gathering techniques in order to make their decisions about university.
  • That said, we have often expressed our interest in working with MacleanÕs to develop a better survey approach that uses data responsibly.

Q: What might a collaboration with MacleanÕs actually look like?


  • Every research university has a range of experts in statistics and performance management Ð itÕs what our scientists and social scientists do for a living. We also have a wealth of data to share.
  • The key to a meaningful survey, as in any area of applied statistics, is to create apples-to-apples comparisons that have validity and more specific details.
  • WeÕre very happy to sit down with MacleanÕs at any time to discuss how the annual survey can best be used to assist students to compare institutions in a way that helps them make good decisions about their future.


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