In the recently published Times Higher Education 2018 university ranking, the University of Toronto placed 22nd out of the top 1,000 universities in the world and preserved their standing as the highest ranked Canadian university for the eighth consecutive year. Tied in position with the National University of Singapore, U of T continues to maintain a comfortable spot among some of the world’s highest ranked post-secondary institutions. But, what kind of relevance do these university rankings hold? What, if anything, do they tell us about the quality of the learning experience?
“Rankings are a funny thing, in that they are popular to discuss, especially when you’re at the top, but are sometimes taken to signify more than what is actually being measured,” says Jayne Baker, an assistant professor in the department of sociology at UTM, in an email to The Medium. “Rankings are commonly used as evidence of institutional prestige. However, I think we could all agree that many institutions with high rankings would continue to be prestigious were those rankings not to exist at all.”
As an example, Baker explains that regardless of the presence of yearly university rankings, American Ivy League institutions, known for frequently landing top positions across national and international ranking systems, would continue to maintain their distinguished reputations among employers, provide their students with optimal employment opportunities, and produce powerful leaders because of their established history and selective admissions processes.
“Another important factor to acknowledge is that these are institutions that have historically, and to this day, accepted students from wealthier backgrounds,” says Baker.
Having learnt from published research in the sociology of education, Baker explains that children from families with “higher socioeconomic status” are “associated with better educational outcomes and more advantageous social networks”. Later in life, these factors ultimately contribute to the individual’s success in obtaining a career and their pursuit of education beyond an undergraduate degree.
Baker notes however that, “the interesting thing about Canada is that our university system is not marked by the kind of steep hierarchy among institutions like you’d find in the United States.”
If institutional history and household wealth play integral roles in developing the high status of American Ivy League schools, what then are the factors that the THE take into consideration? According to their official website, the universities underwent a thorough examination process to determine their scores in five specific performance sectors: teaching, research, citations, international outlook, and industry income. Universities provide and approve the data used in the study, and they are not penalized nor rewarded for withholding any information.
To determine the final score of each institution, THE uses a “standardisation approach” for each category. Through further calculations and a cumulative probability function, a score is assigned to every university for each of the five performance indicators.
Teaching, evaluated as 30 per cent of the final ranking, is divided into five subsections with individual percentage weights including: 15 per cent reputation survey, 4.5 per cent staff-to-student ratio, 2.25 per cent doctorate-to-bachelor’s ratio, 6 per cent doctorates-awarded-to-academic-staff ratio, and 2.25 per cent institutional income. U of T scored 74.6 in this category with a ratio of 18.7 students per teacher. The data collected for the reputation survey reflects the perceived reputation of teaching quality, whereas the institutional income approximately reveals the quantity of resources and services available to the university’s community.
U of T scored 84.8 in research; a category weighted 30 per cent, and sectioned accordingly: 18 per cent reputation survey, 6 per cent research income, and 6 per cent research productivity. In order to quantify research productivity, a seemingly ambiguous factor, THE “counts the number of papers published” in peer-reviewed academic journals for each university. A similar performance indicator, citations, valued at 30 per cent, analyzes the universities’ contribution to global knowledge through its tally of the number of scholars who cite work published by the university. For this section, U of T received a score of 92.6.
In the final two categories, international outlook and industry income, U of T scored 80.1 and 46.5 respectively, bringing their overall result to 82.8. The international outlook category, divided into three subsections: 2.5 per cent international-to-domestic-student ratio, 2.5 per cent international-to-domestic-staff ratio, and 2.5 per cent international collaboration, examines a university’s popularity among international students. Conclusively, industry income, valued at only 2.5 per cent, investigates financial income based on research funding and payment.
The Medium also spoke to some UTM students to learn about their thoughts towards U of T’s ranking and how it has impacted their experience.
Attending Canada’s number one university has Preet Patel, a third-year computer science major, “feel[ing] on top of the world.” However, if there was one thing Patel could improve about his learning experience, he’d like to increase the length of tutorial times.
“I would love to have more one-hour tutorials every week,” Patel explains. “The tutorial could either be longer in length, or we could just have more frequent one hour tutorials. If it’s just one hour, maybe we could have two or three sessions on different days.”
Azma Ali, a fourth-year mathematics major at UTM, shares Patel’s perspective on the results of the ranking. “I think it says a lot to go to the number one school in Canada,” she says. “I look at U of T as a regular campus, but behind the scenes people are doing amazing research and elevating the school status and it’s happening right under my nose. I hope I will be able to contribute like that before I leave.”
Canadian universities, devoid of standardized undergraduate admissions testing unlike their American neighbours, exhibit “institutional parity,” Baker reveals. Despite the current equivalence, Canadian sociologists of education are conducting research to determine if, over time, university hierarchies will begin to emerge among post-secondary institutions across the country.
“My introduction to sociology students always talk about reputation of the University of Toronto when I ask them about why they chose UTM. Sometimes it’s their belief, and other times it’s the belief of their parents,” says Baker.
Baker further discusses this apparent institutional privilege bias by mentioning how “it’s probably worth noting that many students assume that a U of T degree is guaranteed to get you a better job than a degree from any other institution, but this research is actually still ongoing, and we know that all employment outcomes vary by field of study anyway.”