A campus conversation: Is McGill in decline?

Editor's Note

In this week's edition of the Campus Conversation series, we convene voices from across McGill to answer the question: Is McGill in decline? The debate sparked on campus in the wake of McGill's noticeable drop in the QS World University Rankings in September left many wondering if the value of a McGill education is decreasing. Other rankings have since been released, including a better position in the Shanghai Rankings and a slightly lower rank in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Concerns have been raised about the validity of these ratings, as they often rely on methodology that may seem divorced from factors that encompass a valuable university education.

Rather than rely on these rankings, we asked campus leaders and student representatives for a qualitative look at where the university is headed.


A halt in forward motion

– Josh Redel, SSMU President, 2012-2013

Look beyond the rankings; follow the money

– Jonathan Mooney, President, Post-Graduate Students' Society


Current Data Insufficient

– Devin Bissky Dziadyk, Science Representative to SSMU


Change of Course requires Change of Leadership

– Kate Sheridan, Arts and Science Senator


(Alexandra Allaire / McGill Tribune)
(Alexandra Allaire / McGill Tribune)

A halt in forward motion

I would be hard pressed to say that McGill is in decline, however I do not think the university is doing the work necessary to be moving forward. Throughout my interactions with a wide variety of people at McGill, from staff to students, faculty to administrators, many would say that McGill has been resting on its laurels for too long. I think a more accurate description of what we are experiencing is a halt in forward motion,  and it’s time for McGill to wake up and start taking a fresh look at how it operates so it can continue to innovate in the ways that used to set it apart from the competition.

There are a few issues at high levels of the university that have hurt its ability to move forward, but I will only mention two briefly here.  First, the university is continuing to allow professors to use “academic freedom” as an excuse to get out of pedagogic innovation at the undergraduate level. When professors are continually allowed to bypass teaching and learning innovations that central units work tirelessly to research, implement, and support, they are only hurting the students they are ultimately here to serve.  Academic freedom is innovation in how you teach a course, what materials you use, and how you interact with your class. Refusing to use the centralized myCourses because it requires learning or ignoring hard research about lecture recordings is not an expression of academic freedom, but rather blatant and selfish laziness.  This laziness is what hurts undergraduate learning at our university.

As the university continues to allow professors to teach its undergraduates courses as if it were 1950, it is only natural that we are not moving forward. Also natural is perceived decline when compared to universities that have a stronger push on their professoriate to use some of the incredible teaching and learning innovations coming out of their own schools. These include creative uses of active learning classrooms, forward thinking uses of multimedia in the classroom and in specialized labs, and much more. McGill, on the other hand, merely suggests professors use these resources, all in the name of protecting academic freedom.

Second, the central administration has focused too long on preventing student groups, clubs, services, and societies from doing amazing new things.  Instead of creating bridges for groups to put their extreme talent to use, they drop roadblocks at almost every step of the way.  While it may be forgotten by most, the McGill name issue, to me, embodies the central administration’s flawed view on student life.  For years, the central administration has hunted down groups that use a mythical bird and a six-letter family name in ways that enter the school into liability.

Instead of providing financial support, encouraging new work, and finding ways for groups to create projects that break out of current frameworks, the central administration has insisted these groups change their names and logos (and put money into it!) so that the university is free of risk and liability if the group does something wrong.

A university should take risks with, assume liability for, and pour money into its student life.  The focus on doing the opposite (and keep in mind, there are many people at this university that work quite hard to help student groups; the focus here is on central administrators), as seen with the policy on the use of the McGill name, is what has halted true development with central administration’s support for student life.  Pushing students away by telling them they are not McGill has resulted and will continue to result in a loss of affinity for McGill post-graduation.

So, is McGill in decline?  Perhaps.; and it is certainly not doing itself any favours with regards to moving forward.  However, if the university continues to combat against its own students, it will absolutely find itself in decline in the near future.

– Josh Redel, SSMU President, 2012-2013






Look beyond the rankings; follow the money

As a university, McGill is not in decline. Looking at both the QS and Shanghai rankings, McGill has maintained roughly the same ranking for the last five years, and small year-to-year variations are statistically insignificant.

That said, a closer look at the data reveals that McGill is advancing in some areas and falling behind in others.  For example, according to the QS rankings in 2008, McGill was ranked 229th in terms of citations per faculty; it is now ranked 113th. On the other hand, in 2008 McGill was ranked 22nd in faculty-to-student ratio; it is now ranked 84th. Generally speaking, in terms of research, McGill’s profile is strong and improving, while in terms of operations, McGill is suffering.

How are we to understand this? Follow the money.

First, let’s look at research funding. According to the Canadian Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and World Bank statistics, the Canadian government spends more per GDP on higher education research than the United States or many European countries.  The situation is even better in Quebec where the Fonds de recherche du Québec serves as an additional funding source for Quebec researchers and, notably, also provides McGill with a roughly 50 per cent top-up for each grant awarded to cover the indirect costs of research (federal funding for indirect cost is much lower at about 20 per cent).

Moreover, McGill made a conscious decision in the early 2000s to allocate financial resources to an aggressive academic renewal plan, hiring hundreds of top young researchers.  McGill’s researchers consistently rank among the best in Canada in terms of research funding “yield” (funding awarded per professor). When you combine a strong research funding model in Quebec and Canada with a willingness from McGill to fund an influx of bright young researchers, it is not surprising that McGill’s research profile is now on the ascent.

But that’s not the whole story.

While Quebec is a leader in research funding to its universities, it is seriously under-performing in terms of ensuring that universities have sufficient revenue to fund day-to-day operations. In 2012, the Council of Ontario Universities examined operating funding available to universities per student among the different provinces, weighted to account for costs by program and discipline. The study found that Quebec ranked no. 10 out of 10 Canadian provinces in terms of operating funding. The Conference of Rectors and Principals of Quebec Universities (CREPUQ) estimated the gap in operating funding between Quebec and other provinces at $850 million in 2013.

Operating funding allows for competitive salaries to professors, increased hiring of course lecturers and TAs, maintains world-class library collections and journal subscriptions, and supports state-of-the-art undergraduate teaching labs. It is also the kind of funding Quebec’s universities are sorely lacking.  Insufficient operating funding has eroded McGill’s student to faculty ratio from 17 in 2008 to 20 now.

“If so, what do we do about it?”

First, let’s stop messing around with the data.  Some groups claim that because Quebec universities have more research funding than the Canadian average, the lack of operating funding is not a problem.  But research grants are dedicated to specific researchers and specific projects and cannot be used to fund general operating activities.

Second, let’s be consistent and acknowledge the facts. The Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec stated in 2010 that Quebec universities were underfunded, but argued in 2012-2013 that they were not, out of a fear that acknowledging underfunding would be used as a justification for a tuition increase. The policy question of how to fund universities is a separate issue from whether they are in need of additional funding in the first place.

Finally, let’s engage in an aggressive lobbying campaign for public re-investment in education. A Quebec election may be on the horizon for early 2014. Government spending on education yields many benefits, including lower crime rates, greater civic participation, and lower reliance on social services. Students, professors, and supporters of higher education should push for all Quebec political parties to adopt a credible plan for reinvesting in Quebec’ universities, and make sure they stick to it if elected. When the PQ recently tried to cut research funding to health research, 2,300 researchers came together and launched the “Je suis Michèle” campaign, which resulted in the restoration of $26.5 million in funding.

Quebec needs to come together and demand that properly funding universities be a requirement for any political party to get or stay elected.

– Jonathan Mooney, Secretary-General, Post Graduate Students' Society





(Wendy Chen / McGill Tribune)
(Wendy Chen / McGill Tribune)

Current data insufficient

Is McGill in decline? Possibly, but with a large margin of error. Most metrics that we have available to us would indicate that McGill is in some form of decline. Budget cuts, fewer TAs, lower rankings, rising deferred maintenance, larger class sizes, student dissatisfaction, among others, are some of the relevant indicators of a university’s health. In our case they are not looking overly positive. So if these things are all heading downhill, why the hesitancy is saying McGill is a sinking ship?

That is where the wonders of statistics come in. If there is one thing that climate science has taught us over the past decade, it is that the individual changes in measurement from one year to the next do not indicate long-term trends. It is with this in mind that it is best to analyze the current state that our university is in. While certainly we have lost ground in some areas, we still produce world-class research and graduates, while working within the constraints handed to us.

The fact that we remain at all competitive on a worldwide basis certainly indicates some resiliency. It is with this in mind that I am hesitant to say definitively which way things are heading. Although things have gone downhill a bit, there is ultimately not enough data to say with any significant degree of certainty whether or not the ship is sinking.

– Devin Bissky Dziadyk, Science Representative to SSMU






Change of course requires change of leadership

Is McGill in decline? It depends on your perspective. We’ve dropped in some rankings and our budget has been slashed. The 2011 results of the National Survey of Student Engagement showed that students rated McGill below the national average for

(Alexandra Allaire / McGill Tribune)
(Alexandra Allaire / McGill Tribune)

student-faculty interactions and campus environment, among other measures. While these facts might suggest that McGill’s glory days are fading, I disagree.

The difference in the QS ranking this year is by no means insurmountable, particularly because McGill has the same exceptional human resources it’s always had. The university is still home to some amazing faculty, staff, and—of course—students. Go to the Faculty of Science Undergraduate Research Conference on Thursday, Oct. 10 in the Arts Building. Listen to the young researchers there, and you’ll be reassured that the students here are just as brilliant as they were last year.

No doubt, the last few years have dealt McGill some hard knocks. It’s been a difficult time for the university, in a basic financial sense. However, with the new blood we’ve got in the senior administration this year, I have no doubt that any fears of decline will be alleviated soon. Principal Suzanne Fortier and new Deputy Provost, (Student Life and Learning) Ollivier Dyens are, in my opinion, up to the challenge of building a better university. Best of all, they seem to genuinely want our help doing it.

So is McGill actually declining? Will we still be a world-class university in five years? I believe we will; because at the end of the day, it matters less what trajectory we’ve taken up to this point than what we do next.

– Kate Sheridan, Arts and Science Senator 



  1. wouldbeimmigrant

    I’m finishing an LLM as an international student. Career Services has no idea how to help us.

  2. someonecommentingonthings

    The question is profoundly leading, but I guess if it starts debate…
    Some respondents fail to see the connections between the various issues involved. For instance, while I wholeheartedly agree senior professors should be teaching more undergraduate classes, at the same time their research is as much part of their job as is teaching. This is what distinguishes a university from a school or even a college: world-class research and the granting of doctoral degrees. Often this research provides education and training outside the classroom, offering students much sought after experience in research contexts. Moreover, these professors obtain grants that pay students, helping them meet the costs of their tuition and living. It’s a matter of balance – junior scholars can’t obtain the same kinds of grants, senior ones can…

    As for the idea that professors who don’t use myCourses are lazy – most tech savvy professors at McGill have their own websites precisely because myCourses is a horrible piece of software. I’m going to say it flat out: McGill’s technological infrastructure SUCKS; ICS doesn’t consult, but doles out ‘solutions’ for a corporate world, and has little to no connection with the needs of students and researchers, faculty included. So myCourses and the failure to use it is indicative not of ‘laziness’ but of a failure to have an honest conversation about this core problem. Talk to anyone – everyone hates McGill IT. end of story.

    As for having junior scholars – phd students, postdocs, sessions etc – teach courses… there could definitely be much better balance. But the problem is there aren’t JOBs for these people at the end of their study. The number of professor positions has shrunk ridiculously in the last decade; weren’t not as bad off as the states where the New Faculty Majority is 78% of teaching staff. But we shouldn’t simply hire more profs either: there needs to be a culture of apprenticeship and progression from a PhD student to the tenure track. The solution can’t just be seen from the perspective of an undergraduate student, but should in some what acknowledge that the university operates to teach and to do research, and there are complex issues involved that impact people’s lives. Try finding full time employment as a recent PhD and we’ll talk.

    And so – in decline? not so much. Honest with itself – definitely not. Honest with each other – perhaps. There are systemic problems, few of which are hit on in these responses – we’ve got parodies of them, but rarely do we glimpse the entire picture.

  3. undeuxtrois

    Basically, the water is only up to my knees, I only consider the ship sinking when its above my neck!

  4. “McGill has the same exceptional human resources it’s always had.” I wish I could agree with this, but with the high number of departures under the Voluntary Retirement Program (some units have lost up to 60% of their admin staff) and of a number of professors, along with the restrictions on re-hiring, it simply isn’t true. I’m optimistic, but not quite as optimistic as the last piece.

  5. Pingback: Letter: Not a time to push panic buttons | McGill Tribune


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