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Drop in rankings concerning, but not critical

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McGill fell nearly 10 places in this year’s Academic Ranking of World Universities, a drop which highlights a slow but steady descent in its overall position across university ranking lists. This contrasts with  the University of British Columbia  and University of Toronto, both of which have managed to either maintain or improve their rank. This is something the university and the students should keep a close eye on as it might mean several things. 

Rankings are based on a broad range of factors, from the amount of recognized research to student to faculty member ratios. The main influence affecting these factors is funding. Following the provincial election in 2012, the then-new Parti Quebecois government cancelled tuition increases and ended up cutting $124 million out of its higher education budget, despite earlier promises. The government also reduced funds to Quebec’s research-granting councils. This increased the financial burden on research-based universities such as McGill, and will make it difficult for us to compete with other major international research universities. Suffering a funding cut of about $19 million in 2013 has only worsened matters.

Much has also been said about the quality of teaching, with McGill Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier stating her concern over the increasing student-faculty ratio. Seventy-five per cent of McGill’s operating expenses are dedicated to remuneration of staff and due to financial constraints, the university will have to layoff staff and slash pay, which has already occured in several departments in recent years. This will make it a challenge to maintain McGill’s academic level whilst reducing services, and could lead to increasing class sizes. This is worrying news for the university, as rankings are often tracked by employers and other universities to see how schools compare. Even though it might not affect the students now, a steady fall year by year could severely damage McGill in the long term. 

But does this actually affect us? Despite McGill’s drop in rank, annual lists are not as important as some might believe. McGill is widely renowned as a leading university, not just from consistently appearing in the top 100 of university lists but also due to its reputation. Because of varying methodologies among the major global university rankings, reputation and rank are very distinct. For this reason, years of world class reputation cannot be eclipsed by a small fall in the ranking systems. Additionally, differences in scores are marginal amongst top universities, and McGill has not dropped out of the top 100.

So should we worry? McGill is a top-performing university with high admission standards providing students with a quality education that is internationally recognized. Our ranking may have dropped, but students have every capacity to reverse the trend and continue to compete with other leading universities. Working together with the university to put pressure on the Quebec government for more funding is a start, as this is one of the underlying problems. At the end of the day we have chosen this university for a collection of reasons, and while the rankings could measure a change in those underlying factors, a small change like the one we see this year shouldn’t shift decisions.

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