from Ottawa Citizen, 2 February 2004 pages A1-A2


Students 'hurt' when schools try to impress Maclean's 

UBC accused of capping class size to improve ranking 

Sarah Schmidt, The Ottawa Citizen
February 2, 2004 

The associations representing university students and professors in Canada warned yesterday the influential Maclean's university ranking is likely perverting how schools set their priorities.

The warnings come after internal documents at the University of British Columbia showed senior administrators pressured faculty members to manipulate course enrolments and cap class sizes in an effort to improve the school's standing in Maclean's annual university ranking, despite warnings from professors the moves would not improve the learning environment and could actually hurt students.

The correspondence, obtained under the provincial Freedom of Information Act, documents an eight-month effort to limit enrolment in courses.

The purpose was to improve UBC's fifth-place finish among large research institutions in the 2002 university ranking. It included a suggestion that students be misled about room capacity and an acknowledgement that some could be denied the opportunity to major in a discipline. The effort to use class-size breakpoints set by Maclean's also raised concerns that limiting access to certain classes could prevent some students from graduating on time, though the university says this never happened.

Maclean's assigns points to universities for the number of students in classes in each interval range. The higher the enrolment, the lower the score: classes with 1 to 25 students earns six points, 26 to 50 earns five points, 51 to 100 earns four points, 101 to 250 earns three points, 251 to 500 earns two points, 501 and higher earns one point.

"The idea is to set the enrolment limit slightly lower than the breakpoint, e.g. If the breakpoint is 50, then we set the maximum enrolment at 46 and do not allow it to go beyond 50," Barry McBride, vice-president, academic, wrote to deans last June.

"There's a lot of very important academic decisions being made by senior editorial staff at Maclean's," said Ian Boyko, chairman of the Canadian Federation of Students. Victor Catano, president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said rumours about schools "manipulating data" are rampant. "There is a widespread feeling that universities are doing something to improve the ranking."

Robert Birgeneau, president of the University of Toronto, says no such tinkering goes on at Canada's top-ranked research-intensive university. Mr. Birgeneau warned the school's board of governors in 2002 the university could lose its top spot in the Maclean's doctoral/medical category in the coming years because it had a duty to accommodate a huge high school graduating class in Ontario.

Class sizes were going to grow and the university would lose points in the Maclean's ranking, he explained. "Our first obligation was to serve the students of Ontario. I felt we had an obligation to students in the Greater Toronto area. I was certain that that would affect our Maclean's ranking, and (I told the governors) they should be relaxed about that," Mr. Birgeneau said.

Carl Amrhein, vice-president, academic, at the University of Alberta, conceded the school "pays quite a lot of attention" to the Maclean's ranking, but does not make decisions to maximize its points in the ranking.

"Our approach in dealing with Maclean's is we play by the rules that Maclean's sets out, but when we see something that we don't think makes sense, we push hard for Maclean's to change it."

At UBC, the president of the student union called an emergency meeting of the Alma Mater Society executive for today to discuss the private correspondence of senior administrators, obtained by CanWest News Service.

"The rumours are that most universities are doing something to go up, but we didn't know exactly how UBC was doing it," said Oana Chirila, a fourth-year pharmacy student. She characterized the techniques outlined in the correspondence as "manipulative."

In one directive to the head of the linguistics department, Margery Fee, UBC's associate dean of arts for students, wrote, "I realize that you have mapped course capacity to room capacity, but now we are being asked to respect Maclean's breakpoints in term one, rather than fill classrooms to capacity. I realize by capping these courses, we are, in effect, controlling the number of majors in linguistics, which may not be a good thing."

In another exchange, Ms. Fee wrote to the head of the psychology department: "I have discovered that Maclean's only looks at term one. On reviewing your term one classes, I see a few that might be massaged in order to accrue points, provided this works for you. The caps right at the breakpoints are risky if profs (allow additional) students in. ..."

Bill Bruneau, professor emeritus at UBC and specialist in post-secondary education policy, said there is a larger problem.

"I have a simple piece of advice and that is to ignore the Maclean's indicators for the time being, and the second piece of advice, to launch a campaign to show how idiotic performance indicators are."

In correspondence to Nancy Gallini, the dean of arts, Ms. Fee suggested misleading students about room capacity.

"Students know the room capacity so even if we put the course capacity at 240, say, they see on the system that the room will hold 263 and it is pretty hard to convince them that there are good pedagogical reasons for keeping the number down to 240 -- and we have been encouraged not to waste room capacity in the past -- if we don't want courses to go over 250 (or 100), then maybe we shouldn't list the room capacity so students can see it, or maybe we should just adjust the capacity (where it is close) to the Maclean's breakpoints."

In another exchange, George Mackie, chair of the biochemistry department, wrote to Paul Harrison, associate dean of science for students. "We could cap enrolment, but this simply sends a student somewhere else or delays their graduation. Neither should be acceptable."

Neil Guppy, UBC's associate vice-president, academic, said such a scenario, in which a student is unable to enrol in a required class for graduation, never occurred because university policy stipulates students "have to have access to the course they need for graduation."

Mr. Guppy also said the suggestion about altering room capacity to deceive students was never implemented.

Bill Bruneau, professor emeritus at UBC and specialist in post-secondary education policy, said there is a larger problem.

"I have a simple piece of advice and that is to ignore the Maclean's indicators for the time being, and the second piece of advice, to launch a campaign to show how idiotic performance indicators are."

Mr. Bruneau added, "We've always competed against other universities. There's nothing wrong with that. But we're being asked to compete with them on somebody else's term. That's silly and it's wrong. ... This invites us to say what matters in the life of the university is the counting of beans."

In the United States, the US News & World Report magazine last fall dropped "yield rate" from its influential college ranking formula after reports surfaced that some colleges were turning away top applicants because they believed they wouldn't actually come, thereby hurting their magazine ranking; yield rate is the percentage of applicants accepted to the college who later enrol at the institution.

Ann Dowsett Johnston, editor of the Maclean's ranking, could not be reached for comment.

 The Ottawa Citizen 2004

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