University rankings should be kept out of research funding

In Academia, Commentary by Lenore NewmanLeave a Comment

With this week’s release of the QS international university rankings, there has been significant hand wringing that Canada no longer has a school among the top twenty universities worldwide. Several people have asked me what I think of this as a Canada Research Chair; they have asked me if we should focus an “Olympic” like effort to pool funds at one or two schools to push them to the top of the rankings? This comes at a time when Ontario is mulling significant changes to its university system, including whether all universities should engage in research.

I do have an opinion, and it is as simple as this. A university without research isn’t a university, it is a college, and any move to pool funds by school rather than merit perverts the thousand year old role that universities play in society. This doesn’t mean all universities are the same; I work at a university that is primarily teaching focussed, but we do have some significant research activity as well, and without that research activity, we would lose two critical benefits of universities.

Firstly, researchers involve students, including undergraduates, in their research. Often these assistantships are the single most useful parts of our student’s educations. For example in our geography department students are working in labs, learning advanced methods including GIS and mapping. In our department of agriculture, students are experimenting with new crops, and working in greenhouses, and often step directly from a research project into a job. Without research, our students would be stuck listening to talking heads in classrooms, while students at the research universities would be engaged in learning practical skills while advancing Canada’s knowledge base. It would truly be a two-tier system.

Secondly, if we pooled research money many regions would find themselves without a research university, and would lose all of the economic benefit research creates. They would also lose the benefit that regional research creates. For example, as I am at the University of the Fraser Valley, I research suburban landforms and small lot agriculture, topics relevant to the surrounding area. There is no guarantee that larger schools outside of the region would conduct such research, particularly if driven to conduct “sexy” research in order to vault them into top twenty.

Does this mean every school should be all things to all people? Well, no, but the market can take care of that. Even now, schools are known for areas of excellence. Budding journalists are drawn to Ryerson, computer scientists are drawn to the advantages of Waterloo, and UBC’s excellent medical school draws applicants from around the world. If schools decide to focus on raising the profile of their best departments, that is one thing; but for the biggest schools (located in the biggest cities) to suggest that only they deserve research funding? They should be ashamed of themselves. Researchers deserve access to funding based on merit, even at the smallest and most remote of schools.


  1. profbillanderson

    Since “reputation” surveys are a significant part of rankings like QS, the best way to improve Canadian standings would be to divert most of our research money into international advertising and media relations. Joking of course. I agree with your points about trying to concentrate research in a few places.

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