UBC’s free fall in university rankings

University rankings may be questionable. Their evaluation criteria may be flawed or unrepresentative. They may be based on false or manipulated data provided by some institutions. They can even, occasionally, be bought. But the reality is that they do matter. Another reality is that UBC’s standing has lately been in a free fall. The 2015 Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings placed UBC at #37, down from 33rd in 2014, 31st in 2013 and 25th in 2012. This is bad news for UBC’s new president, Arvind Gupta, who pledged in his installation speech last September to lift UBC up to the top 10 public institutions in the world. This recent setback is not the only reason why Gupta may be facing a bigger challenge than what he had bargained for.

Why do rankings matter? Well, because the reputation and the perceived prestige of a post-secondary institution in the public eye have significance. This is especially true for international student recruitment, the employment value of a degree holder, the life of our graduate programs, and for the attraction and retention of talent, to name a few. Reputation also goes a long way towards ensuring intellectual authority, credibility and respect for institutions that rely so heavily on influencing government policies about … well, just about everything under the sun.

Academia’s 1 percent: In a recent hard-hitting article, Sarah Kendzior analyzed the impact of reputation on graduate students’ careers. “Every Ph.D. from a less-prestigious institution knows all too well: No amount of publishing, teaching excellence, or grants can compensate for an affiliation that is less than favorable in the eyes of a search committee. The fate of aspiring professors is sealed not with job applications but with graduate-school applications. Institutional affiliation has come to function like inherited wealth. Those who have it operate in a different market, more immune from the dark trends – unemployment, adjunctification – that dog their less-prestigious peers.” 

How did UBC get here? It just so happens that what the university has been doing for the past few years is not exactly what drives these rankings in the right direction.

Big bucks on recreational facilities and other non-core capital projects do not do the job, nor do hundreds of millions of dollars on “district energy” projects and “steam to hot water” conversions. The huge increases in the number of managerial staff did not do it. A farcical innovation agenda based on enticing faculty into consulting services did not do it. Huge investment in a loosely defined flexible learning initiative will not do it. Pouring millions on grandiose Information Technology plans will not do it. Gold-plated physical structures in support of sustainability without an academic and research core did not do it. Having external consultants tell us how to manage our university did not do it. Even fat communication and PR budgets did not do it.

UBC invested a great deal trying to improve “the student experience,” and to provide adequate instruction to a continuously growing student body. The university hired an army of student counselors, increased the number of instructors, professionalized their stream within the university, recruited “professors of teaching,” and injected “education specialists” in core departments. Whatever one thinks about the merits of separating research from the teaching enterprise, such irreversible, though probably necessary, strategies do not necessarily mesh well with the ranking gods. It just so happens that, whether we like it or not, research accomplishments are the main drivers behind these rankings.

The President said it best in his installation speech. “Excellence in research distinguishes great institutions from the rest. Excellence in research puts our students at the cutting edge of knowledge, giving them access to the latest discoveries and revelations. Excellence in research allows us to nurture leaders and to take a lead on the broad societal agenda. Excellence in research ensures our graduate students are ready to join the ranks of elite world scholars and innovators. Excellence in research makes our reputation – enabling us to attract the best faculty and students from around the world. Excellence in research gives currency to our diplomas.”

And on this front, we seem to be failing. In the name of creating efficiencies, UBC endured a 3% increase in the number of research faculty members between 2008 and 2014, while student enrollment was jumping by 14%. Our research funding stagnated for years. The VP-Research of a prominent university told me recently that he presents the research agenda to his Board on a regular basis. Unfortunately, I never got to experience such an interesting exercise during my 6-years on the UBC Board of Governors. And frankly speaking, I do not miss the shouting matches I had with some members of  the executive trying to explain how research is not a drain on the university budget.

President Gupta is obviously well aware of the consequences, and has been voicing that the downward trend will continue unless a refocusing of the university towards research and the academy is part of the new institutional strategy and priority. But what has been done so far to try to reverse this trend?

I was, of course, pleasantly surprised to learn –via the Ubyssey’s Twitter– that the Board recently had presentations/discussions on large research clusters/centres at UBC, mostly related to the university’s submission to the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF). Governors seem to have enjoyed and appreciated this meaningful change to their proceedings. But what else is happening?

You would think that a change in the administrative guard is a first step.  Well, we understand that the position of provost and VP-Academic is back to the traditional role of being the senior academic administrator of the university. The VP-Finance and the VP-Communications and Community Partnership are gone. Considering the inordinate influence these two held around the executive table in years past, these changes seem to be substantial and in the right direction.  However, much more is needed if we are to cut our losses and begin to restore UBC’s academic standing.

In his installation speech, Gupta committed to find $100-million to restore academic and research excellence at UBC. As I and others on the Board had suspected for a while, finding that kind of cash might be difficult. We were well positioned to know that over the past eight years, UBC has committed more than $2-billion dollars towards capital projects, a large fraction of which was borrowed and is still outstanding. At the same time, provincial cuts to PSE have become the cool political thing to do lately.  UBC hasn’t been –and will not be– immune to such an unenlightened trend. No wonder the first act of the new president was to increase international students fees!

Preaching and implementing excellence in an institution as decentralized as UBC may not be an easy task, even for a president. Changes made 5-6 years ago to the operational rapport between the central administration and the Faculties may come back to haunt and hamper any attempt at academic reform and improved standards by the new president.

Indeed, the past central administration had essentially abdicated any role in academic decision-making to the Faculties. In return, the central administration was buying itself the liberty to focus on the mostly non-academic issues it was interested in, but also retaining a handsome piece of the operating budget to do so. The Faculties are now run as independent academic entities, and it will largely be up to the Deans whether they elect to espouse and implement the new president’s strategic vision or not.

Plainly speaking, it is not easy to predict whether additional resources destined for promoting excellence –assuming they are found–would be used as such once they are transferred to the Faculties by the central administration. This will depend heavily on whether Deans share or/and adopt the strategic priorities of the new administration.

Last but not least is the fact that President Gupta will not only be competing with several up and coming, well endowed and “glory hungry” Asian universities, he will also be fighting against a new Canadian wave of “dumbing down” the whole concept of post-secondary education; a creeping national tendency towards the “high-schoolization” of universities. The latest editorial of the Globe and Mail, speaks volume:

“Research-focused institutions are good at impressing outsiders and attracting funding specifically tied to non-classroom work – along with luring dutiful graduate students who can be counted on to act as low-cost TAs while serving a Victorian-era form of apprenticeship. But universities need to recognize their obligations to the fee-paying students who deserve to share in all that institutional lustre.”

The Globe’s editors obviously haven’t read Sarah Kendzior’s article so as to understand how students share in an “institutional lustre.” The University of Toronto has moved up to #16 in the Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings. Yes, it is dealing with an ongoing (and undoubtedly just) TA’s strike. However, one could argue that UT’s continuing climb on the world’s academic stage –also confirmed by all other rankings– would amply make it up in prestige and luster to their graduates.

Whether we like it or not, Academia’s currency is prestige. Keeping in mind that rankings are based on multi-year lagging indicators, it may take several years of investments, focused strategy and prioritization in research and academy to have any impact on the world’s rankings. UBC has to make up its mind very soon on whether it wants to be an elite institution, a member of Academia’s one percent.

The president has already made up his mind: “We are not where UBC should be, can be, and must be.”

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7 Responses to UBC’s free fall in university rankings

  1. Paul Sanborn says:

    Nice to hear from you! I’ve missed your thoughtful and informative postings.

  2. jimwoodgett says:

    As someone affiliated with U of Toronto (i.e. a benefactor of rankings), I have to say that our obsession with these schemes is very unhealthy. Like the REF exercise in the UK, we have become subservient to the conferred authority of these artificial and clearly unscientific league tables. For one example, a large part of the U of T’s score likely derives from the network of research hospitals affiliated to it. 80% of U of Ts competitive health research funding is awarded to these hospitals. But the hospitals pay the scientists salaries, house and maintain their labs, expect teaching (admittedly not a big load) and offer zero security (i.e. no tenure). So when an undergraduate in health sciences attends U of T, they will not experience the environment or leadership of 80% of the heath research ascribed tot he U of T ranking. Don’t get me wrong, we have a good relationship with U of T, but it is irrelevant to the parameters supposedly being judged: great funding, publications, etc.

    I hope UBC does decide to re-invest in research but it should do so for the right reasons, not to jack up it’s position on a precariously situated ladder.

  3. Dave Lampron says:

    Jimwoodgett brings up an excellent point.

    Over 50% of UBC’s ~$550 Million in research funding comes via medical/health related research (well over $300 Million is health related). It may surprise most folk at UBC that a large proportion, or arguably the largest proportion of research at UBC doesn’t even occur at UBC Point Grey – it occurs in partnership with our Health Authority partners at hospital campuses. Out of those Health Authority partners, Vancouver Coastal, Provincial Services and Providence Health host the largest volume of UBC’s medical research.

    I’d be interested in what researchers at those hospital sites might say if they were asked, ‘what would help them be more productive researchers?’ and thus help to propel UBC back up the rankings. My suspicion is that they would disagree with the point made about increasing the number of research faculty members (increasing the number of research faculty members is likely to create even more internal competition for an already limited grant funding pie – grant funding agencies like CFI already essentially have set amounts for what schools like UBC receive). I think that UBC’s existing researchers would say that in order to be more productive that they would benefit from better support services from the University: facilities that better accommodate their work, access to fundamental data management platforms and access to support resources that better assist them in linking to datasets (e.g. clinical data) so that they can focus on their work rather than deal with peripheral administrative issues.

    UBC’s research support structures, especially in hospital research sites, are on thin-ice, if we increasing the load on those already weak support structures will eventually lead to collapse. My suggestion to Dr. Gupta would be to ask the existing UBC research community specifically what they think would assist them in becoming more productive.

  4. Pingback: Morsels For The Mind – 20/03/2015 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast

  5. anthonyquas says:

    Welcome back Nassif!

  6. Pingback: I’M VOTING “NO CONFIDENCE” IN THE UBC BOARD OF GOVERNORS: HERE’S WHY (2) | meta-meta-medieval

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