Motivated students can succeed anywhere

(Photo by Ryan Hueglin)

Maclean’s issue of celebrated but odious university rankings are always on the newsstands across Canada and while I am happy to see my own university ranked competitively with other much larger institutions of higher learning, many of us have wondered about such rankings. Such assessments are flawed in their conception and may have pernicious effects on prospective students and their anxious parents.

My colleagues and I have spent our professional lives concerned about improving the quality of educational opportunities in a variety of ways. We always work to improve the general quality of the intellectual climate here at Laurier; we seek to involve more effectively all faculty members in student advising; we seek to provide more opportunities for co-operative research projects between students and faculty members; we work at making our science and computing programs reflect accurately the relentless revolution in sciences and the current information technology; and we wonder what we can do with our liberal arts focus when both students and parents have such urgent vocational concerns.

None of the measures used by ranking groups can possibly address the quality of effort expended by my colleagues in teaching and reaching our undergraduate populations. And even if the methods used by these agencies in measuring universities were foolproof, such contain a highly problematic assertion: universities with very different institutional cultures and program priorities can be compared and the resulting rankings offer some assistance to students who are making critical career/academic choices.

Another concern is that such rankings exacerbate the rampant consumerism that is now so prevalent among entering students, as well as encourage an attitude that mere admission to one of the so-called “elite” universities guarantees students a “top” education.

From my own perspective (gained through 54 years of teaching university students), one of the richest sources of satisfaction is watching students make the absolute most of the educational opportunities any university offers them.

On the other hand, one of the most discouraging aspects of my academic experience is seeing students respond idly to such remarkable opportunities – the sense that their education is something given to them rather than something they must aggressively fashion for themselves.

A somewhat isolated example: a student recently asked me how he might manage a C in a course I was teaching. He was to be the recipient of a very rich trust fund, which continued to pay him only if he remained enrolled in university. He just wanted to collect his money not engage in intellectual challenges; all he wanted was a C and he felt somewhat entitled to that C.

A point I often make amid heated discussions, is that intellectually curious and intrinsically motivated students can achieve academic excellence at many different kinds of universities and such students will be infinitely better educated than students who pass their time in “top” universities with very little intellectual passion.

Such university rankings may contribute to the erroneous notion that a first-rate university education is something students are handed upon admission. But a student’s success in acquiring an education depends much less on consumer ratings of the product being offered than on the effort, dedication and creative energy a student invests in this rather sacred learning process.

Rankings tend to underestimate the amount of work it requires to receive a university degree and overestimates the importance of a university’s prestige in that process.  In that way, they may do considerably harm and demean the entire educational enterprise.

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