Academic Elitism – What’s in a Name?

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By Adam Wilson

When I made the decision to go to McGill for my undergraduate degree, my family was proud of me, and my friends were perplexed that I was actually ‘smart enough’ to get in. Last week, though, when I told my friends and family that I chose Ryerson for my master’s degree, my friends asked me if I got rejected from the University of Toronto (U of T), my brother texted me saying, “lol,” and one of my professors asked me where “Bryerson University” was. This was a stark contrast in experience, and all because of the name of the university and not the quality of the program.

Competing for prestige is important – it’s what drives us to do our readings and stay in the library until 1 am despite the lack of a 24-hour Tim Hortons in McLennan. However, people often take overall rankings of universities and generalize them across all faculties and programs, paying little attention to the actual quality of the education and opportunities offered within each program. As McGill students, we sometimes do this to make us feel better about ourselves, and to justify living somewhere as cold as Montreal. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with generalizing a ranking to validate your education, it perpetuates a sentiment of elitism across academic institutions and leads to people invalidating the educational institutions of other students. We do this because it’s easy, not because it’s accurate. I won’t speak for all programs and degrees, because I haven’t had those experiences, but I can speak for my particular program.

I too am guilty of institutional elitism; I only applied to SFU and Ryerson because I felt that, worst case scenario, I could always fall back on them.

When I started applying for my Master of Urban Planning, I looked at all the ‘top’ universities in the country and some ‘safe universities.’ I picked two of each to maximize my potential options. In the end the two ‘top’ universities I applied to were University of British Columbia and U of T, while my ‘safe’ choices were Simon Fraser University and Ryerson. I too am guilty of institutional elitism; I only applied to SFU and Ryerson because I felt that, worst case scenario, I could always fall back on them.

Fortunately for me, three of the universities accepted me (I’m still waiting to hear from SFU). When I began the task of deciding which one I would attend in the fall, I spoke to my hometown’s city planner to get his thoughts on each school. When he asked which programs I got accepted into, I immediately responded with UBC and U of T, and then I said, “Oh yeah and I also got into Ryerson.” That interaction by itself is telling; I started with the two ‘top’ universities and then only mentioned Ryerson as an after-thought. To my surprise, the city planner told me that they all offer a good education, but if I’m looking to work in the field after graduation, then Ryerson would best prepare me for my career. I then decided to pick the brains of other professionals, to make sure that his wasn’t just an isolated opinion.

I contacted several of my professors in the Department of Urban Planning at McGill, and one of the conversations I had will stick with me for the rest of my life. This particular professor told me that I should go to Ryerson so long as I’m indifferent between living in Vancouver and Toronto. When I asked him to elaborate he stated that UBC offers a good program that prepares you well, but doesn’t have the same internship opportunities as Ryerson. He then said that U of T is too theoretical, and that the students “think they’re all so great because they go to U of T, but when they graduate they know nothing about being a planner and just leave with a shiny U of T degree.” He then told me that if I’m looking to get a PhD, then U of T would be a great choice, but if I’m looking to immediately enter the planning field then Ryerson would be better.

When you look at the QS Rankings of top universities for built environment, UBC and U of T are ranked in the top 40, whereas Ryerson doesn’t even make the list. And yet, after speaking to four professors and three urban planning professionals, they all highly recommended Ryerson over the other two.

Before you subconsciously or consciously pass judgement on another institution, remember that university rankings don’t necessarily decide what constitutes a good program.

The point I’m trying to get across is that rankings are not always indicative of the quality of education provided by a particular university, and passing judgement based on a ranking accomplishes nothing. It may appear that I’m just bitter about having to constantly explain to people that it was my choice to attend Ryerson, but my experience has enlightened me to the academic elitism we perpetuate. Graduate programs in particular are specialized, and where you decided to complete your master’s involves more than just name recognition. Before you subconsciously or consciously pass judgement on another institution, remember that university rankings don’t necessarily decide what constitutes a good program. What’s important is what people in the field think about that program, because they’re the ones that will be hiring you after you graduate.

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