I have never been a big fan of rankings of universities and programs, but I will take responsibility for this one. You see, last year McGill was ranked 25th in the world and now it is 31st. What changed? I left. Sure, I thought that my departure might cause McG to move down one spot in the rankings, maybe two, but six? Wow. I would say I am sorry, but I am loving Carleton and Ottawa.
Seriously though, this change is both irrelevant and significant. They are irrelevant as they will not affect anything directly--it will not change the students that apply, it will not affect the school's ability to hire faculty and so on. Rankings matter most to media and to the administrative folks.
The rankings are significant because McGill is under stress--that the funding system in Quebec is more broken than funding of universities in the rest of North America--and that is saying something. The attempt to raise tuition failed when the Liberals lost the election to the pandering Parti Quebecois. The PQ has now found out that the entitled student movement will fight even token increases. Of course, the funny thing is that these students are not fighting cuts in how much Quebec spends on universities. Which directly contradicts the premise of a free higher university education--that dream depends on more government money (which comes from unicorns, I guess) going to universities, not less. Anyhow, McGill does face a very dark future, as it must face more and more cuts even in the middle of the fiscal year, and with members of the PQ saying ominous things about balancing university spending (less for McGill, in other words).
The reality is that not that much changed in who taught at McGill (other than my departure) between last year and this year, not much changed in the quality/quantity of research, not much changed in the quality of the students (the students there are terrific). But the reputation of six schools improved relatively to McGill. The thing to keep in mind here is that reputation is (dare I say it?) a social construction. It is not real in the sense that x number of pubs plus x number of Phds plus whatever other factors produce rank x. No, it is about how the community of the rankers feel about the various universities. Usually, we do not see much dramatic change from year to year because people do not change their opinions much and do not tend to do much research when they face such surveys. But McG has been in the news--the protests, the cuts, how Quebec and the PQ are aiming directly at this island of English excellence--so it may have swayed some perceptions.
The really important thing is that the cuts will continue---and they will affect the quality of the place, perceived by the world or not. And that is sad and unfortunate and unnecessary. But who said that Quebec public policy was anything but sad and unfortunate .....