posted on Aug. 28: McMaster gains first place in public accountability survey


McMaster University has soared to the top of an annual survey designed to measure the public accountability of Canadian universities.

McMaster climbed from 35th place to first in just one year – scoring 64.5 using an index that considers such public documents as mission statements, performance targets, detailed financial statements and research summaries.

Researchers with the School of Business and Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University have been conducting Canada's only annual survey of public accountability by universities since 1988. The survey now involves 41 universities from British Columbia to Newfoundland. Using a modified accountability disclosure (MAD) index of one to 100, universities are awarded points based on the depth, clarity and quality of the information provided in 26 categories.

Though there has been improvement in the last two years, the researchers found that Canadian universities still fall short when it comes to external reporting and accountability. Compared to institutions in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, Canadian universities are not making enough information available to the public on key objectives, performance indicators and facts and figures.

“We are seeing a bit of improvement overall among Canadian universities, and a great deal when you look at particular institutions like McMaster,” said Morton Nelson, one of the researchers and an accounting professor with the Laurier School of Business and Economics. “But Canada has tended to lag behind other Commonwealth countries, especially New Zealand, where accountability reports have been legislated into practice.”

In 2000, the majority of Canadian universities scored between 20 and 65 on the MAD index. McMaster, which scored only 10.9 in 1999, edged passed last year's number one finisher, Queen's University. New Zealand universities score in the 90s, those in Australia average in the 70s and institutions in the United Kingdom perform slightly better than Canada.

Nelson believes the one-year difference for McMaster, and the differences between countries, has more to do with reporting practices than the quality of the institutions.

“I think Canadian universities in general are doing a good job, but to a large extent the general public has no idea what we do,” he explained. “Except in the annual Maclean's rankings, this information just isn't being made readily available.”

Nelson, who conducts the annual surveys with fellow Laurier professors James Fisher and William Banks, points to government-funding models based on performance indicators and to students who want to know what they are getting for their money as evidence of the need for greater accountability. He is looking for universities to produce detailed but concise annual reports that make information easily accessible to students, faculty, staff, donors, the government and the general public.