The University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management consistently does well in rankings of the world's best business schools. For instance, Bloomberg Businessweek, the granddaddy of rankers, says the Toronto school is the 11th best globally, outside the United States.
But if Rotman officials are impressed, they aren't showing it. "Rankings have to be taken with a lot of skepticism," says Peter Pauly, an economics professor and vice-dean of academics, summing up the ambivalence many schools feel about rankings.
While they accept that top 10, 50 and 100 lists are a fact of life and can be helpful to prospective students investigating their study options, they are aware of the limitations.
"What I, and a lot of people have problems with, is that results are condensed into one number," Dr. Pauly says.
Certain students, particularly international learners, will choose Rotman based on Rotman's relatively high rating in all sorts of rankings, from the respected to the amateur. Yet Dr. Pauly believes that students "place more weight on them [rankings] than they should."
Even the matriarch of the eminent Financial Times rankings agrees that the lists are not the final word.
"Rankings are a starting point, not a finishing point," says Della Bradshaw, business education editor at the London newspaper. Rankings are simply a good indication of how business schools are behaving at one point in time. Ms. Bradshaw likens each Financial Times ranking to a snapshot that, when examined over several years, shows a pattern, and thus, becomes useful information for would-be students.
In the Financial Times 2014 Global MBA Ranking, Rotman was rated No. 51 in the field of 100, a drop from 46th place in 2013 but still the top Canadian school. And in Bloomberg Businessweek's most recent ratings, from 2012, Rotman placed No. 11 of 184 in the international full-time MBA category (excludes U.S. schools).
Schools provide much of the data that is used to come up with the rankings. Rotman participates only in the Financial Times and Bloomberg Businessweek's exercises. "They're the most credible of the lot," Dr. Pauly says.
Ditto for McGill University's Desautels Faculty of Management, which submits data only to those two publications for consideration. It placed No. 10 out of 184 in Bloomberg Businessweek's international full-time MBA category and 84th in the Financial Times 2014 ranking, compared to 76th spot in 2013.
"They're considered the most prestigious," says Don Melville, director of Desautels' MBA and masters programs.
Beyond the cachet, when someone is paying $70,000 and more to get a degree that promises a big return on investment, making a choice between the 7,000 business programs available in North America (and more abroad) is about more than night life or how entertaining the professors are.
"You only do an MBA once," says Mr. Melville, who earned his MBA at McGill. "Rankings are a way to narrow the field."
For Dr. Pauly, the problem is that in their bid to distinguish themselves from competitors, ranking outlets all use different criteria. So in one ranking, one school can rate high, while another shows the same school as low. A different publication, using different criteria, could have the opposite results.
Producing credible rankings is complicated and few do it well. "They're all over the map. The result is that rankings are very confusing to students." says Dr. Pauly. "You're comparing apples to oranges to bananas."
For example, the Financial Times gives a high weighting to alumni incomes three years after graduation. Other publications give that factor less influence.
Salary data is significant, Ms. Bradshaw says, because it's a consistent number that allows for comparison. Still the challenge, she admits, is collecting additional data that is consistent among all schools to be used to compare trends.
Other criteria such as program length, diversity of the student body and faculty or value for money get less weight, but can be more important to some students, Dr. Pauly notes.
Some schools, such as Queen's School of Business in Kingston, even refuse to participate in rankings because they don't agree with the criteria, think they will rank low or don't consider it a priority.
Another concern is what Mr. Melville calls the "historic nature of rankings," meaning ratings are based on two- or three-year-old data. "It doesn't give a true reflection of what programs exist today," he says.
While rankings aren't a major factor in how Desautels develops its programs, Mr. Melville admits that rankings aren't ignored. "It does influence some of what the school does," he says.
But at Rotman, "We made a firm decision to never, ever adjust what we do or teach based on rankings. Some schools get lost doing it, chasing characteristics that might be important in some rankings," Dr. Pauly says.
Whether Rotman comes in at No. 50 or No. 75, Dr. Pauly maintains that he's more concerned with having a school where research strength and excellent teaching are the hallmarks.
"For Podunk University, it might make a difference if you show up in the Financial Times rankings," he says.
There is one consolation for Canadian business schools. Unlike U.S. schools, there's not a big gap between Canada's best and worst universities, Ms. Bradshaw says.
Her advice: "Choose your program in a country where you want to work after graduation."