Tale of the tape

Canada’s universities play on a world stage, but often fall short
Tony Keller

Tale of the tapeEach November, for more than a decade and a half, Maclean’s has published its special issue ranking Canadian universities, comparing them on attributes such as resources, research, reputation and student and faculty quality. This exercise is, however, a purely made-in-Canada affair. We look at how McGill stacks up against the University of British Columbia and where Waterloo sits relative to Simon Fraser; we don’t ask how they compare with Stanford, Oxford or the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. But what if we did? What if we asked that favourite Canadian question: how are we doing? How do our universities compare to those in the rest of the world?

Access: Canadians are arguably the most educated people on earth. Or at least the most schooled. Forty-seven per cent of working-age Canadians have a post-secondary credential, meaning university or college. That’s higher than any other developed country: the U.S. figure is just 39 per cent. What’s more, the number of Canadians with higher education is steadily rising. Fifty-five per cent of Canadians aged 25 to 34 attended university or college, compared to fewer than four out of 10 Canadians aged 55 to 64. Score one for Canadian higher ed.

However, if we count only those who went to university, Canada’s global ranking falls to sixth place. We have relatively fewer people than the U.S. with university education, and more than countries such as Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. But some of the countries behind us are catching up: for example, the percentage of South Koreans going to university has more than tripled in the past generation. Young adult Koreans are now more likely to have attended university than young Canadians.

International Rankings: So what about the quality of the institutions Canadian students attend? If you believe the best-known rankings of world universities, the answer is: they’re good, but not great. Britain’s Times Higher Education compiles one of the few international university rankings, and only five Canadian universities crack its top 100, including McGill in 20th spot, UBC in 34th and the University of Toronto at 41st. There are 37 U.S. universities in the top 100; McGill, ranks below 13 of them. Australia, with a smaller population than Canada, has seven universities in the Times top 100. Hong Kong has three, two of them ranking above U of T.

Another international ranking, conducted by China’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University, features 54 U.S. universities in its top 100, but only four Canadian institutions.

What gives? The Times and Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings largely ignore undergraduate education, and are almost entirely about (sometimes questionable measures of) academic reputation and research. As a result, these rankings aren’t entirely fair to Canada’s universities—but neither are they entirely wrong. Research matters; it’s part of the mission of the leading research universities. And despite the billions spent each year on research, one can make a case that Canadian universities are punching below their weight, at least at the highest levels of research excellence. For example, a Canadian last won a Nobel Prize in the sciences in 1994. And tallying up the list of major international science prizes, including Nobels, Canada has won only 19 major awards since the 1940s. That puts us 12th in the world, tied with tiny Israel. Australia has more than double the Canadian total. The U.S. leads with 1,403 awards.

Education: Research is the part of their mission that universities tend to focus their energies on, but education—namely the education of undergraduates—is what the public, not to mention most students, think university is all about. How does undergraduate education at Canadian universities compare? One place to look for answers is the National Survey of Student Engagement, or NSSE. It’s an annual U.S.-based survey of undergraduates that most Canadian universities now take part in. The survey measures the sorts of things—from contact with professors to extracurricular activities—that experts agree are most likely to result in student engagement and learning. Maclean’s has published the results of these surveys for the past three years (go to and click on “rankings”) and they paint a sometimes flattering, sometimes critical picture of Canadian undergraduate education. On the one hand, many Canadian universities recorded “academic challenge” scores above the average of their U.S. peers. On the other hand, levels of “student-faculty interaction” at almost every Canadian school were below the U.S. average.

Money: Canadian universities are generally behind their U.S. peers on two counts: they get less money from government, and they generate less money on their own. Canadian universities have moved aggressively into the fundraising game, but it’s going to be decades or more before they can catch up to their U.S. cousins. The combined value of Canada’s 50 largest university endowments is just over $9 billion. That sounds like a fair chunk of change until you realize that there are five U.S. universities that are each more richly endowed than the entire Canadian university system.

Endowments are the corporate equivalent of a retiree’s investment portfolio: the larger they are, the more income they throw off; that income ends up supporting research, improving the campus and funding scholarships and financial aid. The U.S. leader is Harvard, with an endowment that, even after the market meltdown, is worth an estimated US$26 billion. Canada’s largest university endowment, the U of T’s, is valued at $1.3 billion­—about the same as tiny Amherst College in Amherst, Mass. U of T has more than 70,000 students. Amherst? One thousand six hundred and eighty five.

Size: Relative to their U.S. peers, Canadian universities are generally big. Very big. This is not a point in their favour. Harvard, one of the larger schools in the Ivy League, has an undergraduate body of fewer than 7,000 students. Even “small” Canadian universities such as Brock, Lethbridge, and the University of Regina have more undergrads. UBC has six times as many. U of T? Eight times. Those stats matter because large Canadian universities, the big schools that most students attend, tend to record the weakest NSSE results.

The final score? A mixed result: Canadian universities are big and not necessarily ideal educators of undergraduates, but most nevertheless want to enrol even more students, and we may need them to. They want more public funds, but government budgets are already stretched thin. They receive billions in research support, but the data raises doubts about whether that spending is delivering the best bang for the buck. So what’s the way forward? Next week, we raise these questions and more with five university presidents.