Measuring excellence

Maclean’s has spent 21 years gathering the best numerical data to compare the quality of Canadian schools. This year, there’s a new twist.

Measuring excellence

Andrew Tolson/Maclean's

Maclean’s places universities in one of three categories, recognizing the differences in types of institutions, levels of research funding, the diversity of offerings, and the breadth and depth of graduate and professional programs. Primarily Undergraduate universities are largely focused on undergraduate education, tend to be smaller in size, and have relatively fewer graduate programs and graduate students. Those in the Comprehensive category have a significant degree of research activity and a wide range of programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels, including professional degrees. Medical Doctoral universities offer a broad range of Ph.D. programs and research; as well, all universities in this category have medical schools, which sets them apart in terms of the size of research grants.

This year, Maclean’s revised its classification of universities—the first change since 1992 when the categories were created—moving Brock, Ryerson and Wilfrid Laurier from the Primarily Undergraduate category to the Comprehensive category. The move is in response to both the number of graduate offerings at these universities and the size of the student body. Ryerson, with 20,000 full-time students, has always been an anomaly in terms of size in the Primarily Undergraduate category, where the full-time population at other schools ranges from roughly 2,000 to 7,000 students. Meanwhile, Brock and Wilfrid Laurier have doubled in size over the past decade with full-time student enrolment at each now standing at 15,000. In recent years, all three universities have significantly increased their graduate offerings. This trend, particularly at the master’s level, is not uncommon at some of the institutions in the Primarily Undergraduate category, but coupled with the size of the student body, the increase in graduate programs at Brock, Ryerson and Wilfrid Laurier translates into a lot more graduate students on campus.

In each category, Maclean’s ranks the institutions on performance indicators in six broad areas, allocating a weight to each indicator. Primarily Undergraduate and Comprehensive universities are ranked on 13 performance measures; Medical Doctoral universities are ranked on 14. Figures include data from all federated and affiliated institutions. The magazine does not rank schools with fewer than 1,000 full-time students, those that are restrictive due to a religious or specialized mission, newly designated universities or those that are not members of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC).

The rankings are based on the most recent and publicly available data. Statistics Canada provides student and faculty numbers, as well as data for total research income and all five financial indicators: operating budget, spending on student services, scholarships and bursaries, library expenses and acquisitions. As Statistics Canada data are being released later than usual this year, Maclean’s used the data sets from last year for these numbers (for fiscal and academic year 2008-2009). The Canadian Association of Research Libraries provides figures used for the library holdings indicators; the numbers used for this year’s calculations are for 2009-2010. Data for the social sciences and humanities research grants indicator and the medical/science research grants indicator are for fiscal year 2010-2011 and obtained directly from the three major federal granting agencies: the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). In addition, Maclean’s collects information on dozens of student and faculty awards from 48 administering agencies, and sends more than 11,000 reputational surveys to university officials at each ranked institution, high school principals and guidance counsellors, CEOs, recruiters and the heads of a wide variety of national and regional organizations.

Maclean’s weights the rankings as follows:

STUDENTS & CLASSES (20 per cent of final score).

Maclean’s collects data on the success of the student body at winning national academic awards (weighted 10 per cent) over the previous five years. The list covers 40 fellowship and prize programs, encompassing nearly 19,000 individual awards from 2006 through 2010. The count includes such prestigious awards as the Rhodes scholarships and the Fulbright awards, as well as scholarships from professional associations and the three federal granting agencies. Each university’s total of student awards is divided by its number of full-time students, yielding a count of awards relative to each institution’s size.

To gauge students’ access to professors, Maclean’s also measures the number of full-time-equivalent students per full-time faculty member (10 per cent). This student-faculty ratio includes all students, graduate as well as undergraduate.

FACULTY (20 per cent).

In assessing the calibre of faculty, Maclean’s calculates the number who have won major national awards over the past five years, including the distinguished Killam, Molson and Steacie prizes, the Royal Society of Canada awards, the 3M Teaching Fellowships and nearly 40 other award programs covering a total of 881 individual awards (eight per cent). To scale for institution size, the award count for each university is divided by each school’s number of full-time faculty.

In addition, the magazine measures the success of faculty in securing research grants from SSHRC, NSERC and CIHR. Maclean’s takes into account both the number and the dollar value received in the previous year, and divides the totals by each institution’s full-time faculty count. Research grants are reported by how many are awarded to the primary investigator on a project. Social sciences and humanities grants (six per cent) and medical/science grants (six per cent) are tallied as separate indicators.

RESOURCES (12 per cent).

This section examines the amount of money available for current expenses per weighted full-time-equivalent student (six per cent). Students are weighted according to their level of study—bachelor, master’s or doctorate—and their program of study.

To broaden the scope of the research picture, Maclean’s also measures total research dollars (six per cent). This figure, calculated relative to the size of each institution’s full-time faculty, includes income from sponsored research, such as grants and contracts, federal, provincial and foreign government funding, and funding from non-governmental organizations.

STUDENT SUPPORT (13 per cent).

To evaluate the assistance available to students, Maclean’s examines the percentage of the budget spent on student services (6.5 per cent) as well as scholarships and bursaries (6.5 per cent). Expenditures are measured as they are reported to the Canadian Association of University Business Officers.

LIBRARY (15 per cent).

This section assesses the breadth and currency of the collection. Universities receive points for the number of volumes and volume equivalents per number of full-time-equivalent students (five per cent for Primarily Undergraduate and Comprehensive, four per cent for Medical Doctoral). The total holdings measurement is used in the Medical Doctoral category (one per cent), acknowledging the importance of extensive on-campus collections in those universities.

As well, Maclean’s measures the percentage of a university’s operating budget allocated to library services (five per cent) and the percentage of the library budget spent on updating the collection (five per cent). Recognizing a shift from the traditional library model—books on shelves—to an electronic-access model, Maclean’s captures spending on electronic resources in both the library expenses and acquisitions measurements.

REPUTATION (20 per cent).

This section reflects a university’s reputation in the community at large. For the reputational survey, Maclean’s solicits the views of those whose professions put them in a position to form opinions about how well universities are meeting the needs of students and how ready their graduates are to embark on successful careers. Surveys are sent to university officials at each ranked institution, high school principals and guidance counsellors from every province and territory, the heads of a wide variety of national and regional organizations, and CEOs and recruiters at corporations large and small. Respondents are asked to rate Canada’s universities in three categories: Highest Quality, Most Innovative, and Leaders of Tomorrow. Best Overall represents the sum of the scores for all three categories. The reputational survey has a regional as well as a national component that divides the country into four key areas: the western provinces, Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. All respondents completed a national survey; university officials, principals and guidance counsellors also completed regional ones, allowing them the opportunity to focus on the region they know best. The national and regional surveys are combined to produce the final results. The survey form reminds participants that Maclean’s does not expect them to be familiar with every university, and that we are asking them to provide their views only on those universities about which they have an informed opinion. More than 11,000 surveys were sent out this year, achieving an overall response rate of 7.1 per cent. Broken out by groups, the response rates were: 29 per cent for university officials; five per cent for high school principals and guidance counsellors; five per cent for CEOs, corporate recruiters and heads of organizations.


Additional data are obtained directly from universities or from university websites—whenever such data are available and comparable—as well as from Common University Data Ontario (CUDO) and Atlantic Common University Data Set (ACUDS), initiatives of the Ontario and Atlantic universities. These figures are not used in the rankings calculations, as not all universities make this information available. As a measure of student quality, Maclean’s presents incoming students’ average high school grades. The figures are for full-time students attending university in their home province. No conversion formula is applied to incoming grade averages to adjust for provincial differences or varying admission policies, although CÉGEP grades are converted from an R score to a percentage grade. As well, it should be noted that certain universities, to enhance accessibility, accept students with lower grades. To provide a more detailed picture of grade averages, Maclean’s displays grades divided into six grade ranges, extending from less than 70 per cent to 95 per cent and higher.

As a measure of drawing power, Maclean’s counts the proportion of out-of-province students and international students in the first-year undergraduate class, as well as the percentage of international graduate students for schools in the Medical Doctoral and Comprehensive categories.

In taking stock of retention rates, Maclean’s asks for the percentage of full-time, first-year students who return in second year. While many factors can affect a student’s choice not to return—personal considerations, or a decision to transfer to a program unavailable at their home university—student retention, on the whole, reflects a university’s success in keeping its students on course.

Maclean’s also measures graduation rates by tracking an incoming cohort of full-time, first-year undergraduate students to determine if they received a degree within seven years. The graduation numbers include students in three-year programs, as well as those in such second-entry programs as medicine, law and education—programs that have a highly selective admissions process. As such, the number of these programs at any given university can affect the overall graduation rate.

In assessing faculty, Maclean’s counts the percentage of full-time instructional faculty members who have a Ph.D., a first professional degree or a terminal degree in their field.

Finally, in taking a look at the classroom experience, Maclean’s presents figures on average undergraduate class sizes at the first- and second-year level, as well as at the third- and fourth-year level.

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