Tale of the tape

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


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 macleans.ca/oncampus 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.


Tale of the tape

  1. "Harvard has only 7,000 students"
    Well, I think I can tell you a bit about why that is.
    Last September, I sat down with my Guidance Counsellor at my high school and she asked me if I'd thought about universities to attend. I listed a few, Dalhousie, McGill, UdeM, and then muttered "…but my mum really wants me to look at Harvard." She looked suprised, and then looked over my student record and said that she thought I could get in, and sent me home with the Harvard book. After supper, I sat down with my mum and looked through the book. All seemed well until we go to the 'expenses' page, where we calculated that, in Canadian dollars, it would cost about $50,000 dollars for one year. Which was not happening, as my mum is a single mom with three other kids to support.
    And that is why Harvard has such a small population- only those who can afford to attend, go.

    • You're probably more familiar with these things than I am, Sophia, since as you mention you've just been looking through the book; but since you are one of the most intelligent 14-year-olds anybody around here has ever heard of, i.e. a good candidate for Harvard, I'd advise looking into the fee structure more closely. I may be wrong, but my impression was that Harvard's tuition policy (I don't know about living expenses and books) was very need-blind, i.e. if you don't have $200 000 to shell out in tuition they will cover you (as few do!). (They have so much money that they could actually pay all their undergrads' tuition for them every year, but don't as a point of policy.) You have a good while to think about it, I'm guessing, but I think it would be worth looking through again. Ditto other such schools.

      • We looked. They do need-based loans, for tuition and grants for books and stuff and try to help you find employment, but I don't want to emerge from my undergrad $200, 000 in debt to the University, especially as my goal is to become a medical humanitarian aid worker, a job that requires a medical degree and is not known for its lucre.
        Also, not as much time as you might think, I'm entering Grade 11/12 in the fall.

        • Sophia,

          I'm a high school teacher in Ontario, and I often hear of students that want to go to schools like Harvard, Oxford, Yale and Cambridge. When I applied to university ten years ago, I wanted to go to Oxford (my dad's from England), but the cost was astronomical (and they don't have aid programs like U.S. universities). One of my guidance counselors told me about his friend who did his undergraduate degree at York (the Canadian one) and then went to Oxford for his Ph.D.. I decided to go to Queen's, a smaller university with a good reputation in Canada. I figured if I wanted to go to law school, medical school or for a Ph.D., I could go to one of those famous universities later (and save a lot of money). Canada offers excellent undergraduate education, although we should be doing even better. I'd say that if you're thinking of Harvard you should be looking at places like McGill, Dalhousie and U of T. Are they Harvard? No, but they'll provide you with an excellent education and you can see where you go from there.

          Also, you're likely to be in massive debt after medical school anyway. Most of my friends who went that route are over $100,000 in debt now (something else that our government needs to address).

          If you want my advice, which I know you didn't ask for, I'd say that you should look into the kind of aid that Harvard is willing to offer you and go there if you can swing it, but don't think that Canada can't offer you a wonderful education just the same.

          • Hear hear, one can definitely get a great education at Canadian universities, and they are infinitely more affordable than the US ones; I'd also look at my students in the American schools I worked at and wonder if they were really getting anything more for their money as undergrads than what I got at my Canadian school, and I'd say generally not. They are definitely more generous to their graduate students than we are, however, so it's not a bad plan to consider US schools for graduate work (though their professional schools, law & medicine, are even more expensive than ours, I think).

    • I say apply and see what happens. Otherwise you will never know. If it does not work, at least you tried. If you get in, then think about money.

    • Sophia –
      I'm a Canadian, a graduate of Harvard and on faculty at Harvard.
      You didn't look very carefully at the Harvard materials.
      If your parents make less than US $ 200,000 / year you do not pay tuition at Harvard – and Harvard admissions are 100% need-blind (and have been for over 30 years). Harvard admits less than 7% of its applicant pool so it won't be easy getting in – but if you get in it won't cost you more than a Canadian university.
      You may also want to look at Yale (no tuition for income of less than $180k) or Princeton and Stanford ($200k).

  2. I don't agree with the thesis of much of this article. It seems to be looking for a 'bad news' story that isn't there.

    5 universities in the top 100 in the Times Survey, and the US is held up as 'outperforming' with 37. But, by population, we outperform them in that measure. It also mentions Top 100, the ranking actually provides the top 200 – in that group, Canada has 12 universities compared to 9 on the part of Australia, so it depends on what your definition of excellence is.

    Another question they raise is access. Do we need to increase the number of students graduating from university? Perhaps. Graduation rates at many top-ranked Canadian universities hover from 60-70%, perhaps not at the most competitive 'big 5' that Maclean's is focusing on in this piece, where the best students choose to go and thus the graduation rates are usually 80% or better. Is it a question of access, then, or supporting success?

    If you want to punch above your weight in the top 100, that usually means expensive institutions (see Sophia's comment) that serve a small number of undergraduates, at least it will here in the North American market for talent.

    In terms of looking at simple numbers of graduates, third and fourth tier US institutions often struggle to achieve quality, so this is an important question to ask when simply comparing number of graduates – what are the graduates doing and what quality of education have they had? This kind of information is really difficult to collect. More seats is not necessarily the best answer.

  3. The biggest difference between US universities and Canadian universities is that many of those in the US are private while in Canada the system is overwhelmingly public, supported by the taxpayers and fees. Until this changes we will not improve our position significantly. BC created legistlation in 2004 to encourage and control private university developments, but only two have emerged and they are small and insignificant on the national stage. They have attracted some hostility from the faculty unions despite their current small size: this is probably a certain indicator that they are a good thing! Maybe they are the embryos of future excellence? As tax payers rather than tax consumers they should be welcome.

  4. As a PhD student I find the lack of funding available disgusting.

    I've been in university a toatal of 10 years (non- consecutive) When I have children, they are not going to university. Waste of time.

    All speak of Canadian universities is smoke and mirrors: there is no money, access is horrible, there are no resources, and the Government of Canada does nothing to help us.

    You want to produce highly educated people, start giving graduate students more money, so they can focus on their studies and not on paying the rent and the other bills.

    If graduate programs were properly funded students could finish quicker, start working at their respective fields, and start making a real contibution.

  5. That's a huge amount of value and it seems like it's rising.