Maclean’s University Rankings 2021: Our methodology

For three decades, Maclean’s has collected the data and crunched the numbers to evaluate Canadian universities
(Courtesy of Marianne Helm/University of Manitoba)
Photo taken Monday, September 23, 2019, at the University of Manitoba. (Courtesy of Marianne Helm/University of Manitoba)

This year marks Maclean’s 30th annual university rankings, continuing a mandate established in 1991: to provide essential information in a comprehensive package to help students choose the university that best suits their needs.

Maclean’s places universities in one of three categories, recognizing the differences in types of institutions, levels of research funding, diversity of offerings and breadth and depth of graduate and professional programs. Primarily Undergraduate universities tend to be smaller in size and have 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; all universities in this category have medical schools.

In each category, Maclean’s ranks the institutions in five broad areas based on 13 performance indicators, allocating a weight to each indicator. 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 because of a religious or specialized mission, newly designated universities or those that are not members of the national association Universities Canada.

The rankings use the most recent and publicly available data. Statistics Canada provides student and faculty numbers, as well as data for total research income and five financial indicators: operating budget; spending on student services; scholarships and bursaries; library expenses; and acquisitions. Financial figures are for fiscal year 2017-18; student numbers are for 2017; faculty numbers are for 2018. Data for the social sciences and humanities research grants indicator and the medical-science research grants indicator are for fiscal year 2019-20 and were obtained directly from the three major federal granting agencies: the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (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 more than 50 organizations, and conducts a reputational survey, canvassing the opinions of university faculty and senior administrators, as well as a variety of business people across the country. A second major survey is aimed at students, asking them directly about their university experiences.

Maclean’s weights the rankings as follows.


(28 per cent of final score) Maclean’s collects data on the success of students at winning national academic awards (weighted 10 per cent) over the previous five years. 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 per-student count.

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

An important element to the overall assessment is the student satisfaction survey (10 per cent). Maclean’s surveyed thousands of students, asking them about their experience on campus. In the end, almost 14,000 students responded to the 10 questions that make up the indicator. We asked students to rate their course instructors (professors and lecturers), student-life staff, administrative staff and academic advising staff. Opportunities for extracurricular activities and residence life were evaluated, as well as three increasingly important areas: opportunities for experiential learning, mental health services and the university’s actions to prevent sexual assault on campus. In recognition of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, which include several related to educational issues, we asked students to rate how well their university is making Indigenous histories, cultures and languages visible on campus. The question on course instructors contributes the most weight to this indicator, at 25 per cent; extracurricular contributes 15 per cent; the other eight questions contribute five to 10 per cent each.


(20 per cent) In assessing the calibre of faculty, Maclean’s calculates the number who have won major 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 (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.

This year, Maclean’s did not use the bibliometric indicator that has been used in the rankings for the past five years; it measures the number of research publications produced by faculty and how often these works are cited.


(22 per cent) This section examines the amount of money available for current expenses per full-time-equivalent student (five 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 (eight 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.

Libraries are an important resource for students. 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 acquisitions, including electronic resources (four per cent).

Student support

(15 per cent) To evaluate the assistance available to students, Maclean’s examines the percentage of the budget spent on student services (7.5 per cent), as well as scholarships and bursaries (7.5 per cent). Expenditures are measured as they are reported to the Canadian Association of University Business Officers.


(15 per cent) 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. Faculty and senior administrators at Canadian universities, as well as a variety of business people across the country, were asked in an online survey 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. When completing the reputational survey, university faculty and senior administrators also complete a regional component that divides the country into four key areas: the western provinces, Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. This allows them the opportunity to focus on the region they know best. This year, because of a low response rate, Maclean’s did not include input from guidance counsellors in the reputational survey.

Additional information

Additional data on areas of interest to students are obtained directly from the universities but are not used in the rankings calculations.

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 CEGEP grades are converted to a percentage grade. To provide a more detailed picture of grade averages, Maclean’s displays grades divided into seven grade ranges, extending from less than 70 per cent to 95 per cent and higher.

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 his or her 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.

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 (other highest-level degree) in their field.

Finally, in looking 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.