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Canada’s universities ranked (again)

September 16, 2010

For the second time in two weeks, Canada’s universities have been ranked against their global peers. And for the second time in two week, the results are decidedly mixed.

These rankings come courtesy of Times Higher Education (THE), a UK publication that, until this year, collaborated with QS, the publisher of last week’s list, in the production of a single set of rankings. This year, they have split and prepared lists with differing methodologies, which goes some distance to explaining the fairly significant differences between the results. The QS rankings are weighted heavily towards subjective measures such as reputation, whereas the THE rankings employ quantitative measures exclusively, including number of publications, research funding levels, and knowledge transfer. Together they provide an interesting snapshot of how Canadian universities compare to their counterparts around the world.

So how did we do? Here’s a summary and some off-the-top-of-my-head observations:

  • THE lists nine Canadian universities in the top 200, whereas QS ranked ten. There is some overlap between the lists, and those that didn’t make the THE list sat just outside the top 200 on the QS list (I assume the reverse is true, but THE doesn’t provide rankings below the top 200).
  • UofT comes out on top as the only Canadian university to break the top twenty in the THE rankings. Canadian schools on the THE list (and their rankings) are: UofT (17), UBC (30), McGill (35), McMaster (93), UofA (127), UVic (130), UdeM (138), Dalhousie (193), SFU (199).
  • McGill came out on top of the QS rankings. The Canadian schools in top 200 in the QS rankings are: McGill (19), UofT (29), UBC (44), UofA (78), Queen’s (132), UdeM (136), UWaterloo (145), McMaster (162), UWO (164), and UCalgary (165)
  • The only universities to make the top 200 in both lists are UofT, McGill, UBC, McMaster, UofAlberta, and UdeMontreal. These are the so-called G5 of Canadian research universities plus McMaster, which has a strengthened case to be added to the group.
  • Both lists are dominated by American universities. American universities comprise 72 of the top 200 spots on the THE list and 53 on the QS list. In both lists, the top 15 spots are taken by US and UK universities (with the sole exception of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich in 15th spot on the THE list).
  • Canada finished 5th in the THE rankings, behind US (72), UK (29), Germany (14), and Netherlands (10). As noted last year, we haven’t sacrificed quality for equality – while Germany and the Netherlands have more universities in the top 200, neither have any in the top 40 (Canada has three), and Netherlands have no universities in the top 100.
  • Interestingly, the relationship between education spending and world-class universities is unclear. While the US spends far more than any other country on post-secondary education (3% of GDP, nearly double the OECD average of 1.5%), and Canada is the second-highest spender (2.5%), most of the top performing countries spend the OECD average or less. Other top performing countries such as Britain and Germany spend significantly less than the average.
  • The differences between the two lists are illustrative, given that reputation plays such a large role in the QS list and a much reduced role in the THE list. If we assume that the THE list is a more accurate reflection of actual research and teaching quality, then it suggests some universities are being underestimated whereas others have a reputation that exceeds their accomplishments. This has very real consequences, universities that suffer from a poor image will have more difficulty recruiting top-notch students and faculty and research funding, whereas schools whose results do not meet their reputation may see that reputation begin to slip. Examples of the former would include McMaster (top 100 in THE, but ranked 162 in QS) and UVic (130 in THE, but only ranked 241 in QS). Queen’s (132 in QS), for example, enjoys a very strong reputation internationally, but didn’t crack the top 200 in the THE rankings. Even McGill may take notice – it has enjoyed the top Canadian spot and top 20 billing in the QS list for the last four years, but trails both UofT and UBC in the THE rankings. Significantly, when each is ranked by specific disciplines, UofT and UBC rank higher in each discipline than their overall ranking whereas for McGill, the opposite is true. Arguably, this suggests that the reputation enjoyed by UofT and UBC may be more closely related to actual research rather than historical reputation.  (n.b., it is equally possible that the THE methodology is flawed and unable to capture aspects of excellence that are qualitatively appreciated and reflected in the QS rankings…)

Ok, I think that’s enough for today. I could go on and on with these sorts of things. There is a great value in these sorts of exercises, insofar as they provide fodder for discussion. THE will be releasing discipline-specific rankings in the weeks ahead, which I think are potentially more useful. There will be plenty more to discuss.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim permalink
    September 16, 2010 14:10

    Another explanation for the difference is that while (some) universities have become adapted to the QS metrics (and are likely to have tried to game these by focusing on areas where they are deemed to under-perform, regardless of the true value of that area), the THE metrics are newer and therefore more direct. Since the THE system appears to focus on objective measurables rather than opinions, it may also be more stable. Of course, this says nothing of the overall accuracy or value of the individual metrics (all of which are flawed in some way) but it does provide a means of tracking over time. Since size of university is factored into the numbers, the list also indicates that larger institutions have a distinct advantage in terms of research performance, something that is perhaps obvious, but also challenging. It should also be noted that most of the research in the larger universities is not conducted on campus, but in affiliated institutions (particularly hospitals).

    • Rob Annan permalink*
      September 16, 2010 14:25

      Good points Jim,

      I’ll add that it will be more interesting when THE releases its disciplinary rankings in the next few weeks. Apart from a few exceptions, universities can’t be all things to all people – at least not at a universally high level. I’m not even sure it’s a good idea to try – specialization may be a winning strategy, though it seems rare here. It will be interesting to see how our Canadian schools fare in these rankings.

      A note about the small school observation, with which I agree – it makes the performance by Dalhousie (193) and UVic (130!) all the more impressive. Full marks to them both. (full disclosure: I am a UVic alumnus and my wife is a Dalhousie alumna. Coincidence?)

  2. September 17, 2010 11:19

    So according to THE, UVic is a better Canadian school than Queen’s. And Simon Fraser is better than UWO.

    And McMaster is better than Dartmouth, Georgetown and ASU.

    And McGill is better than Northwestern.

    The THE rankings don’t pass the sniff test.

  3. September 20, 2010 08:45

    My problem is in that bit about not all universities being good at everything. And related to that, what counts as “excellence” is contextual.

    If you are a high school student or parent looking at these rankings, you are probably wanting to know what is an excellent school for undergraduate education.

    Others will be interested in excellent research.

    Most people interested in either of those questions are interested in particular areas of study, the quality of which might be obscured by aggregation of the entire university.

    And while I think the point about objective factors versus reputation is valid, some of what a university degree or affiliation does for you is purely about reputation. The fact that reputation is subjective doesn’t make it any less salient in hiring, networking, etc.

    For example, the value of a Harvard MBA is not solely in the quality of the teaching or the content of the course. The value is in the types of people who register for the program, the connections you make among students, the opportunities it affords to build a network with people of influence. (The same could be said for any degree from a university with a reputation like Harvard.)

    So if the movers and shakers in Canadian society still send their kids to UT, McGill and Queens, the value of the reputation of the institution is that by studying there you have opportunities to build relationships with members of existing elites which opens up opportunities you wouldn’t have if you went to Trent, no matter how good Trent might be on any “objective” criteria.

    In particular circles, this is where a degree from St FX has added value, I suspect.

    For those high reputation universities, having their reputation confirmed in rankings such as these has some value. But I’m not sure what it does for the rest of us.

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