How Canada’s Universities Rank Globally (Hint: Not As Well As They Used To)

Canada’s universities are falling behind in a ranking of global institutions, and one key reason may be the country’s focus on increasing the population of international students, leading to larger class sizes.

The latest edition of the QS World University Rankings shows that 17 of 26 ranked Canadian universities have fallen on the charts, compared to last year.

The University of Toronto is one notable exception. It remains Canada’s highest-ranked university, rising to 28th place worldwide, from 31st place last year. The University of British Columbia, Canada’s third-highest ranked school after Montreal’s McGill University, regained its top-50 position and now ranks 47th in the world.

Perhaps most worrying is that 24 of the 26 Canadian universities saw their rankings fall in the “academic reputation” category. That’s likely related to the fact that Canadian academics are falling behind on getting published and being cited by other academics two key areas linked to reputation.

Ben Sowter, research director at higher education analysis firm Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), which has been issuing these university rankings for the past 15 years, says Canadian academics have been putting out more research, and have been getting cited more often — but the rest of the world is upping its game much faster.

“Vying for that academic attention is an increasingly competitive endeavour and our analysis suggests that Canada has not been keeping pace,” he said in a statement.

“Canada hasn’t fetishized research output the way other countries have,” said Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates. “Second, depending on the years one uses for comparisons, one could make a pretty good argument that there has been an erosion of funding at our top institutions.”

Watch: Canada’s highest-ranked university programs (story continues below)

In part to make up for funding shortfalls, Canadian schools have increasingly turned to international students, whose unsubsidized tuition fees are much higher than those of domestic students. Canada’s best performance in this year’s rankings came in the “international student ratio” category, with 13 of 26 schools showing a higher relative score than last year.

But this focus on international students may be harming Canadian universities’ performance in some ways.

According to Mel Broitman, who spent 15 years recruiting international students for the University of Windsor, the influx of foreign students in recent years has resulted in larger class sizes, to the detriment of students.

“I think it would be fantastic to have a class of 15 to 30 engaged kids and have a really good class,” he said in a recent interview with CBC News. “Could I have that class with 100 to 200 [students]? No way … This has diluted the quality of education in our classrooms.”

Jack Moran, a spokesperson for QS, says Canadian universities are “struggling to provide students with the low student-teacher ratio that we know is conducive to excellent learning.”

Of the 26 Canadian universities in the rankings, 21 have seen their position for “faculty-student ratio” fall this year, Moran said in an email to HuffPost Canada, “indicating a systemic, rather than institutional, deficiency.”

Moran said schools in other parts of the world, particularly in Asia, are rising in the ranks because they are getting the resources they need to improve their research and reputation.

“Here, Asia’s gain is proving to be Canada’s loss.”

All four of the top spots in this year’s rankings went to U.S. schools, with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) taking top spot for the seventh straight year. The highest-ranking non-U.S. school is the U.K.’s Oxford University, at fifth place, while China cracked the top 20 for the first time ever, with Tsinghua University taking 17th spot.

The QS rankings were determined using a number of sources, including opinions from some 83,000 academics worldwide, feedback from 44,000 employers, and an analysis of some 13 million academic papers, to determine which universities were cited.

Each school is scored on six criteria:

  • Academic reputation
  • Employer reputation
  • Faculty/student ratio
  • Citations per faculty
  • International faculty ratio
  • International student ratio