Eduvation Blog

Opinions, Facts, Rankings and Trends


Good morning, and TGIF!

I don’t often have to issue a correction, but I really must confess I erred late Wednesday night when I attributed a sidebar quote to Kamala Harris, when in fact it was Mike Pence who uttered it to her:

“You’re entitled to your own opinion. You’re not entitled to your own facts.”Mike Pence to Kamala Harris in the US Vice-Presidential Debate last night

As the New York Daily News explains, it’s an old line from former Senator Daniel Moynihan. I’m reluctant to watch the whole 90-minute debate just to figure out how on earth it happened – but let’s just say it’s a reminder that I must stay alert to confirmation bias.

Since apparently politics takes me into treacherous waters, I’ll avoid it entirely today, and instead focus on the other great debate in higher ed: institutional rankings. (The 2021 Maclean’s rankings landed on my desk yesterday.) Rankings certainly have debatable value as objective metrics of anything, and are downright dangerous to use as a basis for funding formulae, but they nonetheless capture the attention of academics, administrators, media and sometimes politicians like little else about higher education.

Rankings certainly contribute to institutional brands and student recruitment, whether we like it or not – and as we’ll see, can impact the price premium institutions can charge international students, too. And the COVID19 pandemic, and its resulting economic shocks, will likely shake up the global rankings for years to come. (Also, if you need a laugh, check out the ranking of “Dumbest University Rankings,” and the “Atlantic Bubble Song” towards the end of this issue.)

Universities try to assemble comprehensive data about research funding, publication metrics, economic impact on their regions, graduate successes, quality processes and accreditations – but the human mind loves the bare-knuckles competition, the listicle-like simplicity, of an annual ranking!

Never mind that most university rankings are heavily weighted toward reputational surveys, which are really just an effort to turn subjective opinion into quantitative fact through the magic of multiplication…  Even citation scores are influenced by prejudices and reputational perceptions.

Come to think of it, we’re right back where I started, with Moynihan!


Global Rankings

2021 QS World U Ranking

The 2021 QS World University Rankings were released back in June, topped by MIT (for the 9th straight year), Stanford, Harvard, CalTech, and Oxford. The rankings are calculated using 4 ratios and 2 perception metrics. QS surveys >100,000 individuals working in higher ed, and weights the “academic reputation” metric at 40% of the overall ranking. QS asks almost 50,000 employers “to identify those institutions from which they source the most competent, innovative, effective graduates,” and the “employer reputation” metric counts as 10% of the overall ranking. 7 Canadian universities made the top 200: uToronto (#25), McGill (#31), UBC (#45), uMontréal (#118), uAlberta (#119), McMaster (#144), and uWaterloo (#166). 26 Asian universities are now in the top 100.   QS

2021 THE World U Ranking

The 2021 Times Higher Ed World University Rankings were released Sep 2, topped by Oxford, Stanford, Harvard, CalTech, and MIT. The rankings are calculated using 11 statistics (including citations, research revenue, and various ratios) and a reputation survey of academics. 30 Canadian universities made the list, and 8 made the top 200: uToronto (#18), UBC (#34), McGill (#40), McMaster (#69), uMontréal (#73), uAlberta (#131), uOttawa (#145), and uCalgary (#200).  Times Higher Ed

Price Premium of Strong Brands

Education data consultancy Studymove reports that Australian universities with higher positions in the QS World U Rankings have higher average tuition fees for international students as well. “There has been a clear inverse correlation between fees and rankings for undergraduate programs over the last 5 years.” Some other factors, like location, graduate outcomes, and student experience, also permit premium pricing.  PIE News


2021 Maclean’s Rankings

Hard to believe it’s been 30 years now, that Maclean’s has been publishing their annual university rankings. The scope and quality have certainly changed over the years, as journalism staff and budgets have changed, and university administrations have boycotted or collaborated in the information gathering process. Here’s what I glean from the 2021 University Rankings

Overall Rankings

We all know ranking an entire university is an exercise in gross oversimplification, but nonetheless, the winners will bask in glory, and the losers will dispute methodology. (Notably Maclean’s stopped using bibliometric data for any of its calculations this year, and omitted input from high school guidance counsellors because of a low response rate to the reputation survey.)

The top 6 Medical-Doctoral u’s haven’t changed much since last year (McGill, uToronto, UBC, McMaster, Queen’s, and uAlberta) – but there were some subtle shifts. uAlberta, Western, and uMontréal appear to have dropped ever so slightly (depending on how you read the tie scores). Could that be the impact of ignoring bibliometrics? Massive budget cuts at uAlberta may accelerate that movement in years to come. On the other hand, uOttawa has bumped up the rankings several places. (Bibliometrics tend to favour research in English, so perhaps that played a role here too.)

Among Comprehensive u’s, the top 5 haven’t changed (SFU, uVic, uWaterloo, uGuelph, and Carleton), but UNB and Brock seem to have moved up somewhat. As usual, smaller schools in rural settings (especially in Nova Scotia) dominate the top 10 Primarily Undergraduate u’s (MtA, uLeth, Acadia, SMU, UNBC, StFX, Bishop’s, Lakehead, Trent, and UPEI). The rank order has juggled considerably since last year, but the only schools moving far are UNBC and Trent (who seem to have fallen a couple of rungs), and uLeth (who has climbed to #2, after #5 last year, and the 6 years before that at #3). uLeth attributes the improvement to a “continued focus on investing in its students and pushing the boundaries of research across all disciplines,” and points to strong scores for student services funding, research grants, student satisfaction and reputation.

Purely Reputation

I remain convinced that we should be able to write a formula that could predict the phenomena of university “reputation.” In Canada, it would be some function of institutional age, size, research funding, geographic proximity to population centres, and admissions selectivity. The reputation survey work I did for more than a decade showed very slow and subtle changes over time; most short-term bumps or drops in reputation were more attributable to changes in survey respondents than changes in the institutions themselves.

Maclean’s surveys university faculty, senior administrators, and some sampling of business people across Canada, about institutions within their region. As you might expect, the 2021 Reputation Rankings are led by uToronto, UBC, Waterloo, McGill, McMaster, uAlberta, Queen’s and Western (in that order). Maybe it matters that UBC has moved back into second place this year, since it was ranked behind uWaterloo in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020. (UBC was last #2 in 2016.) But perhaps that’s the impact of methodology changes. McMaster placed #5 in 2016, dropped to #7 in 2017, rose to #6 in 2018, and has been back at #5 for 2019, 2020, and now 2021. Western and Queen’s have been jockeying over 7th place since 2018.

Rankings by Program

For the 6th year now, Maclean’s also ranked top Canadian u’s for 9 specific programs, but this year it was based purely on perceived “program reputation” and “research reputation,” from a survey of 1,000 professors, deans and chairs. Like the overall reputation rankings, UBC and uToronto sit atop most of the program-specific rankings this year, joined by McGill and uAlberta (in various orders) for Biology, Business, Enviro Sciand Psychology; by Waterloo and McGill for Comp Sci, Engineering, and Math; and by uAlberta and uCalgary for Education. Nursing is led by uToronto, uAlberta, UBC and McMaster.

Rankings by Student Sat  

Maclean’s measures student satisfaction through an email survey of students, to gather their feedback on faculty, staff, residence life, extracurriculars, mental health services, sexual assault prevention, Indigenization, and experiential learning opportunities. (Student responses have been dropping steadily, from 24,000 in 2018 and 23,000 in 2019, to 18,000 in 2020 and now 14,000 for 2021.) Still, the top-ranked institutions show little change in the last few years: uSherbrooke, uLaval, and Queen’s (medical-doctoral), uGuelph, Brock, and Carleton (comprehensive), and Bishop’s, MtA, and Nipissing (primarily undergraduate).

The biggest upset seems to be Laurier, which came in at #1 (comprehensive) in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020 – but now has fallen to #5. All 10 components of student sat seem to have dropped this year, but in particular sex assault prevention fell from #3 to #10, experiential learning from #2 to #9, Indigenous visibility from #3 to #7, and residence living from #1 to #5. Perhaps student dissatisfaction with experiential learning or residence life could result from the pandemic lockdown, although that ought to affect other schools too. (I imagine folks at WLU hope things will return to normal soon.)


Ranking Trends

Globally, Asian universities have been rising in the rankings and disrupting the traditional league tables. The explosion of COVID19 research and media coverage is expected to further disrupt rankings going forward…

UK Universities Losing Prestige

Thanks to Brexit and budget cuts, declining research impact and student:faculty ratios, and declining international student numbers, three-quarters of UK universities had slipped in the 2020 QS World University Rankings for the fourth year running (since the Brexit vote). MIT, Stanford, and Harvard held on to the top 3 spots, but other US institutions have lost ground. 26 Asian universities (in China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan) have risen into the top 100, contributing to the dislocation of others. Guardian

Pandemic Impacts on Rankings

The Chief Data Officer of the Times Higher Ed World University Rankings expects the impact of COVID19 to be measurable in the 2022 and 2023 rankings. Bibliometric data for the 2022 rankings will be distorted by COVID19 research, and reputation data may shift based on the profile of ongoing research (such as at Johns Hopkins, Oxford, and Imperial College London). By 2023, the rankings will be affected by changes in income and research output this spring, as well as international enrolment, staff and collaborations this fall. THE

Gradual Shifts in Global Rankings

A self-professed rankings watchdog anticipates that international student mobility will be reduced for several years due to COVID19, and may shift toward new destinations based on their effectiveness managing the pandemic. (He suggests Germany, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and New Zealand will do well.) The resulting budget impacts for Australia, UK and North American universities in particular may cause mergers, closures, and austerity – “none of this will attract students from anywhere.” The academic ability of incoming students may also suffer from months of online study, compounded by the abrupt shift away from A-Level and SAT scores in the admissions process. All of this could cause fluctuations in the rankings, and “as the number of talented researchers and funding declines in the West, there will be an acceleration of the convergence of Western and Asian universities in global rankings.” It will take several years before the impacts on metrics make their way into global rankings: THE averages survey responses over 2 years, and QS over 5.  University World News

China is the “Real Winner”

Although THE ranked Oxford as #1, and US universities have a strong grip on the next 9 positions (aside from Cambridge at #6), Asian universities are the real winners, argues Nick Morrison in Forbes. Mid-rank universities have been falling in the global rankings for years, and universities in Asia, particularly China, have been climbing rapidly. Over the past 5 years, China has grown from 2 to 7 universities in the top 200, while the US has lost 4. Tsinghua U made its debut in the top 20 this year, and the citation scores of middle-ranked Chinese and US institutions has started to converge for the first time. There are now 16 Asian universities in the top 100, and most are climbing. Layoffs and budget cuts at US campuses will impact research productivity and eventually institutional reputation as well, whereas the Chinese government has seen to it that its best universities remain “largely unscathed financially from the pandemic.”  Times Higher Ed

“For several years we have been observing a slow shift in global higher education as Asian universities have climbed at the expense of their western counterparts. This trend is likely to accelerate further as the coronavirus pandemic… [and] a possible deep and long-lasting global recession… could herald the start of a dramatic re-balancing of the global knowledge economy.” Phil Baty, Chief Knowledge Officer, Times Higher Ed


Dumbest Rankings Ever

Over the years I’ve observed rankings of universities for everything from vegan food options and environmental sustainability, to alcohol consumption and STDs, but the Registrar at uNottingham has formalized an annual league table of the dumbest of the dumb…

The Dumbest University Rankings 2020

In his third annual ranking of dumb university rankings, Paul Greatrix observes his methodology has been tweaked “in entirely arbitrary and quite opaque ways” to ensure newsworthy changes from previous years. The top 10 are almost all UK-based, including The Lamest (devoid of fun), The Tallest (buildings), The Coldest (in the US), Best for Cyclists, Most Marijuana (US), and Most Instagrammable (UK). I’m impressed by some of the also-rans: 10 Greatest Clock Towers, Top 10 University Tunnels, and especially the Fictional Universitiesranking – from Starfleet Academy and Gallifrey U to Greendale Community College and Monsters U.  WonkHE


CdnPSE Updates


McMaster U reports a student has tested positive for COVID19, after spending time in the John Hodgins Engineering building. (Total now 5 this fall, I believe).  McMaster

uSaskatchewan reports a positive case of COVID19 at the College of Medicine. Saskatoon Star-Phoenix


WINTER 2021:

Acadia U’s senate has decided to “continue with a mixed-delivery format” for the Winter 2021 term. “Together we can continue to keep Nova Scotia the safest place in North America, if not the world.”  Acadia

Capilano U will continue to deliver most courses and programs online in the Spring 2021 term (starting Jan 4), with “certain courses” in-person or blended.  CapU

OCAD U will continue to deliver most programs remotely for the Winter 2021 term, although with a small number of optional undergrad hybrid courses. OCADU



College of New Caledonia reports stable domestic student enrolment this fall, but a decline of ~200 international students, and ~90 Indigenous students.  CKPG

UNBC reports an increase of +0.9% in headcount this fall, but a decline of -3% in FTEs. “It’s hard to take 5 classes online.”  CKPG



Acadia U is closing its swimming pool, both because it has been operating at a deficit for years, and because the pool access and change room design pose COVID19 risks.  Acadia

Thompson Rivers U has had to lay off just 14 employees (or 20?) as of Oct 1, instead of the 80 anticipated in June, while others are taking reduced hours. “Several administration positions have also been affected.” Including early retirements, about 50 employees have been impacted by pandemic-related cuts.  CFJC


Just a reminder: my Google Sheet summing up evolving data on ~100 CdnPSEs is available here. (Please let me know if you have corrections!)



As Acadia U president Peter Ricketts writes, Nova Scotia is “the safest place in North America” but continued vigilance is necessary to “ensure that our actions do not plunge us back into the kinds of restrictive practices that we saw earlier in the year, and which some other parts of Canada are now experiencing again.” The CBC comedians at 22 Minutes take such vigilance a bit over the top…


The Atlantic Bubble Song

CBC’s 22 Minutes troop is back for a 28th season with an upbeat, amusing 2-min ditty that captures the way Maritimers feel about tourists right now: “Frig Off!” NS, NB, PEI and NL have been remarkably successful at flattening the curve, and they want to keep it that way through the second wave. “We’ll all get vaccinated and you’ll be so glad you waited but for now we must implore you to stay the blazes home.”  YouTube

Phew!  I had intended to finish off the “Mental Health” theme today, but got distracted by Maclean’s and well…

Instead, I’m going to give MYSELF a mental health day, and take an extra-long weekend. I’ll be back in your inbox next Wednesday. Meanwhile, I wish you and yours a lovely Thanksgiving weekend, even if you have to spend it together on Zoom.

Stay safe and be well!

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Please answer the question below to confirm that you are not a spambot * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

All contents copyright © 2014 Eduvation Inc. All rights reserved.