Why Canadian Universities Struggle To Compete On The Global Stage

09/16/2016 03:00 EDT | Updated 09/16/2016 03:07 EDT
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The Convocation Hall of the University of Toronto; CN Tower in distance

Success in higher education depends on attracting highly qualified professionals -- graduate students, researchers, and professors -- to universities. In a world dominated by brands, Canadian universities lag far behind their American and European counterparts to attract global talent to Canada. To compete globally, Canadian universities must achieve a global brand recognition.

Already, engineering research labs in Canada are predominantly staffed by foreign-born graduate students. Even in business, not enough applicants are available in Canada to fill the 9,000-plus available MBA slots. In fact, in a given 15-month period, fewer than 2,000 individuals in Canada satisfy the minimum admission requirements for MBA. No wonder, a large number of students pursuing MBA in Canada have completed undergraduate degrees abroad.

Earlier in September, a global ranking of top universities mentioned not a single Canadian university among the top 10 or 20. The highest-ranking Canadian universities, McGill at 30 and the University of Toronto at 32, in the QS University Rankings should make academics and governments curious about the reasons that have kept the Canadian universities from claiming the top positions on a global stage.

A review of the top-ranked universities, e.g., MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Chicago, and Oxford, reveals some distinct structural differences with those in Canada. For starters, the top-ranked universities have a much higher concentration of graduate students. Furthermore, these institutions, especially in the United States, have a student-to-faculty ratio of fewer than 10. In Canada, undergraduate students predominantly dominate enrolments with much higher student-to-faculty ratios.


While this comment is based on the QS University rankings, several other rankings, including the UK-based Times Higher Education, Shanghai Ranking Consultancy Services, US News and World Report, and others also exist. Given their different evaluation criteria, the rankings are not consistent in their evaluation of universities. However, they are consistent in placing not a single Canadian University in the top-15.

Whereas numerous other factors, in addition to the concentration of graduate students and faculty-student ratios, influence rankings, university administrators and governments in Canada should think and act strategically to help improve the rankings of Canadian universities, which is necessary to attract global academic talent.

At the same time, Canada should reconsider how it funds higher education where public sector universities are funded based on bums in seats model. More students mean more tuition and government support income for the universities. Thus, the schools expand undergraduate students' enrollment hoping that the marginal increase in revenue will exceed the marginal increase in costs, consequently diverting the surplus revenue to research and other activities.

The overwhelmingly undergraduate student population at Canadian universities is similar to that of Colleges or non-research universities in the United States. Even at the highest-ranking Canadian universities, i.e., McGill and the University of Toronto, graduate students constitute fewer than 35 per cent of the student body. At Harvard University, in comparison, at least two graduate students are enrolled for each undergraduate. Similarly, at Columbia, Chicago, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Stanford, and University College London graduate students outnumber undergraduates.


A structural change in the student body makeup is needed to shift the focus of the top-ranked universities in Canada on research and learning, rather than teaching large undergraduate classes. This is not to suggest that undergraduate teaching is less important. It is equally important as teaching high-school and elementary students. However, university instructors seldom line up to teach at high schools or even colleges. Recognizing that the primary role of research-focussed universities is learning through research and innovation, which primarily involves graduate students, will help the Canadian universities improve their global standings.

Smaller sized and mainly graduate-student focused institutions will also have a lower student-to-faculty ratio, providing enhanced opportunities for training and mentorship for students pursuing research and innovation.


Once can think of devising research-intensive schools in two ways. First is to divide research-focussed universities into separate institutions, i.e., a primarily undergraduate university and an independent mostly graduate school with some undergraduate programs. This could be done by extracting, for instance, STEM programs from the larger university into a separate entity. Caltech is one such example of science and engineering focussed top-ranking institute. The other option is to launch new research-focussed universities in Canada that are mandated to generate solutions for socio-economic growth and prosperity.

Such research-focussed institutions are not without precedence in Canada. In fact, INRS (Institut national de la recherche scientifique) in Quebec could serve as a prototype for establishing research-focused national or provincial universities. INRS "brings together professors, researchers, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows in its four research centres." Already, INRS is the most research-intensive institute of higher learning in Canada. In 2015, INRS researchers generated, on average, C$415,500 in research income per faculty member. McGill University, by comparison, generated C$282,000 per faculty member. At MIT, the average research revenue per faculty member was US$850,000.

The university funding/revenue model for research-focussed institutes needs to change from the bums-in-seats model to evidence-based, goal-oriented funding that rewards institutions for innovative research and its subsequent adoption by the industry. Consider MIT where research income in 2015 accounted for 48 per cent of the operating revenues and tuition accounting for just 10 per cent. The shift to research-based revenue being the dominant source of income for a University (and not necessarily from just the government) will break the dependence of research-focused Canadian universities on government support and undergraduate enrolments.

In summary, Canada's potential to excel in research and innovation will be enhanced by improving its ability to attract graduate students, researchers and professors in diverse fields as business, engineering, and sciences from across the globe. To attract this talent, Canadian universities need to possess a global brand recognition. University rankings help build brand recognition and therefore assist in attracting highly sought-after researchers and students to support research and innovation needed for socio-economic prosperity in Canada.

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