McGill University loses title of ‘Harvard of the North’ to U of T: rankings

MONTREAL – It’s hard to know if McGill University’s reputation has suffered because of the student uprising last year or the grim financial situation for Quebec universities, but the new 2013 World Reputation Rankings show McGill has slipped in the standings.

Still, after a year in which the university’s budget took a hit from a cancelled tuition increase and then harsh supplemental cuts of about $19 million, McGill remains in the company of an elite group.

However, when it comes to reputation, the title of “Harvard of the North” – as McGill has come to be known – may now belong to the University of Toronto, which remained stable in the rankings and, in 16th place, is 15 spots ahead of McGill.

U of T is also a lot closer in the ranking to the actual Harvard, which maintained its top position, whereas McGill slipped to 31st place from 25th.

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Not huge, but in a ranking that has been stable since its inception a few years ago, a warning signal nonetheless, according to Phil Baty, editor of the Times Higher Education Rankings.

“The drop is significant and should send a bit of an alarm bell,” Baty said in an interview on Monday. “Canada has three world-class universities, but they are slipping and that should be a cause for concern.”

There’s no doubt that rankings can be subjective, but THE Rankings asks more than 16,000 academics from around the world about the reputation of various institutions and says it is a true indicator of how universities are perceived.

What’s more, students use these rankings to help select universities, as do academics who are seeking affiliations, so they do have some influence.

“A university’s reputation is subjective, but it matters deeply in today’s highly competitive global marketplace,” Baty said.

And Canada has only three universities among the top 100, whereas Germany, Japan and the Netherlands have five each, and France four. The United States leads the pack with 43, while Britain has nine.

McGill officials said they can’t comment until they have more information, but in an opinion piece in The Gazette last October, Principal Heather Munroe-Blum said: “Quebec needs a clear strategy for making Quebec a global education and research destination, or we will fall even farther behind.”

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Along with McGill, the University of British Columbia also slipped to 31st from 25th place, a result of Canada’s “highly egalitarian approach,” Baty said.

Whereas countries around the globe are choosing to focus resources on a select number of top-ranked institutions, allowing them to compete in a global market with the likes of Harvard and Oxford, he said Canada’s system means resources are spread too thinly for any one university to properly compete.

“Countries around the world are picking winners and investing heavily in them, so they are coming up the ranks while Canada is slipping,” he said.

The risk, he said, is that Canada could end up with many mid-ranked institutions, but lack the big flagship institutions that drive investment, research and development and the economy.

The Coalition Avenir Québec recently proposed investing more heavily on our top universities, but was widely panned. Students objected to having some elite universities, while the universities that weren’t identified as being research-oriented rejected the idea that they should relinquish all research.

That’s the reaction everywhere, said Baty, but it’s done anyways.

“It’s a difficult debate, but it really helps to concentrate resources on a small number of institutions. A university must be visible to be among the world’s best.”

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Jonathan Mooney, president of McGill’s Post-Graduate Students Society, said he doesn’t know how much credibility to give a ranking based on perception.

“But I do know that in the long-term, the insufficient funding will catch up with McGill.”

To see the full rankings, go to 

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