What China’s ascent in the university rankings means for Canada

August 30, 2019 | Thomas De Mello


The countries that supply most of Canada’s international students are getting better at post-secondary education.

Canada's international student population is soaring: a record 572,000 students from abroad were studying at our post-secondary schools in 2018, a 16 percent jump from the year before.

But if we want to maintain this momentum, we have to pay careful attention to some clouds on the horizon: the countries that supply most of Canada’s international students are getting a lot better at post-secondary education.

In the QS World University Rankings 2019, no Canadian schools made it into the top 25 in the world, and only three were within the top 100: the University of Toronto (at 28), McGill University (at 33) and the University of British Columbia (at 47). Just missing the cut: the University of Alberta was ranked 109th, after falling 19 spots from 2018.

Meanwhile, Chinese universities are ascending. Over the last year, eight of the top 10 Chinese schools rose in the rankings, while eight of the top 10 Canadians schools fell. There are now twice as many Chinese schools as Canadian in the top 100 — six vs. three. China’s top performer was Tsinghua University in Beijing, which jumped eight spots from the year before. Other universities jumped by as many as 25 spots (Wuhan University and Tongji University) or even by 40 spots (Harbin Institute of Technology).

This rise reflects the payoff from China’s huge national investment in education, and an emphasis on improving standards at the top universities, all with the goal of becoming a global higher education centre.

Canada’s appeal in the current political climate goes beyond our academic reputation. The United States and the United Kingdom dominate the top 10 spots in the rankings, but political changes in both countries make them less appealing for young people from abroad.

There’s an opportunity here to solidify Canada’s place on the international stage, but we need to recognize that global rankings inform international student mobility, and perform at a higher level.

When evaluating the universities, QS looks at four major indicators: academic reputation, reputation among employers, faculty to student ratio, and research citations per faculty member. China outperformed Canada in each category.

Even our top universities are faltering in two of the key areas: faculty to student ratio, and research citations per faculty member. Taking a closer look at McGill, which ranks 33rd overall, it’s clear how much these areas are dragging down the university’s otherwise impressive showing: it ranks 183rd in faculty to student ratio, and 175th in citations per faculty.

Looking at specific subject areas, China and Canada are split on performance: Canada comes out ahead in Arts & Humanities and Life Sciences; but China scores higher in Engineering & Technology, Natural Sciences, and Social Sciences & Management.

It’s critical that we capitalize on our existing strengths, and at the same time secure more resources for the areas where we’re falling behind. If we can top these world rankings, we’ll attract the world’s top talent.