Canadian universities have dropped on a world rankings table, with a decline in academic reputation for most schools driving this year’s results lower, according to a key global survey released Wednesday.

The share of Canadian universities in the Top 200 globally dropped from nine to seven this year, as 23 of 26 Canadian universities scored lower on their academic renown, according to the latest edition of the QS World University Rankings. The results echo similar findings from the Times Higher Education World University Rankings last year, which found that investment in higher education by Asian countries was making some Canadian institutions less competitive internationally.

“There are relatively widespread, but not dramatic drops in terms of the academic reputation and performance for Canadian institutions,” said Ben Sowter, research director at QS.

The QS rankings measure performance on six indicators, with academic reputation making up 40 per cent of the total score and scholarly citations accounting for 20 per cent. Employer reputation, student-faculty ratios and the percentage of international faculty and students are also considered.

“Popular rankings are a popularity contest,” said Michelle Stack, an associate professor in the department of educational studies at the University of British Columbia and the author of a recent book on the business of rankings. “The very top universities stay about the same and the rest go up and down like the stock market.”

Universities have a love-hate relationship with rankings. They rely on the rankings as a marketing and planning tool, but are wary of the outsize impact a small change in position can have on their reputations.

Rankings “provide some indication of how we should measure ourselves in relation to those 26,000 other universities on the planet,” said Patrick Deane, the president of McMaster University in Hamilton, which moved up nine spots on this year’s table. McMaster also looks to the rankings to help identify schools with which it may want to partner for research, he added. “They help you navigate your way in that global context,” Dr. Deane said.

Overall, 17 Canadian universities out of 26 saw their scores on employer reputation improve, while 18 saw a deterioration in their citation per faculty member metric. Western University and the University of Calgary fell out of the Top 200. The University of Toronto scored the top spot in Canada in both rankings.

This year’s rankings come as international students are increasingly choosing Canada for their programs. Early admission numbers show the number of students from abroad is up at many universities. But Canadian universities are facing intense competition internationally, not just from established names in the United States and Europe, but also from newer institutions in Asia and South Asia.

This year, India has three entries in the Top 200 QS table and China has six, the first time the country has had such a strong showing.

“Part of it is science and technology are a universal language and are easier to mobilize in an international context,” Mr. Sowter said.

Some Canadian universities are already investing in areas that are likely to eventually lead to jumps on the rankings table. UBC has announced a President’s Excellence Chairs program which will provide as much as $10– to $15-million every chair to recruit globally renowned faculty and help them set up research labs.

The program “will have an impact on rankings over the next decade,” said Angela Redish, UBC’s acting provost. “We hire faculty like that because we want to be an outstanding research institution; the rankings reflect that in part.”

The changes in the underlying indicators are quite small. On the most heavily weighted measure – that of academic reputation – the shifts are in the single digits.

“It would fit into the noise category,” Dr. Redish said.

Paying too much attention to rankings can lead to less robust research, Dr. Stack said. She said many scholars at a recent conference on rankings said pressure to publish to help drive up a school’s reputation can lead to mistakes.

“The pressure to perform based on measures that have little to do with research quality appears to be a factor in increased research fraud and error,” she said.

The QS Rankings are one of the world’s leading university tables, along with the Times Higher Education and the Academic Ranking of World Universities, known as the Shanghai Ranking.

The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Jun. 07, 2017 6:19PM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Jun. 07, 2017 6:31PM EDT