Though it made very little news in Canada when released in Vancouver last week, Universitas 21 Network (of which UBC and McGill are members) published the second edition of their Rankings of National Higher Education Systems. There’s nothing really new in the 2013 ranking: the methodology is largely unchanged (there was a small redistribution of indicator weightings), as are the results – the top ten remains the same, and Canada stays 4th overall. But it’s still an opportunity to reflect on what the data tells us about Canadian higher education in an international context.
The U21 rankings consist of 22 indicators in four broad categories: financial resources, “environment” (a mishmash of gender, transparency, and regulatory quality issues), “connectivity” (international students, research collaboration, webometrics), and “ouput” (mostly research, with some student and graduate measures thrown in). Overall, about 50% of the indicators relate directly or indirectly to research.
So, how did Canada do in each of those categories? The most important result is that we came second (behind the US) on the resources category. Ponder that for a moment. Second. In the entire world. This is something to bring up next time you hear any of the usual suspects talk about “underfunding”.
In the environment category, Canada came 30th, just behind China. Seriously. The knock seems to be that we don’t have enough private institutions, or a national quality assurance agency; why that matters, I can’t say. In connectivity, Canada ranks 16th, but much further off the pace in an absolute sense. We do OK on research collaboration, but are miles behind countries like Switzerland on international students, and the United States on webometrics. On outputs, we do well in most areas, but several categories are (bizarrely) not normed for size, so the US creams everyone.
As you can tell, I have a few reservations about the indicators used in this ranking (and even more about the fact they don’t publish the actual indicator data), but I think there is a basic truth contained here. Canada isn’t the best at anything, but we’re still in the top third in the OECD on most of the indicators that matter. There are precious few countries – the US, perhaps, the Nordic countries, and the Netherlands – who can say the same.
It’s not because we’re doing anything special – it’s about what you’d expect from the second best-funded system in the world. But if we’re going to take that next step up – or at least keep our position during a period of cutbacks – what we really need to do is learn from countries like Switzerland and the Netherlands, and discover how they can match us for achievement with substantially less funds at their disposal.