Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: McGill University

September 01

McMaster > McGill?

The Shanghai Rankings (technically, the Academic Ranking of World Universities) came out a couple of weeks ago.  This is the granddaddy of all international rankings; the one that started it all, and still perceived as the most stable and reliable measure of scientific hubs; essentially it measures large concentrations of scientific talent.  And there were some very interesting results for Canada, the most intriguing of which is the fact that McGill has fallen out of Canada’s “top 3”, replaced by McMaster.

So, first of all the big picture: Toronto was up four places to 23rd in the world (and 10th among publics, if you consider Oxford, Cambridge and Cornell to be public), while UBC rose three places to 31st.  McMaster and McGill rounded out Canadian institutions in the top 100 (more on them in a second).  Below that, University of Alberta stayed steady in the 101-150 bracket, while Université de Montreal was joined by Calgary and Ottawa in the 151-200 bracket, bringing the national total in the top 200 to 8.  Overall, the country stayed steady at 19 institutions in the top 500, though Université du Québec dropped out and was replaced by Concordia; that puts the country behind the US, the UK, China, Germany, Australia and France but ahead of everyone else (including, surprisingly, Japan, which has been doing terribly in various rankings of late).

But the big story – in Canada, anyway – is that McMaster rose 17 places to 66th overall while McGill dropped four places to 67th. This is the first time in any ranking (so far as I can recall) that McGill has not ben considered one of the country’s top three institutions, and so it raises some significant questions.  Is it a matter of McGill’s reputation going down?  An echo of l’Affaire Potter?  A consequence of long-term funding decline?  What, exactly?

The answer is it’s none of those things.  Alone among the major rankings, Shanghai does not survey academics or anyone else about institutions, so it has nothing to do with image, reputation, prestige or anything else.  Nor, by the way, is funding a credible suspect.  Although we’re always hearing about how McGill is hard done by the Quebec government, the fact of the matter is that McGill has done as well or better than McMaster in terms of expenditures per student.

Figure 1-Total Expenditure per FTE Student, 2000-01 to 2015-16

Source: Statistics Canada’s Financial Information of Colleges and Universities & Post-Secondary Student Information System, various years

So what happened?  It’s pretty simple, actually.  20% of the Shanghai rank is based on what is called the “HiCi list” – the list of Highly Cited researchers put out annually by Clarivate (formerly Thompson Reuters), which you can peruse here.  But Clarivate has changed its HiCi methodology in the last couple of years, which has had a knock-on effect for the Shanghai rankings as well.  Basically, the old method rewarded old researchers whose publications had gathered lots of citations over time; the methodology only counts citations in the past ten years and therefore privileges newer, “hotter” research papers and their authors (there’s a longer explanation here if you want all the gory details).

Anyway, the effect of this appears to be significant: McGill had five highly-cited researchers in both 2015 and 2016, while McMaster went from ten to fifteen – all in the Faculty of Health Sciences, if you can believe it – putting them top in Canada.    Those extra five researchers were enough, in a ranking which is highly sensitive to the presence of really top scholars, to move McMaster above McGill.

So let’s not read anything more into this ranking: it’s not about funding, or reputation: it’s about a cluster of extraordinary research excellence which in this instance is giving a halo effect to an entire university.  C’est tout.

April 27

McGill vs. UBC

In eastern parts of the country, if you use the words “the three best universities in Canada”, they look at you slightly oddly.  They know you mean U of T and McGill, but they’re not 100% sure who the third one is.  “UBC?” they ask, uncertainly. This is pure eastern myopia.  Today, I will advance the proposition that by most measures, UBC is substantially ahead of McGill, and is in fact the country’s #2 university.

Let’s start with some statistics on size, just to orient ourselves. UBC is the slightly bigger institution, and at both institutions graduate students account for about 26% of all FTEs.

Enrolment and Academic Staff Complement, UBC vs. McGill

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Now let’s look at money.  The two institutions have similar-sized endowments, a shade over $1.3 Billion, which is a point in McGill’s favour when adjusted for student body size.  When it comes to operating budget, however, there is simply no comparison: UBC’s has a total budget of $2.2 billion, and an operating budget of $1.1 billion; the equivalent for McGill is  $1.4 billion and $620 million.  On an unadjusted basis, UBC takes in $58,500 per FTE student, to McGill’s $40,493 – a 44% gap in UBC’s favour.  If we adjust for student body composition – that is, convert all FTE’s into Weighted FTEs based on field of study, and use the weights used by the Quebec government (see here for more details) – then the gap actually increases somewhat to 48%.  Point UBC.

Figure 1: Total Income per Student and per Weighted Student Unit, 2011-12, UBC vs. McGill














Now let’s look at some measures of research output, like bibliometrics.  This data is taken from the 2013-14 Leiden rankings, which is the most comprehensive publicly available list of bibliometric indicators.  On sheer volume of publications UBC wins, which probably isn’t surprising given its size.  But on measures of publication impact – normalized citation scores, and the percentage of papers among the 10% most-cited in its field in the past five years – UBC is ahead in both, as it is in the percentage of papers that involved collaboration with an industry.  Only in the category of papers with international collaborators does McGill come out on top.  Point UBC.

World Position in Leiden Rankings on Selected Bibliometric Indicators, UBC vs. McGill (Leiden Rankings, 2014-15)

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While we’re at the research output game, we might as well see what the “Big Three” (Shanghai ARWU, Times Higher, and QS) international rankings say, all of which are mostly based either on research or prestige (as measured by surveys of academics).  Two of the three say: point UBC

Positions in Major International Rankings, 2014/15, UBC vs. McGill

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Does faculty pay matter?  Here’s the most recent average pay data from the three institutions.  UBC wins again, by about 20% at the level of assistant profs, and 15% above that.  Still: point UBC.

Figure 2: Average academic staff pay by rank, UBC vs. McGill














Now this is from the Statistics Canada, Full-time University and College Academic Staff Survey, 2009-10.  And yes, that’s old, but it’s the last year for which we have data from both institutions because Statscan discontinued the survey, and as far as I know, the COU-led replacement survey hasn’t reported anything publicly yet.  And given both institutions’ limits on salary increases the last few years, I doubt the gap has changed much.

And of course, there’s student experience.  Here are the two universities compared on the main aspects of student satisfaction, using data from the final Canadian University Report.  These are scored on a 9-point scale.  Point: McGill.

Select Measures of Student Satisfaction, Canada

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In other words, UBC comes ahead on most measures.  And when you think about it, this isn’t all that surprising.  It has far more money than McGill, it has huge endowment lands, which represent a huge future income, and it is far better positioned to take advantage of the rise of Asia.  Arguably, given the imbalance in resources, the question is: why isn’t UBC even further ahead of McGill than it actually is? (Or, to reverse that: well done to McGill for being so efficient!)

To conclude: UBC is fairly clearly ahead of McGill – the question now is when will it overtake U of T?

October 12

When Should McGill Go Private? (Part 3)

Over the last couple of days, we’ve seen how McGill could at least theoretically survive leaving the public higher education system and cope with a loss of its $272 million teaching grant. About 85% of the resulting funding gap could be closed on the revenue side; the rest would need to come from internal re-allocations (basically, shifting away from graduate studies and losing a faculty or two).

Probably the biggest implication of abandoning public funding is that the numbers don’t work unless McGill focuses more on undergraduates and less on graduate students, at least in the medium term. That’s a potential turn-off to a lot of the faculty members upon whose shoulders McGill’s reputation rests, and could tilt the balance in any discussion about the merits of going private.

The short-term equilibrium needed to make the plan work involved setting tuition at Ontario levels plus about $3000 and increasing enrolment slightly. But that’s a very short-term solution: McGill’s reputation for quality can withstand higher prices and larger classrooms for awhile, but over time that won’t be sustainable. Quite apart from the need for eventual capital improvements, the school will eventually have to develop a value proposition different from that of public institutions, and that almost certainly means smaller class sizes. The ineluctable logic over time is a significantly smaller school charging prices that are at least in the $20,000 – $30,000 range. But that’s really uncharted territory as far as student price-response goes. That people would pay a premium to go to McGill is almost unarguable. But what kind of premium? Fifty percent more than (say) Queen’s? Probably. One hundred percent? Now the issue of the value proposition becomes pretty acute.

With more money coming through students and their parents, student aid would also start to become a major issue. The province of Quebec wouldn’t be able to cut McGill off, but it would almost certainly find a way to limit the amount of tuition that would be counted as “need” (much as Ontario has done for the past decade). This may not matter much – one implication of this plan is almost certainly a shift in the student body to accommodate more out-of-province students. Most likely, McGill would need to start pumping increasing proportions of new tuition income into its own student aid programs, in exactly the same way U.S. private schools do. But head down that route and every extra dollar returns ever less net revenue; pretty soon you’re chasing your own tail.

Going private would involve some very serious trade-offs for McGill; it’s by no means a panacea. But at least McGill has the luxury of such a debate. For other Quebec institutions, the remainder of the decade looks bleak indeed.

October 11

When Should McGill Go Private (Part 2)?

Yesterday, we saw how simply by adopting an Ontario pricing system, McGill could get almost two-thirds of the way to financial independence from the Quebec government. Today, we consider if/how it could get the rest of the way and close the remaining $111 million gap.

One advantage that McGill has over pretty much every other university in the country is the national nature of its brand. It is absolutely astonishing how many top students from every part of the country want to study there. As a result, McGill has something pretty much no other institution in the country has – an inelastic demand curve. Not only could it easily charge more than it currently does, it could easily charge substantially more than any other institution in the country and still keep its enrolments essentially unchanged or even increase them.

Let’s say it keeps enrolments unchanged. My guess – and it’s no more than that – is that McGill could fairly easily charge another $3,000 or so above tuition at equivalent Ontario schools and not see any drop in demand. Even assuming the institutions takes 20% off the top for student aid, that’s an extra $2,400 per student, or nearly $50 million – which brings the cost gap down to about $60 million. Increase overall enrolments by another ten percent and the gap falls to just $40 million.

That’s close, but no cigar. Getting those last few million would require some potentially painful choices, mostly on the cost side. The least radical would involve shifting the enrolment mix towards undergraduate arts and business and away from graduate students. This may sound counterintuitive (aren’t prestigious universities grad-student-heavy?) until you realize that once you’re out of the public system and its funding formulae, the imperative is to push enrolment into programs with higher margins. Doing this doesn’t increase revenue, but it does reduce the cost of instruction somewhat.

More radically, McGill would probably need to think about ditching a couple of faculties – preferably ones which cost a lot of money but don’t do much for prestige. The two obvious candidates at McGill would be education and dentistry (the school of social work could probably go, too). Music would be on the cusp (it loses a ton of money and generally isn’t a prestige discipline, but McGill’sreally good at it).

Even all that probably doesn’t quite make it to break-even, but we’re definitely down to the last $10 million or so. That’s close enough that even the smallest cut to their operating grant would make leaving the public sector a serious option.

When should McGill go private? Maybe sooner than you think.

October 10

When Should McGill Go Private?

With the election of a PQ government which is unwilling to sanction tuition fee increases and too broke to actually spend any more money on PSE, there’s one debate which is sure to arise soon: when and under what conditions should McGill leave the public sector and go it alone as a private university?

In a sense, of course, McGill has always been private. It was not founded by an act of the legislature, but rather as a charitable enterprise (technically, it’s the Royal Society for the Advancement of Learning). Its governing body is totally autonomous of government and it is only considered “public” because it accepts government rules in exchange for public funds.

For the past fifty years, those rules have proved a bargain for McGill (and similar institutions such as Laval, Bishop’s, etc), but they may not remain so indefinitely. One of the primary purposes of the public funding rules is precisely to limit total institutional income, by limiting the amount of tuition fees any institution can get. At the moment, the government hands over about $329 million per year; $272 million of which comes from formula funding, with the rest mostly coming in the form of research funding of various type (which in theory at least might continue even if McGill were private).

So let’s look at that $272 million for a moment, because that’s the key figure: could McGill ditch it and replace the revenue with tuition dollars?

Well, first, by going private McGill would immediately recoup $85 million in various forms of income which the government currently skims. At the moment, McGill is not allowed to keep all the extra revenue it collects from “out of province” students, nor is it allowed to keep all its revenue from its international students. So, right away, the amount that needs recouping is not $272 million but $187 million.

Now, let’s take all those Canadian students and boost their tuition to the Ontario average of tuition and fees (which is currently sitting a little under $8,000). For its roughly 10,000 Quebec undergraduates, that would mean a jump per year of about $4,200; for its 7,000 non-Quebec students it’s about $500. In total, that’s $46 million. Do the same for grad students and you’re looking at another $10 million. Take the professional programs such as law, medicine and dentistry, and line their tuitions up with those at U of T and you get another $20 million.

Add all that up and what you find is that simply by adopting an Ontario tuition structure, McGill can recoup $161 million of the $272 million it gets for teaching from the Quebec government. Where could it get the rest? Tune in tomorrow.