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Canada places third in new international ranking of higher-ed systems

Ranking of 48 countries, organized by Universitas 21, looks at various measures of what constitutes a “good” educational system.


While there are any number of well-regarded global rankings of universities and colleges, these don’t reveal anything about national systems of higher education and the environment which different countries provide for their institutions and students. Given the significance of higher education in economic growth and development, it’s important for governments to be able to benchmark their systems. More transparency and clarity is needed to encourage knowledge-sharing, collaboration and development of opportunities for students in all countries.

Today sees the first publication of a new ranking of national HE systems, based on research at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research at the University of Melbourne into data from 48 countries. The ranking is organised by Universitas 21, an international research network of 24 universities and colleges whose membership works together to encourage international mobility and engagement between staff and students (the network has two Canadian members, the University of British Columbia and McGill University).

The ranking is based on 20 different measures that the researchers believe are critical to what makes a “good” HE system, grouped under four umbrella headings:

  1. resources (investment by government and private sector)
  2. output (research and its impact, as well as the production of an educated workforce which meets labour market needs)
  3. connectivity (international networks and collaboration which protects a system against insularity) and
  4. environment (government policy and regulation, diversity and participation opportunities).

Population size is accounted for in the calculations.

Canada is placed third globally in the ranking, behind only the U.S. and Sweden, and above international competitors for overseas students such as the U.K. and Australia. Its position is based primarily on being ranked first for resources – a reflection of the level of investment into the system – and third for outputs. Canada’s position may have been higher but for lower ratings for environment (29th, a reflection of a relative lack of diversity in terms of types of HE institutions and the composition of the student population) and connectivity (17th, meaning relatively less international collaboration and involvement of overseas students in research).

Generally, there is a strong relationship between resources and output – illustrating the importance of funding support. Of the top eight countries in output, only the U.K. and Australia are not in the top eight for resources. There is some evidence of groupings of neighbouring countries. The four Nordic countries are all in the top seven; four east Asian countries (Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan and Korea) are clustered together at ranks 18 to 22; Eastern European countries (Ukraine, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia) are together in the middle range; and the Latin American countries (Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico) also cluster together. While many countries don’t feel they can be a world leader, they do want to remain competitive with their neighbours.

Government funding of higher education as a percentage of GDP is highest in Finland, Norway and Denmark, but when private expenditures are added in, funding is highest in the U.S., Korea, Canada and Chile. Investment in research and development is highest in Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland. The U.S. dominates the total output of research journal articles, but Sweden is the biggest producer of articles per capita. The nations whose research has the greatest impact are Switzerland, the Netherlands, the U.S., the U.K. and Denmark. While the U.S. and U.K. have the world’s top institutions in rankings, the depth of world-class higher education institutions per capita is best in Switzerland, Sweden, Israel and Denmark.

The highest participation rates in higher education are in Korea, Finland, Greece, the U.S., Canada and Slovenia. The countries with the largest proportion of workers with a higher-level education are Russia, Canada, Israel, the U.S., Ukraine, Taiwan and Australia. Finland, Denmark, Singapore, Norway and Japan have the highest ratio of researchers in the economy.

International students form the highest proportions of total student numbers in Australia, Singapore, Austria, the U.K. and Switzerland. International research collaboration is most prominent in Indonesia, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Denmark, Belgium and Austria. China, India, Japan and the U.S. rank in the bottom 25 percent of countries for international research collaboration. In all but eight countries at least 50 percent of students were female, the lowest being in India and Korea.

We hope the Universitas 21 Ranking will be recognised as an important reference point for governments and everyone involved in HE, as a means of ensuring recognition of the value of HE to economic development and the international standing of a country’s institutions.

Ross Williams is a professor at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, University of Melbourne.

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  1. S Chakrabarti / May 11, 2012 at 13:20

    Glad to see this study on University Affairs. Good data is hard to come by when dealing with education-related matters; hopefully this will address many misconceptions about how our system is doing compared to our peers. We should be proud of what we do well at, and try to improve in the areas which we lag behind. Bring on the new ideas and constructive criticisms.

  2. Gavin Moodie / May 11, 2012 at 17:19

    This league table is distinctive and useful in ranking countries’ systems, rather than institutions individually as almost all other ranks do.

    However, this rank shares with all others the crucial lack of measures of teaching quality and of student learning, not mentioned in the report.

  3. Reuben Kaufman / May 16, 2012 at 14:20

    Most critical thinkers have known for ages how ridiculous it is to rank individual universities and secondary schools; the ranks are totally meaningless except, perhaps, when the spread becomes really large by some undefined magnitude. How much more ridiculous it is to rank the post-secondary educational systems of whole countries. Such a ranking gives an unintended (I hope) impression that one should choose to attend any university within the first 9 countries appearing in the overall list over Oxford and Cambridge, because the latter are in the UK. Why does the academic community keep supporting such silly enterprise? And when someone responds to berate me for this opinion, I’ll provide an example to prove my point.

    Reuben Kaufman

  4. Sean Lawrence / May 17, 2012 at 12:38

    It isn’t immediately clear that the criteria on which Canada places well — how expensive the system is and how much it produces — are really very useful measures at all. In fact, it seems perverse to use cost as a measure of value. The measure of universities or individual researchers in terms of sheer output has been laughed to scorn for generations. Finally, measuring whether the system produces “an educated workforce which meets labour market needs” seems to hopelessly misunderstand what universities are and why they should exist.

    I suppose this would be merely amusing, were it not so clearly advanced with a terrifying earnestness by the study’s authors and their administrative paymasters. Are we to be forbidden from graduating philosophy majors on the grounds that they would detract from a ranking based on what “meets labour market needs”? Should we fire someone working on a really fundamental project because he isn’t consistently pumping out widely-cited dreck? Should we accept funding for a new sportsplex because it would represent an increase in measurable funding? What about a grant from Muammar Gaddafi?

  5. Reuben Kaufman / May 17, 2012 at 20:49

    Right on, Sean …. that’s two for the good guys!


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