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September 4, 2009

Does Canada have an Ivy League?

There is a lot of debate out there about whether or not there are schools in Canada equivalent to the American Ivy League (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale). I’m not sure why this is so important for people to know, but I do know that as a potential applicant for teaching positions at US universities, an Ivy-League education is considered the best. Even in Canada, loyalty to the old prestigious universities is not in the least diminished by Maclean’s annual rankings.

As a Canadian, I don’t know anyone who did an undergraduate degree at an Ivy League school, so my first introduction to the concept was when my classmates in landscape architecture began applying for masters programs over a decade ago. Inevitably, they chose to apply to American Ivy League schools like Harvard and Cornell. Interestingly, their main reason was that “all the famous landscape architects went there.” (not surprising: Harvard was the first landscape architecture program in North America and the only one for many years). Having visited the Graduate School of Design and seen their students’ work around this time, we were surprised to find that our work was quite comparable to theirs; in some cases, better. One friend, who applied to and finished a Harvard Masters in Planning, said that the main advantage of the school was the alumni network, which would ensure he could find jobs anywhere. The Harvard degree also exposed him to very prominent experts and guest lecturers. Even more interesting, he is now living and working with many of our former classmates who did not invest in Ivy League educations. The same applies to a couple of our classmates who attended Cornell for the Masters in Architecture, and now work at architecture firms with others with “less prestigious” degrees.

The thing is, Canadians know about the American Ivy League, but we don’t really get it. I mean, we get that they’re prestigious and expensive and old. But we’re hampered by the fact that universities in Canada are virtually all public institutions, and there are few expensive, elite blue-blood institutions in the country aside from elementary and secondary schools like Branksome Hall and Ashbury College. According to the Canadian Information Centre for International Credentials, there are 94 universities in Canada (83 with degree-granting status) belonging to the Association of Universities and Colleges in Canada. There are 27 private colleges, the vast majority being theological schools: when you take these out, there are only 6 left. Tuition costs at Canadian schools are much cheaper than American schools, although generally the older, larger schools cost a bit more and since tuition deregulation in the 1990s the professional programs can charge more than the standard tuition. They can also offer more funding, so it evens out: even Statistics Canada found that there has been little decrease in the proportion of lower-income students attending university now than before tuitions began their rapid ascent in the 1990s. So the Ivy League is a tradition we simply do not have here. Ditto those other prestigious American schools that are supposed to impress us. American students enrolled at Canadian schools often find their introductory conversations go a bit like this:

Canadian: So you’re from Pennsylvania?

American: Yes. I went to XXX School. (pause for reaction)

Canadian: Oh yeah? (blank stare)

American: (confused) It’s a really good school.

Canadian: Ohhhh. (realizing the faux pas in not knowing the names and reputations of all 45670 American schools) Well that’s great. (unimpressed)

That’s right, I said it: we don’t know your schools the way you don’t know our prime ministers. Or our provinces. Or our capital.

That said, the four universities that many consider to be the “Canadian Ivys” are the University of Toronto, McGill University, Queens University, and the University of British Columbia. The only logic to this seems to be that they are old and therefore have ivy-covered buildings! These schools, because of their age, have extensive and well-known alumni who teach, do research, win Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals, and otherwise propagate the mythology of their being better schools than the rest. There is also something called the Group of Thirteen, which includes the above-mentioned schools plus the University of Alberta, University of Calgary, Dalhousie University, Université Laval, MacMaster University, Université Montréal, University of Ottawa, University of Waterloo, and University of Western Ontario. These schools meet informally twice a year to discuss joint research initiatives and between them hold 66% of Canada Research Chairs, which is proportional to the amount of research funding they bring in from SSHRC, NSERC, and CIHR. And if I’m going to be honest, these schools probably get more famous guest lecturers.

But the Maclean’s rankings show a very different story: each school has very different strengths. The magazine divides Canadian universities into three categories: primarily undergraduate, comprehensive undergraduate, and medical doctoral universities. The schools are evaluated on a range of characteristics, including spending on student services and scholarships and bursaries, funding for libraries, faculty success in obtaining national research grants, and their reputation for being innovative. The top-ranked primarily undergraduate schools are Mount Allison and University of Northern British Columbia. The top-ranked comprehensive undergraduate schools are Simon Fraser and University of Victoria. And the top-ranked medical doctoral schools are McGill, Queens and Toronto. Some schools have highly-ranked business or teaching programs, others are strong in medicine or law. Indeed, some of these professional programs are known in their individual fields as “the best.” Some have a small student-to-teacher ratio, others have better resources or funding. And then there are the student favourites, typically small schools with a friendly atmosphere in a beautiful location, like Mount Allison.

I attended two of the supposed “Canadian Ivys”: University of Toronto and University of British Columbia. I know only a handful of people at either of these universities who attended a private school before entering these seemingly august institutions (ie., these aren’t the elites of society). I don’t believe that these schools have better students, better teaching, or better facilities than other schools in the country: in some cases, Maclean’s shows they fail in all three areas. Graduates of these schools don’t seem to conduct themselves any differently, have access to better alumni networks, or get better jobs than graduates of other schools. While working as a landscape architect in England, for example, I ran into graduates from the universities of Guelph and Waterloo who were working for British municipalities; in Ottawa I met many government employees who were graduates of Université Laval, Carleton University, and the University of New Brunswick. I have yet to meet a Canadian who was impressed by the schools I attended, nor have I encountered any innate sense of superiority among graduates of these schools. Yet when I attend conferences, I frequently find myself having this conversation:

American: Oh, you’re at UBC?

Me: Yes.

American: Oh, that’s a really good school. (impressed)

Me: Is it? (seemingly amused, but actually quite curious)

American: (confused) Well, yes.

Me: Why would you say that?

American: (stumped) I…hmm. (because I’ve heard of it)

The relatively level playing field among Canadian universities is probably one reason why Canada has the largest proportion of university graduates among G7 countries and the highest percentage of university graduates in the workforce. Immigrants in Canada have particularly high levels of university attendance: 37% compared to 22% of the Canadian-born population. Among recent immigrants (those who entered the country less than two years ago) 48% of females and 56% of males had a university degree according to the 2006 Census. Women have outpaced men in university attendance since the late 1970s, and more lower-income people are attending university in Canada than ever before. These types of changes have led to much more diversity in Canadian universities. And there is considerable evidence that nurture, as opposed to nature, is the key to success in education: Malcolm Gladwell vividly illustrates this in Outliers.

With only a handful (15) universities in Maclean’s medical doctoral category, Canadians often seek jobs in other countries; this is particularly true in academia. But we know that we will be judged by the school we went to, because that seems to be a common trend in the American university hiring process. A glance at the faculty directories of an Ivy League school reveals that virtually all of their faculty did their doctorate or post-doctorate work at an Ivy League school. Lou Marinoff, in a recent article in Inside Higher Ed outlined how his philosophy department, in City College at the City University of New York, narrowed down their search for a new faculty member from 627 applicants to 27 long-listed and 6 short-listed ones. A major criteria in the first step was holding a degree from “a good university.” As Marinoff writes, “Members of our department earned their Ph.D.s at Columbia, Harvard, Oxford, and University of London. Additionally, City College is known as the “Harvard of the Proletariat,” with distinguished alumni that include nine Nobel Laureates, more than any other public institution in America. Our faculty members are expected to live up to this legacy.” Of course publications, research, teaching, administrative service were up there too.

I would love to say that this kind of academic snobbery does not exist in Canada, but it is pretty standard here to imitate Americans. Most of my friends in design professions hold Ivy League degrees in higher regard, and since my era at U of T’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, the school has been completely rebranded with graduates of Yale, Princeton and Harvard. Many Canadian faculty members are American, or educated in the US, and bring these ideas with them. I can definitely say that the “reputation” of the school seems to play a role in the admissions process at SCARP. The ridiculous thing about this is that our school (which is a graduate program only) accepts applications from undergraduates in any discipline. And according to Maclean’s, as well as my own experience, programs vary considerably from school to school. So using school “reputations” makes no sense: you would have to be a master of every undergraduate program in the country to know what a “good school” was for that particular program. It’s one thing for a medical school to compare B.Sc students from everywhere, or engineering programs to compare their B.Eng applicants; it’s quite another for a multidisciplinary program which draws its students from programs as diverse as Forestry, French, Geography, Architecture, and Canadian Studies. It’s part of the reason why our school uses such a complex application process, evaluating transcripts, a research statement, reference letters, and work experience equally.

Interestingly, Marinoff’s philosophy department invited 6 candidates to their school for interviews. Here is his summary of their performance: “All the finalists were impeccably well versed in their subjects matter, but not all succeeded in establishing rapport with the students. One lectured remotely, as if from afar; another failed to engage them in dialogue; a third took insufficient account of whether the class was grasping the material. Some lectured clearly and evocatively, encouraged and fielded questions on the fly, bridged gaps in students’ understanding by providing additional context where necessary, and covered the material in the allotted time. The best finalists attracted a throng of students after the lecture, having whetted appetites for further learning. The top two bundled humor with their lectures or slides, which palpably enhanced the ambiance and helped establish rapport. “Edutainment” is an American neologism, after all.”

When it comes right down to it, these candidates (CCNY hired the top two) succeeded not because of their Ivy League pedigrees, but because of their ability to engage students and cope with the classroom setting most effectively. Now, whether they gained these credentials as a result of their “superior” educations is a matter for debate: they were likely supported and mentored more than students at other schools, because their high tuition costs resulted in more resources (again, Outliers is relevant). I suspect these outstanding candidates worked hard at developing their skills and lecturing style, and had a real passion for teaching. Preferential selection of candidates based on their school’s reputations was really just a useful filter in this case, a way of decreasing the number of applicants to consider carefully, albeit one that probably eliminated many worthy candidates from lower income and minority backgrounds who couldn’t afford Ivy League educations.

All this to say that I don’t believe there is a Canadian Ivy League, nor do I think we need one. It’s too bad that universities, professors, and students can’t get over these ideas of being “the best”, or producing the “best and the brightest” students. This relentless competition is even seen in what Richard Moll, in his 1985 book, called the “public Ivys”, eight American schools that were “successfully competing with the Ivy League schools in academic rigor… attracting superstar faculty and in competing for the best and brightest students of all races.” It’s even worse that the myth of the Canadian Ivy League is being relentlessly perpetuated by recruiters who travel all over the world with glossy brochures featuring the old ivy-clad buildings (international student tuitions are higher than those for Canadian citizens, so the schools encourage it). But the Canadian reality is a bit different, and there really is no reason a University of Alberta grad and a McGill grad should not be considered equally.

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  1. Graduated from Wharton, but I’ve heard of UofT and McGill being really good schools as well. I don’t think there’s much difference in the education but the Alumni Networks at Ivy’s are really good and LOYAL!!

  2. @Pennstudent

    UofT and McGill derive their reputation/status from the quantity of research output produced. This means they are great research/academia oriented schools, but not necessary the “best” with regards to specific fields.

    In Canada, students choose universities based on the “best” program, not university. There is a general consensus on the reputation/quality of programs. For example, Waterloo and UofT are great for engineering. UWO Richard Ivey and Queens are great for business.

    1. I agree, in Canada you definately pick your university based on the program. I majored in Asian studies and went to U of Calgary before transferring to UBC, and although I gained alot from the small class sizes in the U of C program, the UBC program offered alot more for development of those skills. If I was majoring in business, engineering, or medicine, I would likely have stayed in Calgary. Similarly, if I was going to study Asian studies in the States, I would have considered Cornell before Harvard.
      After having lived in Asia for several years, I feel the university situation here is similar to that in the States, as well as the view towards there being a Canadian Ivy League.

  3. Oh really , Thomas! Actually, Im a canadian and my experience is completely the opposite!I went to one of the Cal state schools in USA. And I’ve recently went back home to visit my family and friends in Ontario,Canada. We went to a business conference together and this is eight out of ten canadians response towards UBC.

    British Columbian: So I was at UBC the other days to pick-up some books from the library.

    Ontarian: I’m sorry, what’s UBC? Is that a type of food.

    British Columbian: No, its the school I went to.

    Ontarian: I’ve never heard of it. Is it good.

    Don’t expect Americans to be cultured and educated , when us canadians don’t even know our own school. Scrazy shit, right. If I wasnt Canadian, I would have never heard of UBC as well, but before I’ve even moved to USA, I’ve already heart of the top notch Ivy Leagues, Berkeley, UCLA, MIT,CalTech and Stanford. Get the point now, smart ass!!!

    1. Thanks Lisa, for proving my point so thoroughly. The fact that many Canadians have never heard of UBC pretty much sums up my argument that there’s no Canadian Ivy League.

  4. McGill is Canada’s only analogical ivy league school, it is ranked as being one of the best universities in the world. McGill is Canada’s preeminent university. We have an ivy league quality university, it is known as McGill. Any canadian who has not heard of McGill is unrefined and is most likely lower middle class.

    1. Or they live west of Ontario. Or they come from another country. Hmm…that’s a lot of people considering our immigration rates!

    2. University of Toronto ranks higher than McGill on almost every international ranking, has more research, is cited more often, has more world class professors, and likewise in subject specific rankings also outperforms McGill on an international ranking. If McGill is ivy league then U of T is automatically so. I was accepted at McGill and I chose U of T. Why? They are more highly reputed in my and many programs by a significant margin in comparison to McGill. Likewise stem cells were discovered here, along with electron microscopes and the first lung transplants. U of T is easily Canada’s top school. UBC also outranks McGill in international rankings by the way, McGill is #3 in Canada internationally.

      1. actually you are wrong. If you take the QS world ranking (one of the most respected and accurate rankings) McGill is the number 18 worldwide, while UoT is 19. Of course UoT places higher than McGill in other rankings, so it is highly subjective. What I conclude is that both are very close to each other, and considering the number of universities in the world, being in the top 20 is very impressive and both are top universities; just like Harvard, MIT, etc.
        The one thing that MIT has WAY BETTER than McGILL is that Tony Stark graduated there!!

  5. Anyone who’s been to university in Canada know about McGill, Queens, UBC, U of Calgary, and U of T. Honestly, if you don’t know OF these universities, you’re likely less educated. I’m not saying these schools are necessarily better than lesser known universities, but if you’ve been to university you’ve undoubtedly run into someone from one of these schools, or they’ve been mentioned, or the text books used are written by profs. at these places… etc etc.

    So, in conclusion, I agree: No ivy league schools in Canada. Generally quality of education in universities are the same across the board. But I don’t agree: that an educated person in Canada isn’t, or wouldn’t be, familiar with the largest, most long established universities in the country.

    Often it does come down to specialty though. I doubt anyone who has a criminology degree isn’t familiar with Simon Fraser University. Or a medical degree who isn’t familiar with … well … every other university that has a medical program.

  6. Look, it’s not merely about great Canadian schools vs. American Ivy Leagues, but more about how the rest of the world view these schools. I’ve been employed in prestigious Universities like Tsing Hua University in Asia for instance, and you can tell how valuable your Ivy League education is to employers from China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan. It’s the same way with great institutions all over the world. For instance, Americans also recognize the value of an Oxford University education and they are knowledgable on what is considered an equivalent to such an education. For Canadians to be globally aware of the reputation of the American Ivy League but refuse to openly acknowledge the colleagues from those fine institutions working alongside equally qualified Canadians from UBC for example is just a blatant and irresponsible response of anti-Americanism.

  7. Just to clarify, Lisa says “…but before I’ve even moved to USA, I’ve already heart of the top notch Ivy Leagues, Berkeley, UCLA, MIT,CalTech and Stanford.”

    FYI, these schools are NOT considered Ivy-League schools in the USA. Only 8 schools are considered Ivy-League based on the conference (Ivy-League Conference) they represent along with academic reputation, athletics and tradition. 8 schools: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, Pennsylvania, and Yale.

    As for stating “…when us canadians don’t even know our own school.” speak for yourself as this Canadian has done his research on which USA & Canadian schools offer the best programs in their related fields concerning undergraduate and graduate studies, academic reputation, research, and overall network system. I advise that you stay in school while spending some time practicing research skills & critical thinking before joining any discussion related to this topic.

    1. Actually, I think Lisa meant that she had already heard of the top notch schools such as Ivy League schools, as wel as Berkeley, UCLA, etc.

  8. It is too bad that learning institutions are so badly tainted by pretention and classism. It really clouds the issue of quality and discourages those with a true passion for learning in favour of those who use a school to posture themselves. A sad paradox of education’s true meaning.

  9. It’s funny because a lot of you don’t know the concept of IVY. Just because a school is good doesn’t make it an “IVY” league school. That being said, being in that league doesn’t make it great either. U of T and McGill Rank higher than a few of the low Ivy’s (brown, dartmouth, etc internationally).

    Anyways, to the point I’m actually trying to make…

    I’m a current student at McGill University.

    School A: Has entrance minima of 93% and all course avg’s are around 70%

    School B: Has entrance minima of 70% and has all course avg’s around 70%

    Now tell me how hard it is to get a 4.0 in school A vs B.

    You’re just DELUDING yourself if you think school A doesn’t give a more rigorous education. The pool of students DOES change how a university student is perceived.

  10. An interesting topic. I’m a Canadian currently working at a prestigious international school in India. To give a frame of reference, kids in grade 2 here pay near what I did at U of T for my undergrad. I got this job based at least partially on the school I received my degree from (and was told as much) as much as the program I studied. Kids here graduate from grade 12 IB program and all get accepted to good schools internationally, many of them Ivy League or equivalents. The only Canadian schools that they go to, our are really pushed to them to consider are McGill, Toronto, British Colombia.
    We may lack the elitism others have, but that doesn’t stop them from having it, or it having an impact on us internationally.

    (Written from my phone, sorry for any errors.)

  11. I don’t think that we have Ivy league schools but we certainly have schools that are better know than others. I’ve never desired to attend UofT but I did attend McGill and was recently accepted at UBC and I would really not want to attend college anywhere else in Canada. This doesn’t mean that these schools are the best in every department but as a whole these institutions are the most well known of the Canadian institutions. Plus, they are in awesome cities!

  12. I would say Mount Allison University is the closest thing we have to an Ivy League school. #1 ranked school, focus on liberal arts, very old, east-coast, large endowment, huge number of Rhodes Scholars, looks a lot like Princeton.

  13. wow.. U of Alberta is completely out of subject in this discussion on highly respected universities in Canada. Yet, U of A has been ranked higher in engineering and business thanks to Harper’s vast interest in oil.

  14. A daughter of my friend, who always maintain 1st and 2nd in all of her high school classes, her GPA was in 94%, she could not secure an interview on any of the Ivy schools, she finally went to McMaster Health Science program, If any program in Canada that can be consider as tough to get in as any Ivy schools in USA, I would say it is this McMaster Health Science program
    My daughter with her 90% GPA from an IB school in Canada, applied and got accepted to all top 6 Universities in Canada, however, She could not get an interview with any Ivy League nor any top 25 schools in USA.

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