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Canadian universities advance in global ranking

Canadian universities continue to make gains in a widely watched ranking of higher education, but the principal of McGill University, the country's top finisher, says that position is "precarious" without further government investment.

The results, released Thursday by the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings , saw three Canadian schools - McGill, the University of Toronto and the University of Alberta - post improved results. The numbers also point to the increasing profile of campuses outside North America, especially those in Asia. It's a move that could foreshadow a shift in the pecking order of higher education, as countries such as Japan and South Korea direct money to developing elite institutions.

Heather Munroe-Blum, principal of McGill University, said it is good news that the Montreal school has held its spot as the top public campus in North America. Still, she said Canada must make further investments if it hopes to "play in the area of world-class scholarship."

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"We view our successes as precarious," she said. "This is a fragile situation. We need to stay the course."

University of Alberta president Indira Samarasekera, said the rankings are only a partial measure of a school's performance, but do show shifts in the education landscape. "I think it is a sign of the global changes that are taking place in higher education," she said, noting the rapid rise of new players, including the Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology, 69th in the rankings.

"Where did that come from? It comes from very strategic investments," she said.

Earlier this year, the heads of five leading Canadian universities - including Dr. Munroe-Blum and Dr. Samarasekera - called for reforms to higher education, including a greater concentration of research and graduate studies on key campuses. That need continues, both leaders said, if Canada hopes to emerge from the economic crisis in a better position.

"Being visionary means taking risks, making choices and choosing to think big and make bold investments," Dr. Samarasekera said.

The results did see some shuffling of positions among Canadian schools. The University of British Columbia, McMaster University and Université de Montréal slipped in their ranking and Dalhousie University dropped out of the top-200 list.

At the top, Harvard, which has been battered by large losses to its endowment, held onto first spot, but Cambridge University took second from Yale.

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Academics have long argued over the value of such rankings, and yesterday the University of Toronto focused on its standing on key measures, such as the ninth-place score it received from academics, rather than its overall result.

The ranking, now in its sixth year, evaluates schools on a number of measures, including areas of study, a survey of academics and employers, the percentage of foreign students and faculty, and research output measured by papers and citations.

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