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?
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.