McGill University’s international reputation slips further amid Quebec education battle

There is a sense that Canada’s premier universities are starting to see their reputations wane on the international stage, led by Montreal’s McGill University which was once considered “Harvard North.”

A new ranking of reputations by school has McGill dropping from its once-proud peak as the Canadian institution in the best world standing to slightly better than a middling also-ran.

According to Times Higher Education’s reputation ranking, McGill's fell from 25th in the world last year to a tie for 31st in 2013.

Meantime, the University of Toronto held fast at 16th this year, cementing its position as the Canadian institution with the strongest international status.

The University of British Columbia, which also slipped from 25th to a tie for 31st, was the only other Canadian university to make the list.

The Times Higher Education reputation survey rates the top 100 schools based on the opinions of more than 16,000 academics around the world. The British-based publication's rankings were dominated by universities in the United States and to a lesser extent the United Kingdom. Harvard ranked first with a perfect 100 points, followed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Cambridge.

[ Related: McGill University gets its first francophone principal ]

McGill’s fall wasn't exactly outrageous. The university went from holding a score of 11.8 last year to 10.2 this year. But when discussing the best of the best, any slide is notable.

“The drop is significant and should send a bit of an alarm bell,” Phil Baty, editor of the Times Higher Education Rankings, told the Montreal Gazette. “Canada has three world-class universities, but they are slipping and that should be a cause for concern.”

So what led to the slip? The Gazette suggests McGill's reputation took a hit "because of the student uprising last year or the grim financial situation for Quebec universities."

University funding has been a tempestuous topic in Quebec over the past few years. Students led months of protests last spring after the previous Liberal government announced plans to raise tuition fees, currently the lowest in Canada.

The Coalition Avenir Québec political party claimed university funding increases as one of its key pegs in the recent provincial election, which saw the newly-formed group grab 19 seats.

"Québec university system must be able to continue to assert itself on the international stage. Its chronic underfunding is a major obstacle to achieving this goal," the party wrote in its 2012 platform.

Montreal students engaged in protest again this year when the Parti Quebecois government announced that it would increase tuition by three per cent. Meantime, universities have demanded better funding in order to combat this very slip in quality and reputation.

[ More Brew: There should be no sequel to Quebec’s student protest ]

McGill, the University of Toronto and UBC were also the top three Canadian universities to rank on the separate QS World University Rankings last year. On that list, McGill was considered the best of the trio, but had slipped a spot to 18th in the world.

McGill officials said at the time that its position on the world stage would continue to falter without stable government funding. Vice-principal Olivier Marcil said "it would be a miracle" if McGill was still in the top 20 in 2013.

So while McGill’s waning reputation cannot necessarily be blamed on Quebec’s student protests, perhaps the tuition increase students rallied against could put an end to the slide.

Improve funding, or watch McGill slip further in its relevancy.