The University of Toronto has nabbed a spot among the top 20 universities in the world, in what is arguably the most influential set of global university rankings, while eight other Canadian schools ranked within the top 200.
While the United States and Britain dominated Times Higher Education's World University Rankings, Canada more than held its own, ranking as the fifth-best performing country.
The methodology behind the ranking was also radically overhauled this year, with Times Higher Education partnering with Thomson Reuters to expand the amount of data in a bid to produce the most accurate international yardstick of university excellence.
Schools are scored based on a broad range of indicators, including the number of papers published, the number of PhDs awarded and money that goes into research. One indicator gauges "knowledge transfer" - the amount of research that ultimately gets used for practical purposes - by measuring the amount of research dollars invested by industry in universities. The numbers are scaled to the size of the school to prevent larger schools gaining an unfair advantage.
This year, rankings scaled back the importance of reputation to the overall results and also attempted to fix a statistical quirk that had been giving an advantage to universities with more science research.
In last year's version (under the old system) McGill was the top Canadian university, ranked ahead of U of T. More dramatically, this year's version sees research heavyweights Waterloo, Calgary, Western Ontario and Queen's fall out of the top 200 entirely.
By contrast, one relative underdog - the University of Victoria - was celebrating last night after being promoted into the global elite for the first time.
"We're a mid-sized university and anything that looks at quality rather than simply quantity is something that plays to us," said University of Victoria president David Turpin. "It's great that Times Higher Education has recognized what we've been trying to do."
U of T placed 17th overall, followed by University of British Columbia at 30th and McGill University at 35th. Other Canadian universities to rank were McMaster (93rd), Alberta (127nd), Victoria (130th), l'Université de Montréal (138th), Dalhousie (193rd) and Simon Fraser (199th).
"Some of us who are measurement mavens may grumble, but the public appetite for rankings seems endless. This year, the Times group consulted widely to pinpoint weaknesses in other ranking systems and in their previous approach," said David Naylor, president of the U of T.
"They brought in a new partner with recognized expertise in data gathering and analysis. And they also sought peer opinions on the education and learning environment at scores of universities. These are welcome developments, and we'll be looking carefully at the results."
McGill, meanwhile, played down the significance of its placing below the larger school down the 401 Highway, pointing out that, because the methodology is different, it's hard to compare this year's rankings with last year's.
"The great thing for this country is that we have three universities that are consistently ranked among the top in the world - not just McGill and U of T, but also UBC - and, depending on the ranking, the order changes," said Vaughan Dowie, McGill's executive head of public affairs.
Mr. Dowie pointed out that under the QS University Rankings, which use the same methodology that Times Higher did last year and were released last week, McGill is placed 19th in the world, a spot higher than last year, while U of T comes in 29th.
The rankings are partly a way for universities to gauge their own performance against other schools and are also used by international students mulling options in different countries.
Increased clout among these students will be the chief benefit for Canadian schools that made the cut, said Ken Steele, senior vice-president with higher-education marketing consultancy Academica Group Inc.
He noted the "surprising changes" in this year's list, notably the likes of Waterloo and Queen's being beaten out by less-heralded schools such as SFU and Victoria.
As in previous years, the U.S. dominates, taking all top five places and boasting 72 entries in the top 200. The United Kingdom was second with 29, Germany had 14 and the Netherlands 10.
"This new table offers a more reliable view of Canada's higher education and its place in the world. While it will not make pleasant reading for all nations, Canada should be generally pleased," Mr. Baty said. "While other commonwealth nations find themselves suffering under THE's new methodology, which is less about reputation and more about real output, Canada bucks this trend.
"Although it has fewer institutions in the top 200 than it may have expected, those that are there represent a stellar performance."
Editor's note: An earlier online version of the story incorrectly stated McGill's rank in the QS university rankings. This version has been corrected.