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A person walks past the University of Toronto campus during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Wednesday, June 10, 2020.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Canada’s leading research universities held their places in an annual global ranking, with the University of Toronto rated among the top 20, the University of British Columbia and McGill in the top 40 and the University of Montreal jumping several places for the second year in a row.

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2021 show only a little change from last year, with Oxford leading the rankings for the fifth consecutive year. But the publishers say the onset of the pandemic and a possibly long-lasting global recession could spark a “rebalancing of the global knowledge economy.”

The University of Toronto is Canada’s top-ranked university at 18 in the world, the same spot it occupied a year ago. The University of British Columbia placed 34th, also unchanged, and McGill University rose two places to 40. Hamilton’s McMaster University is the fourth ranked Canadian university at 69 in the world.

The University of Montreal leapt 12 places to 73, its second consecutive jump.

Daniel Jutras, rector of the University of Montreal, said it’s the first time the university has placed among the top 75. The university’s recent rise in the rankings seems to have been owing primarily to its performance on research metrics, Mr. Jutras said. He said the institution is proud of the result, as these rankings are very closely watched internationally.

“A lot of people look at these, but we don’t want to take them as things that guide our behaviour. We try to do the best that we can and hope that the results will be great, but the results here are not the measure of our success,” Mr. Jutras said.

The top 10 is dominated by U.S. universities, beginning with Stanford, which was second, Harvard, Cal Tech, M.I.T., the University of California Berkeley, Yale, Princeton and the University of Chicago. Cambridge, in sixth, joins top-rated Oxford as the only non-U.S. schools in the top 10.

For the first time an Asian university, China’s Tsinghua, placed among the top 20.

“Canada’s powerhouses continue to perform at the top end of the table. Despite a record number of universities qualifying for the rankings, Canada’s top six universities all improved or maintained their previous position, which is a fantastic accolade for Canadian higher education,” said Phil Baty, chief knowledge officer at Times Higher Education.

“However, with the backdrop of COVID-19, well-established higher education systems could be under threat as they face the very real risk of losing significant international student talent, and the billions of dollars in fees that they bring. In the longer term, possibly permanent shifts in the global flow of academic talent that has traditionally fuelled elite institutions could create real challenges.”

Among other Canadian universities to place in the rankings, the University of Alberta was 131, up five places. The University of Ottawa dropped slightly to 145 from 141 and the University of Calgary was 200.

The rankings, which place schools in groups beyond the top 200, placed Waterloo and Western in the range of 201 to 250. Dalhousie, Laval, Queen’s and Simon Fraser placed between 251 and 300. The University of Manitoba and University of Victoria were between 351 and 400.

The rankings are based on 13 indicators that attempt to assess an institution’s performance in teaching and research, measuring qualities such as research output, citations and international outlook.

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