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The University of Toronto, McGill University, McMaster University and the University of Victoria among others scored As across all research areas in U-Multirank’s study.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Global university rankings are turning into a reputational arms race this fall – one that shows Canadian universities are holding their own against the best of international competitors, but also raises questions about how students and families can sort through the different standards to find the school that is right for them.

On Wednesday, upstart ranking body U-Multirank – a European Union-funded non-profit that gives universities grades but does not rank them – released its ratings of university research strength by the age of the school. It found that younger universities produce less research, but that the reason they do so is because they focus on other goals, particularly accessibility.

"Many universities were founded post-1945 and they account for a large percentage of the world's higher-education institutions," said Frans van Vught, a project leader for U-Multirank. "They were not necessarily created with the intention of ever becoming international centres of research excellence. Instead, they gave more people from a wider variety of backgrounds the opportunity to study."

The results also confirm what other tables released this fall have shown: In spite of flat or declining funding for postsecondary institutions in Canada and increasing funding to universities in Asia and some European countries, this country's institutions are up for the competition.

Last month, for example, the University of Toronto came in third in a closely watched research ranking produced by National Taiwan University (NTU) that looks at the number of research papers produced by faculty and how frequently they are cited in other work. The top two spots were won by Harvard and Johns Hopkins.

In Wednesday's U-Multirank study, U of T also scored As across all of the research areas, as did McGill University, McMaster University and the University of Victoria, among others.

"We've moved up from the fourth spot last year and were strong along all the six areas in the NTU," said Cheryl Regehr, the vice-president and provost at U of T.

The annual fall rankings season coincides with the rush to submit university applications. The name recognition offered by having a spot in the league tables plays a huge part in how students from abroad decide which school they would like to attend, and in research collaborations.

"Students know that the degree will be recognized anywhere because of the name recognition of the University of Toronto," Dr. Regehr said.

So important is showing up in a ranking that some smaller universities are now paying more than $15,000 annually for "QS Stars," an analysis of their teaching, infrastructure and internationalization strategies by the same company that puts out the QS Rankings, one of the big global ranking systems.

Ironically, it is smaller universities that may benefit the most from the proliferation of ranking systems.

While top universities are caught in a virtuous cycle where their established reputation leads to recruitment of renowned faculty, top students and generous donations, smaller universities can go unrecognized. In the latest U-Multirank ratings, the University of Guelph and the University of Manitoba both receive As in research output for their age and size, for example.

"Each of the rankings has a slightly different focus; some rely on reputation more," Dr. Regehr said. "That's why it's important to look for consistency across the rankings."