How to pick your university in Canada

Asheesh Moosapeta
Published: December 21, 2023

Canada today is home to over 800,000 international students, one of the world’s largest international student populations. Much of this popularity is due to the country’s excellent educational institutions, as well as promising employment and immigration possibilities after graduation.

While having an abundance of education options has ultimately benefitted international students, it can make the task of choosing a college or university in Canada daunting. CIC News has prepared the following guide to help new and existing international students choose their ideal school in Canada.

Discover your options to study in Canada

Part 1: Meeting prerequisites

Before choosing your ideal school and program in Canada, you will need to make sure that your institution of choice is a Designated Learning Institution (DLI). DLIs are the only educational institutions in Canada that are allowed to accept international students and provide them housing.

The government has an expansive list of DLIs, which can be found here.

International students (who wish to work in Canada after their graduation) should also make sure with their DLI that their chosen program meets the requirements for a Post-Graduation Work Permit (PGWP). A PGWP is usually given for the duration of the length of study (up to three years) and is an open work permit, allowing international graduates to work in most industries and for most employers.

PGWPs are also essential for students who want to settle permanently in Canada after their studies, as most permanent residence (PR) pathways open to international students require at least one-year of full-time eligible work experience.

Part 2: General school and program considerations

Even before looking at a specific faculty or program, students should take the time to also assess more general characteristics of potential colleges and universities, to get a better idea of what their post-secondary experience may entail. Students can thus choose their school on its overall merits and possibilities, something that can be important with as many as 75-80% of undergraduates changing their degree or program at some point during their studies.

Some of these considerations include:

  • Campus/Student life: This encompasses factors like: what is the school campus like? Where is it located relative to other amenities/population centers? What school clubs and societies can be joined? What culinary options are available on or close to campus? Etc.;
  • Student services: Closely related to student life are services that students can avail: this can encompass everything from medical assistance to access to alumni networks, preferable pricing and offers on goods and services, bus passes and more. Student services and can be a great added bonus to one’s program and student life, with additional services potentially available to those who need them;
  • Ratio of faculty to students: Another important consideration is the ratio of faculty (professors, assistant professors, teaching assistants, etc.) to students. This ratio can impact everything from quality of teaching, to access (and timeliness of access) to office hours, medical and health resources, and wider student services. Generally, the more equal the ratio, the better;
  • Possibilities for cooperative learning (co-op): Co-op possibilities over the course of the program can also be a key factor for many students. These programs offer students the ability to receive placement in a business (often one associated or partnered with the specific educational institute) and gain valuable job and career experience. Often, these work opportunities are also paid, giving students a valuable opportunity to both earn money and make valuable professional in-roads before graduating; and
  • Job prospects upon graduation: The most important consideration for many international students is job prospects upon graduation. One of the best resources to learn about this is from the university or specific faculty that you are considering—as many educational institutes publish these statistics online. In addition, students can use websites like JobBank.ca and Statistics Canada’s reporting on job vacancies by industry, to better understand labour market conditions relevant to them.

Part 3: Getting specific

Many international school ranking organisations post rankings of post-secondary institutions, both by school overall, and by program. These can be excellent resources to help narrow your search, especially with the ability to filter rankings by various considerations like country/region, faculty/field of study, and more. Both international students looking to do general research on a school and those who want to learn more about a specific faculty in a school can benefit from the information provided in these rankings.

Three of the most widely cited are the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) university rankings, the Times Higher Education university rankings, and the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU)—also known as the Shanghai Rankings. Each uses a unique methodology to get their results:

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings utilises 13 metrics, categorised into five sectors, for evaluating universities. Institutions that do not offer undergraduate studies or underperform in research productivity are excluded from consideration in these rankings.

The evaluation process includes the following five categories:

  • Education (making up 30% of the total score): This is determined by a reputation survey (15%), faculty-to-student ratio (4.5%), ratio of doctoral to undergraduate degrees (2.25%), ratio of doctoral degrees granted to academic staff (6%), and overall institutional income (2.25%);
  • Research (30% of total score): This involves reputation survey data (18%), research income (6%), and the number of research papers per faculty member (6%);
  • Citations of Research (30%): This is judged by the number of times a university's research is cited, taking into account the specific academic field;
  • International Perspective (contributing 7.5% to the score): This is based on the number of international versus domestic students (2.5%), international versus domestic staff (2.5%), and the extent of international research collaborations (2.5%); and
  • Income from Industry (constituting 2.5% of the overall score): This is derived from income from industry, calculated relative to the number of academic staff employed, and adjusted for Purchasing Power Parity (PPP).

QS University Rankings

QS World University Rankings evaluates universities on six key performance metrics related to research, teaching, student employability, and international outlook. To qualify for these rankings, a university must offer undergraduate and postgraduate programs and engage in research across at least two of the five broad faculty sectors (arts and humanities; engineering and technology; social sciences and management; natural sciences; life sciences and medicine).

The breakdown of the overall score is as follows:

  • Academic reputation (40%): This is obtained through a global survey of academic professionals, who are tasked with pointing out the top institutions in their respective fields;
  • Employer reputation (10%): This data comes from a worldwide survey of graduate employers who specify the universities that yield the best graduates for their industry;
  • Student-to-faculty ratio (20%): This indicates the quality of teaching and support provided by the institution;
  • Research citations per faculty member (20%): Normalised by discipline, this reflects the effectiveness of a university's research;
  • Shares of international faculty (5%): This demonstrates a university's ability to recruit faculty from abroad; and
  • Shares of international students (5%): This demonstrates a university's ability to recruit students from overseas.

The Academic Ranking of World Universities / Shanghai Ranking

The Academic Ranking of World Universities (AWRU) gauges six measures of research excellence. The ranking takes into consideration all universities that have Nobel Laureates, Fields Medalists, much-cited academics, papers in Nature or Science, or a substantial volume of papers indexed by the Science Citation Index-Expanded (SCIE) or Social Science Citation Index (SSCI).

  • Alumni (accounting for 10% of the total score): The evaluation is determined by the count of an institution's alumni who have achieved Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals, placing emphasis on the most recent recipients;
  • Awards (20%): The assessment is determined by the count of staff tied to an institution who have received Nobel Prizes in the divisions of physics, chemistry, medicine, and economics, also Fields Medals in the maths group, allocating emphasis on the most recent recipients;
  • Highly cited researchers (20%): The evaluation is determined by the count of an institution’s highly cited researchers, aligned with the most current list publicized by Thomson Reuters;
  • Papers in Nature and Science (20%): The assessment is reliant on the count of papers issued in these two influential publications (Nature and Science) within a four-year window. This category does not apply to institutions specialized in humanities and social sciences;
  • Papers indexed (20%): The evaluation is determined by the tally of papers indexed in the previous calendar year in the Science Citation Index-Expanded and Social Science Citation Index, with papers indexed in the Social Science Citation Index given twice the weight; and
  • Per capita performance (10%): The aggregate weighted scores from the other indicators divided by the total number of full-time equivalent academic staff within the institution.

Location considerations

The final consideration is towards the location of your chosen university or college. Location can be a crucial factor towards immigration, as it can qualify an international student for their local Provincial Nominee Program (PNP). PNPs are designed to spread the benefits of immigration across Canada, and many provinces have specific streams for international graduates of institutions in their province (after they complete one year of eligible, full-time work experience).

Many provinces further have a list of in-demand occupations for candidates who have experience in those professions. This can further aid an international student’s ability to gain PR in Canada after their studies.

Discover your options to study in Canada

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