Country Profile: Canada relies on its quality

Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau once described Canada's proximity to the US as "sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast," he said, "one is affected by every twitch and grunt."

by World Business
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

This observation applies to business education too, but Canadian establishments have risen to the challenge. "Being so close encourages us to emulate the American schools," says Michel Patry, dean of HEC Montreal. "But we compete on everything from graduates to PhD students and faculty." There are about 60 business schools in Canada, with programmes ranging from undergraduate degrees to MBA and executive education.

Most have an excellent reputation and have adopted innovative approaches to management education. "It's important to differentiate ourselves since the competition is so fierce," says Carol Stephenson, dean of the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario in Toronto. "Canadian schools have been very innovative. Considering our size and funding, I think we've outperformed many other countries. We're a little hidden gem."

The key word in Canada is integration. Peter Todd, dean of Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montreal, is taking its MBA programme through a major change; the feedback from students and employers, he says, suggested the teaching had become dated. "The notion that we have to solve one business problem, which may include all sorts of fields at the same time, is a reflection of how business works and how we should teach. I think Europe has always been a little bit more holistic. Here, we are more specialised, but we are catching up."

McGill, however, has long been experimenting with other types of business degrees, thanks to Henry Mintzberg, a well-respected management thinker and long-time critic of the traditional MBA. His International Masters Programme in Practicing Management (IMPM) teaches mindsets (managing self, organisations, people, context and change) to a group of executives across six different countries. "Mintzberg is a great scholar; he brings a great amount of innovation that forces us to reconsider what we do," says Todd.

Stephenson, who recently oversaw Ivey's curriculum redesign, explains its new cross-enterprise leadership approach: "We do not teach from a function perspective (finance, marketing, organisational behaviour); we teach from an issue perspective (for example, M&A), which is the situation you would normally find yourself in. We have four-hour sessions looking at particular issues from all perspectives and aspects."

Several Canadian schools have also broken from the ranks of the two-year MBA model favoured by US schools. Queen's School of Business in Kingston, Ontario, Sauder School of Business in Vancouver and HEC Montreal were among the first to switch to shorter formulas (12-16 months) a decade ago. Ivey followed last year. All felt that their programmes would benefit from streamlining, both in terms of teaching and opportunity cost for students.

Such a strategy has stood them in good stead: Canadian schools generally do well in international rankings, with the exception being this year's Financial Times list. All schools dropped, some significantly, mostly because of the weakness of the Canadian dollar (the FT ranking's main measure is salary progression). In fact, smaller programmes, such as Queen's, that have developed an individual approach don't appear at all in the FT, but regularly top BusinessWeek's non-US schools ranking, which emphasises student and employer feedback.

Daniel Muzyka, dean of Sauder School of Business, also says that although salary levels in Canada put schools at a disadvantage, its other assets redeem it. "Vancouver has one of the highest qualities of life in the world. It is true that salaries are substantially lower than in the US, but when students come here, they don't want to leave." Toronto is regularly voted the most cosmopolitan city in the world; Montreal's dual-language culture puts it at the crossroads between Europe and North America; Vancouver boasts one of the largest Asian communities in North America; and the US is a stone's throw from most of the schools, which is about as global as it gets these days.

The country has also benefited from the toughening of US immigration rules. "People feel more comfortable in Canada," says Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. "So many people here have foreign passports; we give off a nice vibe."

Foreign languages feature prominently in several programmes: Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto teaches eight languages and calls itself 'Canada's global business school', with its 80 international exchange programmes and international faculty and students. At HEC Montreal, Spanish features strongly in the curriculum, along with French and English. "I met a director of a big US bank," explains Patry, "that had acquired another bank in South America and needed training for its executives in Spanish, so we were able to help. I also invited it to consider our graduates, who would be operational immediately."

Canadian degrees are also cheap. Because education is regulated by the provincial governments, tuition fees are capped (except in private schools such as Queen's). Canadian students are able to obtain an MBA at the bargain price of C$10,000 ($8,600), and for as little as C$3,200 for Quebec residents. For the schools, however, particularly those in Quebec, this is a major handicap: they would like to raise their charges to market levels and not being able to do so means many of the schools do not have sufficient funding to offer enough scholarships. "We would just like the opportunity to charge Canadian average, which is about C$6,000 for undergraduate courses and C$23,000 for an MBA," says Todd at McGill.

In 2005-6, business education received about 1% of the total research funding dispensed by the three main federal agencies. Of the 1,695 Canada Research Chairs, only 20 are in management studies, despite the fact that the discipline accounts for 15.5% of degrees granted in Canada. Finding a way to escape the financial straightjacket has been one of Martin's objectives since he became dean of Rotman in 1999. "One of the reasons I took on this job is that I think to be a great country, you need great companies. And to have great companies, you need great managers. I felt at the time that business education in this country was not achieving this."

Martin's efforts are now starting to pay off: the province of Ontario announced in March that it would provide C$60 million in funding to Rotman towards the construction of a new building to expand the school's graduate programme capacity by 50%; the rest will be financed by a private fund-raising campaign. Ivey is also launching its biggest fundraising campaign ever, and HEC Montreal and McGill are launching a new EMBA for which they will be able to charge premium rates.

Despite these difficulties, schools in Canada have done well by virtue of the quality of teaching. Perhaps the best gauge of this is the fact that Mintzberg has been at McGill for nearly 40 years. "It's a wonderful place. It is very supportive, with very high research and intellectual standards. We have been able to do a lot of very interesting programmes there," he says. "I think the new EMBA (with HEC Montreal) goes beyond the IMPM. It teaches mindsets and business issues, and has been developed for people coming from practice. I am hoping to get involved." The first class starts in 2008.

FT Global MBA ranking 2007
27 Rotman
41 Ivey
49 Schulich
77 Sauder
90 McGill
BusinessWeek 2006 non-US top 10 MBA programmes (biennial)
1 Queen's
2 Ivey
3 Rotman
9 Schulich
10 HEC Montreal
BusinessWeek top second tier non-US schools

HEC C$10,500/C$21,000 one year
(C$4,300 for Quebec residents)
Ivey C$59,000/C$69,000 16 months
McGill C$6,500/C$22,000 two years
(C$3,200 for Quebec residents)
Queen's C$58,000/C$63,000 one year
Rotman C$56,000/C$78,000 two years
Sauder C$38,000 15 months
Schulich C$45,000/C$60,000 two years

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