Near the end of the 1700s, James McGill, businessman, civil servant, politician, property owner and militia officer was disheartened by the fact that only one boy out of five knew how to read or write. He thought Montréal needed more educational institutions, especially at the post-secondary level. It is thanks to this Montrealer and Scottish native that Montréal’s first university—McGill University—was built. On September 6, 1843, the first students walked through the doors of the Faculty of Arts. Women had to wait until 1888 for the first female students to be admitted to McGill. The Donaldas, a nickname given to them in honour of philanthropist Donald A. Smith, who was in favour of them being included in the Bacholor of Arts program, included Misses Eliza Cross, Martha Murphy, Blanche Evans, Gracie Ritchie, Jane Palmer, Alice Murray, Georgina Hunter and Donalda McFee.
McGill University is the first, but not only, university in Montréal. With eight universities and institutions of higher learning, Montréal is a veritable city of knowledge. Several decades after McGill University opened, the Université de Montréal was founded for francophone and Catholic Montrealers. In 1878, it became a branch of the Université Laval in Québec City and the training offered was concentrated in three faculties: theology, law and medicine. Citizens had to wait until 1919 for the Université de Montréal to become independent. In the meantime, the Polytechnique (1887) and the École des hautes études commerciales (1915) were added to the university. These two schools would train the first French-Canadian generation of students in engineering and finance. The Université de Montréal was also the first to award the first university diploma to a French-Canadian woman, Marie Gérin-Lajoie, in 1911.
In 1968, in the flurry of reforms to the education system sparked by the Révolution tranquille, the government of Québec created the network of Québec universities. With the goal of making university education more accessible, several universities and institutions of higher learning were opened in the 1960s and 1970s: the Université du Québec à Montréal (1969), the École de technologie supérieure (1974) and the École nationale d’administration publique (1969). These three institutions still share the three fundamental values that led to their creation, which is to ensure that education remains accessible, rooted in history and innovative. It’s also in the 1970s that Concordia University opened its doors after Sir George Williams University and Loyola College merged. It would become Québec’s third anglophone university alongside Bishop’s and McGill. Thanks to the diversity of its universities and its warm welcome, Montréal was ranked the top university city by foreign students in the annual Quacquarelli Symonds World University Rankings.