Canada Has Achieved Universal Higher Education. Now what?

The basic structure of Canada’s higher education system – the binary system of universities and colleges – was put in place in the 1960s. This system has three main responsibilities: providing first-level higher education (which requires a secondary school diploma for entry); providing graduate education (which requires a bachelor’s degree for entry); and conducting research.  Although having these three responsibilities, the system has been designed almost entirely around the provision of first-level higher education.  

The general perception is that we have not yet reached universal higher education.

The focus of public policy has been to expand the number of first-level places, both by establishing new universities and colleges and by expanding existing institutions. Growth and increasing the participation rate have been the order of the day. The system has been built to meet our commitment that there should be a place for every qualified student who wishes to attend.

This vast expansion over the past fifty years has served Canada well. But looking ahead, a major, and difficult, reorientation of public policy will be required. We must shift our focus away from expansion.

Expansion is often described as moving from elite to mass higher education. Higher education is said to be elite if up to 15 percent of the age cohort attend; it is mass higher education if the participation rate is between 15 and 50 percent; and it is universal if participation is above 50 percent.

The general perception is that we have not yet reached universal higher education.

But with the growth of the past fifteen years, we have in fact now achieved universal higher education! By the age of 21, over 70 percent of Canadians have entered higher education. In Ontario this figure is over 80 percent.  Among Canadians aged 25-34, 57 percent have attained a higher education qualification. We are among the leaders of OECD countries; the OECD average is 39 percent. This is an achievement to be celebrated.

However, should public policy support still further growth of the system? For the first time we must confront the question of whether the system is now large enough.

Looking at demographics, the eligible age cohort is now shrinking and will continue to do so until 2021. Further expansion will make it harder for existing institutions to attract students, will spread public support more thinly across the system, and will reduce the overall quality of education.

There is growing evidence that, although university and college graduates on average do well in the labour market, many must now take jobs that do not require a higher education qualification. The labour market does not need more graduates now, or likely in the coming decade. And expansion would have the highly undesirable side effect of pushing less educated workers further down on the job ladder.

We have indeed provided a place for qualified students that wish to attend. Most who do not attend have not achieved the necessary secondary school qualifications. And we should remember that there are many paths to holding a good job and being a full member of the community that do not require higher education. Many entrepreneurs, those who join a family business, atheletes, musicians, and writers take the path of learning by doing - of practice, practice, practice.

With expansion and entry into the system no longer the focus, we should shift first toward improving the programs currently offered and ensuring that those who enter the system do indeed complete their program.

We need to diversify the range of programs available to students. A high priority should be the provision of better online programs through an open university/open college. This would be a great benefit to those who have difficulty attending existing institutions and to those who wish to study part time. And we must ask whether we have the correct balance between university programs and college programs. Much evidence suggests that both students and the labour market would benefit from a hybrid of the two sectors: the applied degree. Creativity in this sort of program design will be critical in the future.

And we need to further differentiate the colleges and the universities in each sector. In particular, this will mean paying more attention to the other two responsibilities of the higher education system: graduate education and research. Some universities should become more focused upon doctoral education and research, and some colleges more focused upon applied degrees and applied research.

George Fallis is University Professor and Professor of Economics and Social Science at York University, where has been Chair of the Department of Economics, Dean of the Faculty of Arts, and York’s Academic Colleague on the Council of Ontario Universities.

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