Top marks for Canada’s post-secondary schools

OECD report shows balance of access and quality


Students at UBC (Simon Hayter)

At a conference on media and higher education last week at the University of Toronto, administrators spoke of a “crisis narrative” in the coverage of post-secondary education. They said the media talks of how high tuition is, how governments don’t spend enough and how degrees don’t always lead to jobs. What we don’t report, they said, is how well our schools do.

They have a point. A new 438-page report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), called Education at a Glance 2013, is a reminder that Canada’s schools do a remarkably good job balancing access to education and quality, and prepping grads for jobs.

First off, the OECD’s country-to-country comparison shows that access to education is just as good in Canada as it is in countries with no tuition, because our system also offers high public support (think bursaries and loans). In fact, Canada has the most highly-educated workforce in the OECD, with 51 per cent attaining post-secondary credentials compared to 32 per cent on average.

Surprisingly, countries that follow the low/no-tuition model—like Finland, Norway, Sweden, Germany and France—don’t have any more students entering post-secondary education (75 per cent of the population) than countries with high tuition and high government funding like Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the U.K. and the U.S. (it’s 76 per cent in those countries).

In other words, just because students are angry about paying tuition and unhappy about taking on student loans doesn’t mean it’s stopping large numbers from enrolling in post-secondary school.

It’s also clear they’re entering better schools as a result. The argument in favour of tuition, one frequently articulated by the leaders of Quebec’s universities during last year’s anti-tuition protests, is that tuition pays for more professors and better facilities. In other words, it boosts quality.

If international rankings are any indication, that’s true. Countries the new OECD report lists as having high tuition dominate the rankings. The U.S., the U.K., Japan, South Korea, China, Canada and Australia—all high tuition countries—host 44 of the top 50 highest ranked universities worldwide, according to Times Higher Education. (Canada has three: Toronto, McGill and British Columbia.)

Countries with no/almost no tuition—Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Germany and France—have only two universities in the top 50, one each in Sweden and Germany. Germany (pop. 82 million) and France (66 million) are much bigger than Canada (34 million), so one would expect them to outperform us. They don’t come close, because the lack of tuition hurts quality.

Access is, however, still a big problem in some countries that do well in rankings—those with high tuition but low public support. In Japan, for example, only 52 per cent enter higher education. That should serve as a reminder to governments in Canada that cutting support could affect access.

The report also serves as a reminder that Canadian students are taking on bigger burdens than in the past. Public support for universities in Canada has fallen from 61 per cent of the total cost in 2000 to 57 per cent of the total in 2011. That means tuition is rising and so are student loans.

But student loans are easy to pay off if graduates can find jobs. In Canada, most still do. The unemployment rate among 25 to 29-year-olds was 5.8 per cent for university graduates in 2012, 6.2 per cent for college graduates/tradespeople and 8.8 per cent for high school graduates.

So all in all, it looks like the administrators are correct. Canada’s post-secondary system is doing better than we sometimes give it credit for—especially when compared to international peers.


Top marks for Canada’s post-secondary schools

  1. “Student loans are easy to pay off if graduates can find jobs”
    ACtually, no, it’s not that easy for many grads. According to recent research by the Social Research Development Corporation, in the year 2011/12 176,00 student loan borrowers applied to the Repayment Assistance Program. Most of them were already behind in their monthly payments so their credit rating has been negatively impacted. If you graduate with a $27,000 student loan, your monthly payment would be over $500 a month if you want to pay it off in 5 years and reduce your overall interest added to the principal. So, no, it’s not true that students loans are easy to pay off for graduates with jobs because their debt to income ratio is too heavy for too many.

    • What’s your background in this matter? For some people it is easy to pay back. The banks I have dealt with have been more than flexible to help me afford paying off my loan.
      The government gave me a $7,000 bursary – basically, *gifted* me $7,000 that I don’t need to pay back. That’s a lot of money to be handed.

      Interest rates are very low for student loans.
      I encourage you to do research and “shop around” at different institutions for better interest rates and loan terms.

      From my experience, and I’m by no means making a lot of money now, student loans are have enabled me to get a post secondary education at an awesome university.