Top marks for Canada’s post-secondary schools

New OECD report shows Canada does a good job balancing access to post-secondary education with quality

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Students at UBC (Simon Hayter for Maclean's)

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 Canadian 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, while also 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 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 of them from enrolling in post-secondary schools.

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, funding is low and 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, according to the report. 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.