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Margin Notes

A few helpful suggestions to improve Canada’s higher ed system

OECD report says improving quality and access is key to sustaining our standard of living.


The latest Economic Survey of Canada, published by the OECD and released on June 13, observes that Canada has weathered the global economic crisis relatively well compared to other countries, but cautions that the country “has to become more productive to sustain its high standard of living.” To do that, the report identifies several areas where Canada can boost innovation.

However, what will likely be of particular interest to those who work in the higher education system are the suggestions the report makes to improve the quality of, and access to, higher ed. Improvements in tertiary education, the report says, will be critical to supporting “socially inclusive growth in a knowledge-driven economy.”

I think most of the recommendations are fairly uncontroversial and serve as a helpful reminder that there is room for improvement in our system. A press release summarizes some the recommendations:

Canada should invest further to improve both quality and access to tertiary education, to maintain the supply of highly skilled workers as the population ages. Financial assistance to students should become more targeted and granted on a means-tested basis. This would help reduce the barriers for financially disadvantaged students and promote more socially inclusive growth. Tertiary education should also become more flexible and facilitate lifelong learning. Canada should seek to attract more foreign students into its tertiary system and make it easier for them to work and stay in Canada after graduation. Finally, the report suggests that universities be differentiated between institutions that engage in research and those that focus primarily on teaching.

One area in particular flagged in the report as requiring improvement is credit transfer. The report notes that the provincial educational systems have undergone rapid but differentiated growth, which has given rise “to a plethora of different types of institutions to meet the labour market’s increasingly diverse needs.” While the report sees this differentiation as a strength, it says this can hinder mobility for students wishing to transfer credits across institutions. It recommends further coordination to facilitate credit transfer both inter-provincially and across different types of institutions within provinces.

The report also notes that a shrinking youth population implies that growth in the supply of skilled labour will require encouraging participation in tertiary education for groups that are currently under-represented in higher education, such as those from low-income families with no history of higher education, mature students and Aboriginal students. Canada’s combination of “fairly modest tuition fees” and its current student loan system is generally successful at promoting access, but this may not be sufficient for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds who “may be more debt-averse and sensitive to changes in the cost of education.” To address this, the report suggests a greater use of grants, in addition to loans, to improve access to these groups. Equality of access could also be improved, says the report, “by increasing the transparency of the grant application process, while stepping up efforts to deliver information to low-income families at an early stage to help them understand the benefits of higher education and their options to finance it.”

The report also notes that funding constraints have driven up ratios of full-time students to full-time university faculty, especially in Ontario and British Columbia. “Universities have been moving to larger class sizes, more sessional lecturers and increased reliance on less time-consuming evaluation instruments (such as multiple-choice examinations). There is some risk that these trends may hinder students from fully developing the skills needed for innovation, although evidence on this point is scarce.”

The report suggests that “creating greater differentiation between [higher education institutions] that engage in research and those that focus on teaching may help strengthen overall quality by allowing institutions to specialise by targeting resources on their areas of comparative advantage.”

Also of note is the welcome recommendation that more funding be allocated to Statistics Canada to co-ordinate data collection on higher education institutions and student outcomes at a nation-wide level.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Glen Jones / June 17, 2012 at 12:52

    You have provided a very thoughtful overview of some of the key findings of the OECD report. On June 14th (the day after its release) the Higher Education Group at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education hosted a symposium featuring two individuals from the OECD (Peter Jarrett and Alexandra Bibbee) who contributed to the report as well as two discussants (Creso Sa and Michael Skolnik). Presentation slides and streamed video of the symposium can be found at:
    The OECD Report (and the symposium) raised some interesting issues and questions about postsecondary education in Canada.

    Glen Jones, OISE

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