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Margin Notes

A glance at Canada’s postsecondary education standings

We're number one in terms of postsecondary attainment -- well, sort of.


We’re number one! According to the 2014 Education at a Glance report by the OECD, Canada has the highest percentage, among member countries, of adults aged 25-64 who have obtained a tertiary education – 53%. We’ve occupied that spot for some years now. The OECD average is 32%.

Some may be consoled by that number, claiming of our higher education system that we’re doing darn good, thank you. On the other hand, as I’ve read in some online comments, others may lament: why the heck does everybody seem to have to go to university! The problem with this one statistic is that it obscures as much as it reveals.

As the OECD is quick to point out, Canada’s high ranking is largely due to its high rates of college-based vocational education (what the OECD classifies as “tertiary-type B”). Canada ranks first among 34 OECD countries in the proportion of 25-64 year-olds with a college education (24%), but is tied for seventh place (with Korea and Denmark) in the proportion of adults with a university education (28%). And, looking at younger adults (aged 25 to 34) with a university degree in their pocket, Canada is tied for 17th place. So much for the canard that “everybody” seems to be going to university.

On another front, the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2014-2015 ranked Canada 18th in the world in a general category of higher education and training, but 45th in terms of postsecondary enrolment rates specifically! I’d take that last statistic with more than a grain of salt. I’m not sure how they came up with that.

One other area in the OECD report where Canada is a leader is annual spending per student on tertiary education ($23,200 USD, compared to the OECD average of $14,000, placing us second of 37 countries). The report notes, meanwhile, that Canada ranks among the countries with the highest tuition fees.

In addition, the report reinforces that employment income, in all countries, increases with education. In 2011, adults in Canada with a university education earned approximately 60% more on average than adults with upper secondary education, while adults with a college education earned 13% more.

Also of passing interest, 73 percent of students with a higher education degree in Canada have a parent or parents with a higher education degree – indicating again that parental educational status is an important indicator of postsecondary education attendance.

In terms of “foundational skills,” Canadian adults rank near the OECD average, while Canadian youth rank above average. As well:

  • Canadian adults rank at the OECD average in literacy scores and below average in numeracy scores.
  • Canadian 15-year-olds score significantly above the OECD average in mathematics, but between 2003 and 2012 their average mathematics scores deteriorated.
  • The relationship between performance and socio-economic status in Canada is weaker than the average for OECD countries, indicating that the education system “is producing relatively equitable outcomes for students.”

One final note: Canada’s share of international students increased from 4.5% in 2000 to 4.9% in 2012. In real numbers, that works out to an additional 127,000 students for Canada compared to 2000. According to the OECD, Canada had roughly 221,000 international students attending our colleges and universities. (Note that this last number is for 2011, while most other countries are reporting data for 2012. Canada’s numbers will be higher for 2012).

Canada is the sixth most popular destination country for international students, after the U.S., the U.K, Germany, France and Australia, in that order. More than 4.5 million students were enrolled in tertiary education outside their home country in 2012.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Phillip Williams / December 28, 2018 at 08:20

    Statistics tells us that Canada’s post-secondary student population is in the range of 2 million. Canada Education Savings Program told me that in 2017, $3.8B was withdrawn from RESP accounts to support the post-secondary education of 431,000 students. Do you have stats about how do the remaining 1.6 million students finance their post-secondary education?