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Margin Notes

OECD’s Education at a Glance 2012, Canadian perspective

Canada “continues to be a leader in higher education,” says report, but not all is rosy.


The OECD released its always much anticipated annual Education at a Glance report today. It is arguably the most comprehensive international compendium of statistics measuring, and comparing, the state of education worldwide. The report analyses the education systems of the 34 OECD member countries, as well as those of Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Russia, Saudi Arabia and South Africa. The OECD also helpfully prepares separate “country notes” for many of the countries involved, including Canada. I’ll get to the Canadian statistics in a minute, but first here’s the general synopsis of the state of education from the main report:

For some time now, the global education and economic landscapes have been in a state of rapid transformation, spurred in significant part by two key changes. The first is the continued ascent of the knowledge economy, which has created powerful new incentives for people to build their skills through education – and for countries to help them do so. The second phenomenon – which is closely related to the first – is the explosive growth of higher education worldwide, which has increased opportunities for millions and is expanding the global talent pool of highly-educated individuals.

This year’s Education at a Glance examines these landscapes in light of another important change: the full onset of the global recession in 2009 and 2010. As one might expect, our analysis finds that no group or country – no matter how well-educated – is totally immune from the effects of a worldwide economic downturn. At the same time, it also shows the remarkable importance of having a higher level of education for the economy, for the labour market and for the society as a whole.

At the most basic level, it’s clear that having more education helped people to keep or change their jobs during the recession. For instance, between the start of the downturn in 2008 and 2010, overall unemployment rates jumped from an already high 8.8% to 12.5% for people without an upper secondary education, and from 4.9% to 7.6% for people with an upper secondary education, on average across OECD countries. By contrast, unemployment rates for people with higher education remained much lower, rising from 3.3% to 4.7% during this same period.

Canada “continues to be a leader in higher education,” according to the accompanying country note prepared for Canada. It ranks first among OECD countries in the proportion of adults with a college-level education, at 24%, and ranks 8th in the proportion of adults with a university education, at 26% (see chart at the end of this post).

Some of the other highlights for Canada:

  • Canada spends $20,932 (all figures in US dollars) per tertiary student every year – the third-highest amount among OECD countries after Switzerland and the United States.
  • Canadian women have the highest tertiary education attainment rate (55%) for women or men among OECD countries, but men are more likely to be employed (84.7% vs. 78.5% for women).

But not all is rosy. According to the OECD, “Canada’s labour outcomes for young adults show signs that the economic crisis hit this group particularly hard.” After many years of stability or declines, the proportion of 15-29 year-old Canadians who were neither employed nor in education and training – the so-called “NEETS” – increased from 11.7% to 13.5% between 2008 and 2010.

In addition, the OECD notes that while tertiary education attainment has been growing at an annual rate of about 2.4% in Canada, growth has been greater in many other countries. As a result, “rates of participation in education will need to grow if Canada is to remain competitive in a globalised labour market as its population ages.”

The report also notes that, with the recent Quebec student protests, the funding of higher education has been “a hotly-debated topic” in Canada. “As in other OECD countries,” the report notes, “policy makers in Canada are having to strike an effective balance between providing appropriate levels of public support for higher education and recognising that many of the benefits of higher education accrue to individuals.”

In Canada, average annual tuition fees for the 2008-09 academic year – $3,774 – place us somewhat towards the higher end for OECD countries. The report points out that institutions of higher education in a number of countries, including the Nordic countries, the Czech Republic and Mexico, charge no tuition fees; and in Ireland, tuition fees are covered by the state through a transfer to public institutions.

The Council of Ministers of Education Canada, in a press release, echoes the OECD findings: the report, says the CMEC, “confirms that Canada is not only a world leader in education, but that its education outcomes continue to improve. But it also shows that many other countries are catching up, making the global race to the top in education more competitive.” The OECD data for Canada have been broken down by province and territory in a companion report, Education Indicators in Canada: An International Perspective 2012, produced by the CMEC and Statistics Canada, which was also released today.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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