Canadian Higher Education: At the Crossroads

Inside Algonquin's new Centre for Construction Excellence -- Investment in colleges means access for students & economic prosperity for the community.

Canadian Post-secondary Education

When we speak of the Canadian post-secondary education system we need to remember that there is, in fact, no Canadian post-secondary education system.  In our case, the provinces constitutionally assume this responsibility.  However, as a collection of colleges and universities, what we do have, according to Paris-based OECD, is the most effective set of outcomes in world.  That is, Canada graduates more students as a percent of its population than any country in the world.

On the surface, this is certainly encouraging news.  However, it is important to remember that the total number of post-secondary students in Canada is half of that enrolled in Mexico and France and 15 times fewer than the US.  More remarkably, the number of people attending higher education in China and India represent almost 80% of Canada’s population!  It is obviously important that Canada invest wisely in its post-secondary education system.  This will help ensure the country continues to graduate students and industry continues to receive highly trained/educated employees who will help them remain competitive and prosperous.

Canadian Higher Education – A Reality Check

To remain competitive as a Country, we must sustain our post-secondary-induced strategic advantage.  Sadly, this appears not to be a priority in some provinces.  As an example, British Columbia has reportedly directed an 85% reduction in capital allowance.  In Ontario, real funding to colleges in 2009-10 was about 7% lower than it was in 1994-95 (while enrolment increased 26%).  On a national level, OECD reports that the total funding to higher education in Canada as a percent was reduced by more than 5 points between the years 2000 and 2006.

The Privatization of Public Education

Increased tuition fees and shifting expenses to the student has been referred to as ‘cost sharing’.  What this really means is that we are seeing higher education move from being publicly funded, to being publicly assisted, to one that is moving closer to becoming privatized.  That is, we are moving post-secondary education from being a public good to a private good.  Where this trend will end is not known at this time, however, the situation is exacerbated by the fact that the earliest we will see many provinces return to fiscal health is 2016-17.

Canada’s economic reality is forcing many colleges and universities to act in very different ways.  Some of these changes are important (increased productivity and innovation) and others less admirable (reduced access due to financial and capital constraints).  What we do know is that there is a time in the life of every government that vision and courage must supersede promises and rhetoric.  As budgets are developed in the coming month, this is the time where public officials can choose to sustain the economic and social prosperity that is directly correlated to higher education; or choose another path…   We need to be watching closely.



About kentmacdonald

President and Vice Chancellor Professor, Faculty of Education St. Francis Xavier University
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