HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

September 25

Ending the Merit Scholarship Arms Race

Here’s a way the new Ontario Minister of Training Colleges and Universities, Reza Moridi, could do everyone an enormous service, and win political capital at the same time: force institutions to cut back radically on automatic merit-based entrance scholarships.

Here’s the background: at some point in the 1990s, Canadian institutions hooked onto the idea of giving out entrance awards as a way of managing enrolment.  It was a nice trick to help lock students in early in the admissions process – you register with me by a certain date, and I give you $1,000 (or whatever).  To keep costs down, “merit” was redefined as being exclusively in terms of high school grades and awarded according to a grid – $1,000 if you had over a 90, $750 if you had an 85, etc.   These were dubbed “Automatic Academic” awards by Franca Gucciardi in her 2004 paper Recognizing Excellence.

In the aughts, institutions in Ontario started getting truly stupid about this “merit” money, and an arms race broke out.  Here’s roughly how it worked: one year, school X would decide it was going to try to steal some smart science and engineering students from school Y, and would raise its offer to students with grades over 85% from (say) $1,500 to $2,000.  This worked, and school Y would see its yields go down.  But the following year, school Y would decide to up its offer by $1000, and the pendulum would swing back!  And so on, and so forth.  By 2007, Ontario institutions were handing out something on the order of $70 million in this fashion, and there is every reason to think this amount has increased since then.

There is no durable way an institution can get out in front of the pack in such an arms race – others would always match the awards, and an equilibrium would be restored.  All institutions are making themselves worse off because their net tuitions are all declining, yet no one can disengage because they are afraid they would lose share to others.  And into the deal we get a complete devaluation of the word “merit” because institutions are giving these awards to about 70% of incoming freshmen.

This is a classic collective action problem.  And collective action problems have solutions: imposed government rule-making.  In this case, the Government of Ontario should restrict the ability of universities to give away money based on grades alone to, say, 1% of what they take in via tuition.  If they want to run more complicated merit schemes – things that take into account service, innovation, and what have you – great.  Let ‘em knock themselves out (they won’t of course, because those take actual effort to organize, but whatever).  Or, if they want to give out more money based on need, that’d be OK too.  Just end the insanity around academic awards.

You think universities would oppose this on grounds of competitiveness or institutional autonomy?  Think again.  They’d love for someone to get them out of this arms race, because they’re clearly incapable of doing it themselves.  And of course the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance has already called for essentially the same thing, so the student constituency is already covered off.

So, how about it Dr. Moridi? Are you up for a quick win?  Just end the merit arms race.

September 24

The Math at Windsor

Not only is there strike talk at Laurentian, but there is also a strike in the air at Windsor (a one-day strike was held last week, but a full strike is promised for October 1st if no deal is reached).  Bargaining there began earlier this year, but for whatever reason, no progress was made in negotiations over the spring.  After a conciliator was unable to nudge the two sides closer together, the university was in the legal position to impose its offer on the faculty, which it did in early July. This was a canny piece of timing: by doing this in the summer, the university deprived the union of an immediate strike threat (because who cares if profs go on strike in summer?).

This was a rare case of a university playing hardball on timing; and though this may have wrong-footed the union, they’ve responded by making great rhetorical hay out of having a contract imposed on them.  Now, the strike is no longer about petty monetary demands, it’s about the right to collective bargaining.  Yay, righteousness!  And that’s a big bonus for the union, because if the strike was just about financial proposals, their position would be almost indefensible.

The union position is that the university’s offer – 0%, 0%, and 3% over three years – is inadequate because staff can’t be expected to accept wage increases below inflation.  While that’s one way of framing the institution’s offer, it glosses over the stonking amount of money the university is offering faculty through its Progression Through the Ranks (PTR) system (for a refresher course on PTR, see here).  Under the university’s offer, every single professor (other than those with over 30 years experience) gets an annual pay rise of $2,550.  This isn’t based on merit or anything, the way it is at Alberta or UBC or Waterloo, it’s just for sticking around another year.  On top of that, they get 0%, 0%, 3%.

Now that doesn’t translate easily into a percentage figure because $2,550 represents a different percentage for each professor, depending on their current pay. But let’s take a stab at it based on known average pay by rank.  Current pay figures are unavailable (thanks for cutting the UCASS faculty salary survey, StatsCan!), but I do have them from 4 years ago – they’ve probably gone up slightly since then, but for giggles let’s use them to take a look at what the university offer means if the PTR is included.

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On top of that, there’s something called the “Windsor Salary Scale” – a Windsor-only deal, in place for decades, which means that the Windsor salary scale always rises at the Ontario median.  Based on the past few years’ deals, this would mean average pay rises of another 4% or so (15.4% now for assistant profs, if you’re counting) – though it’s hard to predict exactly, since we don’t know what future salary settlements across Ontario will look like.  On the other hand, professors will also be asked to pay more into their pensions, what with returns being so meagre in our low-interest rate environment.  So let’s call these two a wash and stick with the figures in the table above.

To summarize, this deal – which, recall, had to be imposed – will see nearly all faculty salaries rise by rates well above inflation (in the case of assistant professors, by a factor of two).  The only ones who will not see a rise equal to inflation are that tiny minority (the 30+ years crew) already at the top of the pay grid, and who in most circumstances will be earning over $150,000.

Remember, this is at a university in a region where first-year enrolment fell by 10% this year, and where the regional youth cohort (Windsor-Essex-Chatham-Kent) is set to shrink by 15% or so over the next six years – meaning the institution will receive even fewer tuition dollars, and will receive a declining share of total government grants budget, which, if we’re lucky, will decline by only 3% in real terms over the next three years.

And still the union said no.

September 23

Another Reason to Get Serious About Measuring Workloads

So I see the Laurentian faculty union is threatening to strike.  The main issues are “workload” (they’d like to have lower undergraduate teaching loads to deal with an influx of graduate students) and pay (they’d like to “close the gap” with the rest of Ontario).

This is where the entire system would be well served by having some understanding of what, exactly, everybody is getting paid for.  Obviously, if you’re doing the same amount and type of work as someone else, you’ve got a pretty good claim to parity.  The problem is that what professors do – that is, their expected workload and outputs – can vary significantly from one place to another.

Lets’s take the issue of graduate supervision.  Laurentian profs are doing more of it than they used to – overall, 6% of full-time enrolments at Laurentian were at the graduate level in 2012, up from 4% five years earlier.  But if we’re going to use “the Ontario average” as a goal, it’s worth noting that across the province, 12% of full-time students are graduate students.  So on average, Laurentian professors do only about half as much graduate supervision as other professors across the province – and probably less if we were to weight doctoral supervision more highly.

Well, what about undergraduate teaching – maybe they do more of it that others?  On paper, they teach 3/2 (except in Science and Engineering, where its 2/2).  That’s the same as at most smaller Ontario institutions, and somewhat more than you’d see at larger institutions where 2/2 or even 2/1 is the norm.  But that’s not the whole story: class sizes are smaller at Laurentian.  Sixty-seven per cent of all undergraduate classes at Laurentian are under 30 students, compared to just 51% at York (though, surprisingly, the figure at Queen’s is almost the same as Laurentian – 65%).  But ask yourself: which takes more work, a 2/1 with average class sizes of 60, or a 3/2 with an average class size of 30?  Hard to tell.  But how can you make arguments about “equal pay for equal work” unless you know?

Then there’s research output.  If you use tri-council funding as a metric, and normalize for field of study, Laurentian profs in Science and Engineering are winning about 55% of the national average – higher than Ryerson, but less than half of what Carleton gets.  That’s not too bad.  In humanities and social sciences, however, Laurentian wins only 21% of the national average – about a fifth of what they get at Ottawa, and a third of what they get at Laurier (all data from our Measuring Academic Research in Canada paper, available here.  I could go on with data about publications and citations, but you get the idea: Laurentian professors’ research output isn’t all that close to the provincial average.

To recap: Laurentian is a school where (on average) professors have lower graduate teaching responsibilities and research output than the Ontario average, and an undergraduate teaching load that is higher than average in terms of number of classes, but is arguably lower in terms of total students taught.  So where should their pay be, relative to the provincial average?  Probably somewhere below the average, which indeed is where it is.

But the question for this dispute is: how far below?  Better comparative data, combined with some agreement about the relative weight of different parts of the professorial job, would take a lot of heat out of this debate.

September 22

Where Do Students Want to Live?

Today, we at HESA released a paper called: Moving On?  How Students Think About Choosing a Place to Live After Graduation, which is based on a 2011 survey of 1,859 students from across the country.  Obviously, you should go read the whole thing, but for the time-pressed here are the highlights:

1)      Part of the paper’s purpose is to examine the qualities students look for in a place to live.  Turns out Richard Florida’s whole shtick about young educated types looking for cities that are “hip” or “creative” may be somewhat wide of the mark; in fact, students’ main priorities in finding a place of residence are access to good jobs, healthcare services, and a low crime rate.  Access to cultural events and foodie cultures rank way, way down the list.  To put that another way: what young educated people look for in a place to live is pretty much what everyone else looks for.

2)      A solid majority of students intend to stay in the province in which they graduated.  That said, just over 40% of students are at least open to the idea of moving.  However, these students are not evenly distributed.  Students in the prairie provinces (including Alberta) are much more open to moving away than are students in British Columbia.  And, equally, students are not open to moving just anywhere – of the people open to a move, most have three or fewer potential destination provinces in mind, and are not open to any others (the most commonly-sought destinations are Ontario and British Columbia – Manitoba and Saskatchewan are the least ).  Only 7% are genuinely open to a move to pretty much anywhere in the country.

3)      Here’s perhaps the most important piece of news: financial incentives for graduates such as the tax credits used by Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and New Brunswick have almost no effect.  We asked students what they expected to earn in their first job in the province they were most likely to call home.  Then we asked them how much it would take to get them to move to each of the other provinces.  For most provinces (BC was the outlier), about a quarter said “nothing could get me to go there” and another 25% said “I’d go for an extra $25,000 or more” (which is really just a polite way of saying “never”).  But, intriguingly, between 13% (Manitoba) and 25% (British Columbia) of all students, say they’d move to that province for either no extra money or even a cut in pay – just give them a job and they’d go.  The percentage who say they’d move for an extra $2,000 (roughly the value of the tax credits in SK, MB and NB)?  About 1%.  Move the financial incentive up to $5,000 and you get another 1%.  And that’s perfectly consistent, right across the country.

The fact is, students are going to move where they’re going to move.  They are either tied to their present spot by networks of friends and family, or they are lured by money, jobs, and prosperity.  A couple of thousand bucks, in the grand scheme of things, just doesn’t seem to matter that much.

All of which begs the question: how come more provinces aren’t making like Nova Scotia and ditching these tax rebate programs?

September 19

Better Know a Higher Ed System: France

France is one of the original homelands of the university: the University of Paris was the first real university outside the Mediterranean basin, and was home to six universities by 1500 – only Italy and Spain had more at the time.  But while it has quite ancient roots, it is also, in many respects, one of the youngest systems of higher education in Europe, because the entire university system was wiped out during the Revolution, and then developed again from scratch during Napoleonic period that followed.

Unlike virtually every other system on earth, the French do not put universities at the top of the higher education hierarchy.  Instead, there are what are called “les Grandes Écoles”: peak, specialized institutions that only operate in a certain limited number of fields – École des Mines and Polytechnique for Engineering, l‘École Normale Superieur for Education, and l‘École Nationale d’Administration Publique” to train the masters of the universe.  Most of these go back two centuries – Polytechnique was an excellent spot for Napoleon to train his gunners – but ENAP actually only dates from the 1940s.

One step down in the hierarchy are the big “Instituts”, which serve as the training ground for professions, mainly in technology (IUT), but also in fields like nursing.  Universities, for the most part (medical studies excepted), are widely viewed as the dregs of the system, the catch-all for people not smart enough to make the grandes écoles, or driven enough to do professional studies.  That’s partly because they are bereft of many prestige disciplines, but it’s also because, historically, they are not centres of research.  As with many other European countries (notably Germany and Spain), the public research mission was largely the responsibility of the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), which was not attached to the universities.

Another historical feature of French universities is the degree to which they have been under state control.  Legally, all faculties were part of a single “Universite de France” for most of the 19th century.  Universities as we know them – autonomous institutions that pursue their own plans and goals – are fairly recent.  If you’re being generous, they date back to 1968; in fact they didn’t reach North American levels of autonomy until the loi Pecresse in 2007 – in practice, though, the shift happened in late 1980s.  Prior to that, hiring and promotion was essentially all done through the Ministry; curricula were also laid down on national lines by expert committees run from Paris.

Recently, international rankings have been a major spur to change.  When the Academic Ranking of World Universities first appeared in 2003, it created the “choc de Shanghai” – the country was genuinely shocked at how weak its institutions were seen to be.  Much of it was down to system design, of course.  The Grandes Ecoles couldn’t compete with American multiversities because they were small, single-discipline institutions, and the universities couldn’t compete because the research was all tied up at CNRS.  But the French government, instead of standing up and saying “this ranking is irrelevant because our structures are different, and frankly our system of research and innovation works pretty well anyway”, decided to engage in a wild bout of policy-making: excellence initiatives, institutional mergers, etc.  It’s all designed implicitly to make their system look more American; though to keep up pretences, if anyone asks it’s actually about being “world-class”.

Maybe the most interesting development to watch is what’s going on at Paris Saclay – a campus that brings together roughly two dozen universities and scientific institutions in a single spot.  It’s both a federation of universities and a new independent institution.  The governance arrangements look like a nightmare, but the potential is certainly there for it to become a genuinely European super-university.  It’s not the only new university in the world whose founders dream of hitting the Shanghai Top Ten, but it’s probably the one with the best chance of doing so.

September 18

Systematically Valuing the Wrong Things

Michael Staton is a former teacher, venture capitalist, and founder of Uversity, which is a kind of data nerd Strategic Enrolment Management outfit in the US.  He also has some interesting ideas about the “unbundling” of higher education, which have appeared – amongst other places – in Andrew Kelly and Kevin Carey’s recent book Stretching the Higher Education Dollar (ungated copy available here).

His take is that there are four basic groups of services that undergraduate education strives to deliver, and that in at least some of them they face competition from “unbundling” because they could be delivered by alternative providers.  While Staton occasionally sounds like he’s drunk too much kool-aid when he talks about the likelihood of things being unbundled, his analysis about the relative ease of unbundling of various services is quite perceptive.

In declining order of substitutability, these four areas are (and I’m paraphrasing his categories a bit here):

  • Academic Content: If there’s one thing MOOCs and other OERs prove, it’s that – at the undergraduate level at least – content is mostly a commodity.  You can get the substance of an undergraduate degree pretty much anywhere, pretty much for free.  Obviously, this isn’t true at a graduate level, which is where all the prestige is, from the institutional perspective.  But from an undergraduate perspective…
  • Certification of Acquired Knowledge and Skills: All universities offer the same credentials, and the power to offer these credentials remains a gift of the state.  Thus, universities as a class are protected, but at the same time they are unable to distinguish themselves from one another through the undergraduate degree offerings.
  • Acquisition of Learning Meta-Skills: Universities and colleges don’t just teach subject knowledge, they teach people how to approach problems and solve them (or at least they’re supposed to).  Those institutions specializing in (say) co-op or Liberal Arts implicitly have a defined approach to meta-skills acquisition, even if they don’t describe it as such.  But most don’t do so.  They seem to think that just saying “we teach kids how to think” is enough.
  • Life-Altering Experiences:   This is the stuff that really can’t be outsourced.  The experiences one has while at university – the friendships, the life lessons, the transition from adolescence to adulthood – simply can’t be replicated in any place other than a traditional campus.  This is what people really pay for.

What’s interesting here, from a strategy point of view, is the complete misalignment of institutional resources with actual sources of value and distinction.  The two areas where distinctions can actually be made between institutions – meta-skills and life-altering experiences – are the areas where institutions spend the least amount of time and effort. In fact, institutions care so little about the latter that they basically leave it to students themselves (which predictably results in some pretty wild swings in quality, not just between institutions, but also over time at the same institution).  Instead, institutions toss all their money into the (from an undergraduate perspective) “useless content hole”.

Somewhere, sometime, a university will decided to bring a laser-like focus to the issues of meta-skills and experience (indeed, one could argue that Minerva University is about halfway there.  Until then, the misalignment – and the mediocrity of undergraduate studies in general – will continue.

September 17

Welcome to the Crisis

I just took a look at the new enrolment confirmation statistics for Ontario universities.  They are jaw-dropping.

Overall, the system experienced its first fall in “number of confirmed enrolments from secondary school” since (I believe) the early 1990s (I say “I believe” because OUAC doesn’t have public stats that go that far back, but I think that’s right).  Ever since the double-cohort, the province’s universities have seen a steady annual 3% bump in total direct-entry enrolments.  That’s been the source of a useful financial cushion for institutions.

Now, however, things are heading into reverse.  The province’s 18 year-olds fell by 2.1% in 2014.  The fall in confirmed direct-entry undergraduate numbers was slightly higher – 2.8%, or about 2,050 students (73,002 in 2013 vs. 70,950 in 2014).  But what was striking was less the total than the distribution of these numbers.

Let’s start by looking at changes by institution.  Most institutions managed to hit their previous year’s numbers, more or less.  Queen’s did; Ryerson actually managed to boost their numbers by 6%; and Western somehow found a way to jump its numbers by 12%.  But in a system that’s declining overall, those gains can’t come without losses elsewhere.  And some of these numbers are doozies.  Waterloo is down 8%.  Nipissing and York both fell by a little under 11%.  And OCAD University and Laurier are down by – are you ready for this? – 14%.

Some of these numbers can be offset with increases elsewhere.  The University of Ottawa, for instance, has five hundred fewer direct-entry students, but has added five hundred non-direct entry students (presumably, these are Quebec students with CEGEP diplomas).  And of course, there’s the ever-popular solution of adding more international students.  But these are big bucks that institutions are losing.  At York alone, you’re talking about a $5 million hit in tuition (larger if you factor in what will happen to the operating grant).  If there’s no increase next year, you can double that.

The numbers by field of study are even more stunning.  Overall, there was a loss of 2,050 Ontario secondary students.  The decline in Arts enrolment was 2,600.  Put differently: more than 100% of the decline can be attributed to a fall in Arts enrolment.  Hell, even journalism increased slightly.  This should be a wake-up call to Arts faculties – however good a job you think you’re doing, however intrinsically valuable the Arts may be, kids just aren’t buying it the way they used to.  And if you think that isn’t going to have an effect on your budget lines, think again.  Even at those institutions where responsibility-centred budgeting hasn’t taken hold, cash-strapped universities are going to think twice about filling vacant positions in departments where enrolments are declining.

(And lest you think this is just a “kids-just-want-practical-jobs” thing, keep in mind: college new enrolment is also down 2%.)

Is all this a one-off?  Well, the 18-year old cohort is going to shrink another 6% over the next three years, which will make it difficult for any institution to maintain its numbers over that period.  That’s going to put pressure on budgets across the board, but most particularly at institutions located in places where the demographic picture is weakest.  It’s going to create even more incentives for hiking international student numbers.  And it’s going to set off changes in the distribution of funding and salary lines within institutions.

It was all fun and games until the enrolment boom stopped.  Now it gets interesting.

September 16

Trivia Time

This is normally the time of year when I award the “worst-back-to-school story” award.  But I’m not going to this year.  As a result either of this blog’s massive influence, or sheer bad luck, no pundit or op-ed writer wrote anything really stupid this year.  Really, the worst was this CBC credulous news story covering the CCPA’s latest nose-stretcher on tuition fees.  And while it’s needlessly sloppy on the part of the CBC journalist (Dude!  You couldn’t think of one single person outside than CCPA to go to for a reaction quote? Seriously?), it doesn’t really contain the sort of sustained inanity that this award demands.  So I’m leaving it unawarded this year.  Sorry.

But that leaves me with a dilemma – how to entertain the mass readership of this blog without having some op-ed writer on whom to tee off?  So I decide to go with a quiz.  Folks, time to test your knowledge of Canadian universities.  Let’s begin:

1)      Which Canadian University lost ten percent of its inaugural class to Typhoid?

2)      David Dodge recently stepped down as Chancellor of Queen’s University; who was the only other Governor of the Bank of Canada to serve as a university chancellor (and which university was it)?

3)      The YMCA was deeply involved with the creation of two universities in Ontario (York and Carleton), but only one Canadian University actually began its life as the adult learning branch of the local YMCA.  Which one was it?

4)      Only two Canadian universities can boast three or more Prime Ministers among their alumni.  Which ones?

5)      Only one Canadian university has the distinction of having had two Prime Ministers drop out.  Which is it?

6)      Which western Canadian university began its life as an affiliate of McMaster University?

7)      What is a “martlet” and what two Canadian universities have it as their mascot?

8)      The University of Waterloo started life as a satellite college of another institution, and only became independent because of a fight with the parent institution over the issue of co-op education (the Waterloo folks loved it – the parent campus thought it was a supremely dumb idea).  Name the parent institution.

9)      Two Canadian universities are the result of mergers between one Catholic and one Protestant College.  Name them.

10)   Canada is the world’s largest exporter of lentils, and one-third of all world lentils come from strains originally bred at one Canadian university.  Name it.

11)   Which Canadian university has the highest proportion of international students?

12)   Which Australian university has a campus in Canada?

The person with the best set of answers sent to: info@higheredstrategy.com  gets to choose a future OTTSYD topic; plus they get huge – HUGE – bragging tights.  Find the answers tomorrow in the grey box.

 

September 12

Hosanna! *More* Graduate Income Data!

Okay, so I goofed on Tuesday.  Contrary to what I said, Colleges Ontario actually does publish sector-wide data on graduate incomes six months out – they just don’t publish it with the rest of the KPI data.  Instead, it’s at the back of the graduate outcomes section of their excellent annual Environment Scan (thanks to Glenn for the heads up).  So let’s take a look at what they say.

On Tuesday we noted that graduate employment outcomes for college graduates six-months out seemed to have taken a bigger knock in the recession than university graduates.  To wit:

Figure 1: Percent of Ontario Graduates Employed Six-Months Out, by Graduating Class

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That said, although employment results have fallen significantly, the picture is somewhat better when you look at the changes in graduate incomes.  Now, looking at “college” outputs is always a bit tricky because colleges offer so many different kinds of credentials.  In Figure 2, we look at change-over-time in incomes for holders of each credential, and also the weighted average for all credentials.

Figure 2: Income of Ontario College Graduates Six-Months After Graduation, by Credential Level, by Graduating Class, in $2011

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In one respect, Figure 2 is about what you’d expect: the longer a college program lasts, the more a college graduate makes (graduate certificates are a partial exception in that they are usually one-year, but they are meant to be delivered after four years of university, so the basic rule still holds).  But it also shows that in real terms, the diplomas, advanced diplomas, and graduate certificates have held their value reasonably well, while certificates have lost 4% (degrees have lost more – 5% – but the numbers there are tiny and therefore subject to a bit more volatility).

Now let’s see how that compares to the six-month numbers at universities, which are below in Figure 3:

Figure 3: Income of Ontario University Graduates Six-Months After Graduation, by Field of Study, by Graduating Class, in $2011

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Figure 3 show a slightly different picture than what we saw with the 2-year out data back on Monday.  Humanities and physical sciences still saw the largest fall, but at six months the 2011 computer science grads were 7% up on the class of 2007 (as opposed to 3% down at the 2-year mark), and overall the decline was 6% (as opposed to 13%).  This implies that the job market for recent graduates actually got significantly worse between 2011 and 2013.

Finally, let’s compare college and university averages.

Figure 4: Income of Ontario College University Graduates Six Months After Graduation, in $2011

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Figure 4 shows – unsurprisingly – that university graduates make more than college graduates six-months out.  But it also shows that college credentials seem to be holding their value better than undergraduate degrees – down just 2%, rather than 6% for universities, over the period 2007-2011.

This is one of those rare cases where employment averages and income averages are moving in different directions.  In one sense, everyone wins: in the near future, expect Ontario universities to promote themselves as a way to a safe job, and Ontario colleges to talk about how their credentials hold their value in bad times.  And they’ll both be correct.

September 11

Those OECD Attainment Numbers

The OECD’s annual Education at a Glance publication was released on Tuesday.  There weren’t a whole lot of shockers in there, but one thing that always sets Canadians crowing is the table that looks at tertiary educational attainment because, at first glance, we seem to do really well on that measure.  To wit:

Figure 1: Tertiary Attainment Rates, 25-64 Year Olds, Canada, OECD Average and Select OECD Countries, 2012

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Yay Canada!  We’re number one!

Well, hang on a second.  A lot of that is because we’ve been in the mass higher education game longer than anyone else: indeed our 55-64 year olds are in a class of their own.  But when it comes to educating young people, it’s a different story.  To wit:

Figure 2: Tertiary Attainment Rates, 25-34 Year Olds, Canada, OECD Average and Select OECD Countries, 2012

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Okay, still not bad.  Our attainment rate is higher among young people than the general population (57% vs. 53%), which means we’re making some progress, albeit slow.  And we’re still 18 points above the OECD average.  But notice we’re third now, behind Korea and Japan.

Now let’s look specifically at degree-level attainment rates – or, what in international educational statistics-speak is known as “Tertiary Level 5A” – as opposed to tertiary rates.

Figure 3: Tertiary 5A Attainment Rates, 25-34 Year Olds, Canada, OECD Average and Select OECD Countries, 2012

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See, now this is quite a different picture.  If we’re simply looking at obtaining degrees, Canada is actually below the OECD average.  We’d need to increase our degree attainment rates by almost 50% to be in first place here.  The reason for this, of course, is that unlike most countries, Canada has a big “Tertiary B” sector, as shown below in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Tertiary 5B Attainment Rates, 25-34 Year Olds, Canada, OECD Average and Select OECD Countries, 2012

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Interpreting the 5B data is a bit tricky, partly because Tertiary B data looks very different depending on the country, but also partly because the Canadian data is a mess.  In some countries, Tertiary B is purely vocational; in others (for instance, Korean and the US) the figures include junior college associate degrees, which in other countries would be considered incomplete 5A degrees.

In Canada, the Tertiary B figure is mostly traditional community college/polytechnic completers below degree level.  But it also includes a number of other types that make it not entirely comparable to other countries, including:

  • CEGEP Graduates who Never Went on to Universities.  Few other countries would consider people with only 13 years of schooling to be Tertiary B;
  • Trade/Apprenticeship Certificate Holders.  In Europe, where apprenticeship systems are considered part of the secondary system, these kinds of programs would be considered level 4 or even level 3;
  • Private Vocational College Credential Holders.  Again, these are usually one year or less in duration, and it’s unlikely most countries would consider them equivalent to Tertiary B.

Now, there’s nothing sinister here – these differences aren’t an attempt to “juice” our numbers.  The first two issues are the result of structural differences – part and parcel of the difficulties of trying to standardize data internationally across not-entirely-parallel systems.  The third one – private vocational credentials – is an outgrowth of the fact that this data is taken from various Labour Force Surveys, and the wording of the relevant question on our survey is just a little looser than in other countries.

All of this is to say that a “Canada’s Number One” narrative based on the OECD numbers isn’t necessarily warranted.  In some ways, we may even be falling behind.

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