For awhile now, I’ve been writing about other national systems of higher education in our, “Better Know a Higher Ed System” series, in part to throw Canada’s own policy system into sharp relief. But sometimes it’s better to look at some things a bit more directly, so today I want to start exploring some areas where Canada really is an exception, globally. And there’s nowhere we stick out more than in the way we admit students to university.
There are a limited number of ways to admit people to universities. One of the most common is simply to use the scores from a common secondary matriculation exam as the basis for admission decisions. Most of la Francophonie works this way, since they’ve all modelled themselves on France’s Baccalaureate.
Another option is to have a national university entrance exam, separate from matriculation. The most famous of these is China’s gaokao, which draws on a millennia-long Chinese tradition, but which is in fact only 35 years old, and a product of Deng Xiaoping’s post-Mao reforms. National exams are often a response to widespread cheating and corruption in schools. In 2004, Russia introduced a new national exam with heavy security measures specifically to try to weed out academic corruption (it was only partially successful – since getting into university is a way for Russian males to avoid the draft, the impetus for academic corruption is pretty powerful).
In some places, individual universities have their own entrance exam, though these tend to exist only where a national exam is already in place. Japan and Romania are two examples of this: in both countries, the more “elite” universities (e.g. Tokyo, Kyoto, Politehnica, Bucharest) have chosen to ditch the national exams and establish their own, for reasons of prestige, if nothing else. And then, finally, you have the American options – not a university entrance exam but a national aptitude test, such as the SAT or the ACT.
So, now imagine trying to explain to foreigners how students get accepted to university in Canada. Only Alberta, with its matriculation exams, has anything like the kind of standardized testing seen almost everywhere else in the world. In the rest of the country, you’re admitted entirely on the basis of grades based on high school marks predicated, to a considerable extent, on work portfolios rather than exams, and where grading standards between schools are only loosely consistent. To the extent that there is fairness at all, it comes through the informal judgement of hundreds of admissions officers who, through simple experience, “know” which schools are easy graders, and take this into consideration when awarding places.
From the perspective of most other countries, the Canadian approach looks like sheer lunacy. The scope for corruption in our system is enormous, but it’s simply not an issue here. Everyone accepts the professional judgement of admissions officers and there are few complaints. Such deep trust in the system is what has spared this country (outside Alberta, anyway) the kind of high-stakes exam nightmare that Americans endure.
In short, one thing that makes Canadian higher education exceptional is trust. That’s great, but trust is fragile. It’s not something we should take for granted.