Inequality is perhaps the great political issue of the 21st century (so far anyway). And while Canada isn’t exactly a world-beater on this score, we do show up a heck of a lot better than some of our peers – say in the UK, France or certainly the US. Despite lots of great work by people like Miles Corak, there’s no real agreement as to why this is: is it more robust social programs? A more powerful union movement? Our immigration policies? Our K-12 system?
Today, I am going to put forward the case that a big part of the secret is our post-secondary sector, which manages to guard against both income inequality and status inequality. And it’s time we acknowledged this.
Let’s start with inequality of income and opportunity. Education systems can help with income inequality in two ways: first, they can reduce intergenerational inequality by ensuring equitable access to education so that the educated of one generation don’t simply pass down privilege to the next generation. And second, it can do so by ensuring a supply of skilled labour at a variety of levels, to ensure that jobs at various skill levels can at least be staffed. It’s a secondary aspect of inequality, because fundamentally it’s the labour market that decides the spread of jobs in the economy, but provision of a steady supply of skills makes it easier to achieve a better distribution of jobs.
I can’t think of a test that would prove this to a strict empiricist’s satisfaction because supply and demand of skills are so closely intertwined, but I think one of the reasons Canada has done better than, say, the UK or the US, at saving middle-class jobs is simply that we have a set of institutions and systems – community colleges, polytechnics and apprenticeships – which are far better at providing professional and vocational skills than do American community colleges or whatever jury-rigged structure passes for the UK apprenticeship system this year. Of course, there’s more to it than that – a good natural resource base helps – but without the skills to exploit what opportunities our geography provides it, we’d look a lot more like Ohio than we actually do.
As for intergenerational equity in access to education, there are a variety of ways to compare this, but my preferred way to do this is to compare the educational background of students’ parents to those of the population as a whole (the more similar, the more equal access is). And as shown in this report from 2010 (see page 46-47), Canada came third internationally, behind Australia and the Netherlands, but ahead of Finland and Sweden and well ahead of Germany. So, we’re doing OK on this score, too.
But in addition to these forms of inequality are those of status and the attendant status anxiety they generate. In Japan, the fight to get into one of the country’s top seven universities – the old Imperial universities – is unbelievably ferocious. Same with the fight into C9 schools China or Oxbridge in the UK or the Ivy League in the US or the Grands Écoles in France. Incredible amounts of energy and money are spent trying to kids into these top schools because they are seen both as much better than the rest of their higher education systems and because they are so small and places available so rare.
Neither of these things is true in Canada. Our top five universities – if you measure it by research intensity, or prestige or what have you, are by no means exclusive. In fact, together they account for something close to 20% of the student body. The top of our pyramid, in other words, is pretty wide. And there isn’t a huge perceived gap between the best and the rest as far as most people are concerned. One of the most striking conclusions from some recent work we at HESA have done on parents’ views of higher ed is how many parents believe “all Canadian universities are reasonably good”. It’s not that they don’t see variations in quality, or believe that some institutions might better than others for their kids: it’s just they don’t see the gaps in quality as being very large. There are very few other countries where this is true. New Zealand, maybe. The Netherlands. Germany. After that, forget it: high stratification of prestige is the norm in the world. But not here.
Broad access, strong community colleges and polytechnics, and a university system where excellence is not confined to a tiny elite. It’s not a complete recipe for success, but it’s a good start, and one we should acknowledge more publicly.