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
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
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
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
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.