A quintessential Canadian success story Canada’s post-secondary institutions made major contributions to our country’s social progress and economic success in the last half of the 20th century. In the span of several decades, Canada evolved from a
country where an advanced education was reserved for the society’s elite to one that produces one of the world’s best-educated populations. By the turn of the century, Canada boasted the second-highest number of postsecondary
educated citizens per capita of any country —a comparative advantage in a global knowledge economy. Since knowledge is now the currency of the economy, improved post-secondary outcomes increase a country’s ability to develop the skilled human resources and conduct the innovative research it needs to remain productive and competitive.
Canada’s past performance is a remarkable achievement, considering that in the 19th century, just two percent of Canadian 20- to 24-year-olds went to university—usually to join the clergy, or become a doctor or lawyer. Even by the early 1940s, that number had only doubled to four percent. It wasn’t until the post-war period, when the federal government provided educational opportunities to returning servicemen after World War II and began investing heavily in post-secondary education to accommodate the Baby Boom population that enrolment rates swelled. There are now close to 100 public universities and roughly 200 public community colleges, degree-granting and other institutions all across the country. Today, 44% of Canadians possess postsecondary credentials. Much of Canada’s success is attributable to governments’ extensive investments in post-secondary education. Over the past 10 years, Canada has ranked in the top three internationally for public investment in post-secondary education institutions (PSIs). Collectively, the provincial,territorial and federal governments invested roughly $29 billion in 2004. A number of provinces have recently increased their expenditures on post-secondary education to ensure that PSIs are better able to respond to growing public demand. The creation of innovative research bodies and the infusion of new federal funds in national granting councils over the past decade have also enabled Canada’s universities and colleges to pursue an ambitious research agenda—the very heart of academic life.
In spite of this solid foundation and the impressive track record of Canada’s post-secondary institutions, we cannot
be complacent. The PSE sector’s capacity to sustain its present progress is strained at the very time the world is placing a premium on higher education. Unprecedented demand for post-secondary graduates in the job market, coupled with an aging PSE workforce and deteriorating infrastructure, limit post-secondary institutions’ abilities to meet Canadian economic needs and social expectations. At the moment, there are few means to gauge just how well our PSIs are responding to Canada’s shifting social and economic needs or how post-secondary education in Canada compares with higher education systems in other countries facing similar challenges. Nor are there sufficient data to assess whether Canadians are fully benefitting from the money they and their governments spend on post-secondary education. There is a critical shortage of reliable research on the state of PSE in this country, making it difficult to determine whether PSE effectively prepares Canadians for the challenges and opportunities posed by the knowledge economy, if PSE provides value for money, or how Canada’s PSE system measures up against others elsewhere in the world. Compounding these issues is the fact that, despite widespread agreement that PSE
makes a vital contribution to economic growth and social cohesion, unlike most developed countries, Canada does not have a harmonized set of national objectives and targets for post-secondary education.