As Canada’s youth consider their increasingly broad and complex array of post-secondary education (PSE) options, they are faced with potentially costly decisions. Moreover, they often do not have the information they need to make appropriate choices, which can negatively impact their participation and persistence in PSE. For many students, it is a challenge to choose, design and follow a post-secondary pathway to its conclusion without deviating from their original plan. Students are increasingly taking non-linear pathways through PSE. Some may need to relocate and attend a different institution. Many students may decide to change the focus of their study, while others may wish to change their program entirely. Some may shift their goals from academic to applied forms of study, or vice versa. However, the structures of post-secondary systems in our provinces, and the various mechanisms that bind them, do not always provide clearly apparent and unobstructed pathways for students, particularly for mobile students. These problems are exacerbated by shifting mandates, roles, and labels of institutions across the Canadian PSE sector.
Canada does not have a clear framework for understanding the many changes that have occurred within its PSE sector over the past 15 years. This monograph sets out to explain these changes, with a view to clarifying their potential effects on students’ comprehension of, and mobility through, the structures that comprise our current PSE landscape. In the past, Canadian post-secondary education has been described as binary, a term that indicates the presence of two separate institutional sectors: public universities offering academic and professional programming at the degree-level; and public colleges providing diplomas and certificates in programs of a more technical or vocational nature. However, this conceptualization overlooks private post-secondary institutions and, as Marshall (2006) notes, “significant growth in the number and types of degrees offered by a wider variety of Canadian post-secondary institutions” over recent decades.1 As a result, the distinction between the university and college sectors has become increasingly blurred, and the nature of some Canadian post-secondary institutions is no longer made clear by their names. Canada’s PSE sector is now characterized by a broad and complex mix of institutions for which a clear and comprehensive taxonomy has yet to be developed.
Evolutionary and legislative changes in many Canadian jurisdictions challenge the transparency of current Canadian post-secondary education vocabulary. Students’ ideas about which institutions offer which programs, and which programs lead to which opportunities, may not be aligned with these changes. It is arguable that Canadian PSE has become less transparent in recent years, exacerbating the potential that students make PSE decisions inappropriate to their aspirations. Issues of program choice and fit might be better addressed through the provision of a classification framework aimed at making Canadian PSE more transparent to its users.