The Need for a National Debate on the Future of Canada’s Post-Secondary Sector

Just several weeks apart, the Province of Ontario and the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies (CAGS) released two formal positions on post-secondary education. The first one is a discussion paper released in late June 2012 and titled “Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation and Knowledge.” The other is a “Pre-Budget Submission Regarding the 2013 Federal Budget” – CAGS, early August 2012. (CAGS is a Canada-wide association bringing together 58 Canadian universities with graduate programs and the country’s three federal research-granting agencies).

Official Flag of Ontario since 1965

Official Flag of Ontario since 1965 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Three themes are common across the two documents and constitute core policy positions: (i) Canadian/Ontario graduates need to be “more immediately employable”; (ii) post-secondary institutions need to be more innovative in their approaches and practices; (iii) Canada’s post-secondary education system has to become more closely aware of, and more actively involved in, student international mobility.

(I) LABOUR-MARKET READINESS: Both organizations, CAGS and the Government of Ontario (Canada’s most populous province), place a great emphasis on the need for tighter linkages between post-secondary institutions and the labour market. CAGS quotes Professor Douglas Peers of York University who argues “it is essential that our [universities] prepare graduate students who are flexible, adaptable, and […] more immediately employable than may have been the case in the past.”

Ontario goes one step further, suggesting that the very future of a competitive post-secondary education system depends on it capacity to produce graduates that are career and job ready. “We see a higher education sector that has more fluidity between learning, training, and the workforce. […] We see a sector that fosters and supports our young entrepreneurs.” New three-year undergraduate degrees matching labour market needs are presented as one of the approaches for the province’s future.

(II) INNOVATION: In order to establish and consolidate that “fluidity” between universities and the job market, Ontario imagines a post-secondary sector that is “nimble” and “ready to adapt to the accelerating change of pace in technology and our economy.” Increased innovation has the potential to ensure both better outcomes for Ontario graduates and the financial sustainability of this publicly funded sector, given the Government’s need to balance the provincial budget in the long term.

From a similar perspective, CAGS “requests that the Federal Government invest in innovative skills training for graduate students in all disciplines that will complement their academic skills and make them both more competitive and more work place ready.” This investment is seen as crucially important not just for Canadian university graduates, but also – through them – for Canada’s economy and society.

(III) THE INTERNATIONAL DIMENSION: Both organizations are acutely aware of the importance of international mobility. While the Government of Ontario highlights the need to improve Canadian students’ exposure to other environments, the CAGS proposal is more concrete and potentially more consequential. It argues that Canada needs to attract the very best international talent, in a context in which it faces solid competition from other countries.

CAGS “urges the Federal Government to increase its assistance in marketing Canadian universities abroad in specific markets as it did with the very successful trip this spring (2012) to Brazil led by the Governor General. […] The availability of high quality graduate students – who might remain in Canada – and of highly educated and trained workers cannot be taken for granted. Canada has slipped in the OECD rankings of post graduates from the top to close to the bottom of the pack.” The Government of Ontario’s discussion paper is surprisingly light in discussing the impact of international students on the province’s post-secondary sector!

Taken together, these three themes – job-readiness, innovation, and international mobility – form the basis of a debate that Canada’s post-secondary community needs to engage in.  Canada has avoided it for too long, and these latest efforts to launch a national conversation on university education are most opportune. (Organizations are asked to submit written submissions in response to Ontario’s discussion paper, no later than September 30, 2012, to PSEsubmissions@ontario.ca or by email to Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities).

The Cost of Education – No. 1 Source of Stress for Canadian Students: BMO

Bank of Montreal

Bank of Montreal (Photo credit: PhotoMimir)

Paying for school is rated as the #1 source of stress by Canadian post-secondary students, according to a survey conducted by BMO Bank of Montreal and Pollara in the summer of 2012. More than a quarter of the students surveyed (27 per cent) indicated they were very stressed about finances. By comparison, 22 per cent of students said they were stressed about finding a job after graduation, and 20 per cent about their academic achievements. Citing Government of Canada studies, BMO indicates that “the total cost for post-secondary education […] including tuition, school supplies, housing and other expenses, amounts to $14,500 a year, or nearly $60,000 for a four-year program.” 

A 2011 survey by BMO and Leger Marketing also found that a majority of Canadians – students (54 per cent) and parents (65 per cent) – agreed that the cost for post-secondary education should be split between parents and kids. Over half of the parents surveyed saw as their responsibility to cover between a quarter and half of their children’ post-secondary education. 43 per cent of students agreed with this position.

Fifty-one per cent of parents said they were prepared to go into debt to fund their children’s education, while 40 per cent were not. “Attending university or college is a hefty investment, so it’s essential that students and parents are on the same page when it comes to funding a post-secondary education,” said Su McVey, BMO Vice President, in September 2011.

The 2012 BMO survey found that one third (32 per cent) of the students thought they would have significant trouble paying their bills while at school. Almost half (49 per cent) use loans to help cover their expenses during post-secondary education.

Of those using loans, 58 per cent expect to graduate with more than $20,000 in debt, while 21 per cent expect to owe twice as much, according to the 2012 BMO study. Students in Atlantic Canada expect to accumulate the most debt and take the longest to repay it. The study doesn’t include information on international students in Canada.

Citing the Canadian Federation of Students and the Canada Student Loan Program, BMO indicates that “the average student debt is almost $27,000 and […] most students take nearly 10 years to pay off their loans – with some taking the maximum 14.5 years.” Lily Capriotti, BMO Vice President, pointed out that “students often underestimate the amount of debt they will accumulate or the length of time it will take to pay it off.”

While some students may ask themselves if loans are worth the trouble – or if it’s rather preferable to get a job or become an entrepreneur right after graduating high school – in most cases the money spent will yield a good return on investment. Also, from a non-financial perspective a university education is one of those key things that form an adult person and give them the confidence they need to succeed in life. Of course, most of us want to pay less for valuable things, but at the end of the day – as the saying goes – there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

For more information on university tuition in Canada click here.

Canada Ponders Tuition Cuts for International Students, Highlights Economic Benefits

Minister Fast meets with Chinese Minister of Commerce Chen Deming

Canada’s Minister of International Trade and Minister for the Asia-Pacific Gateway, Ed Fast, released a report showing that international students contributed more than CDN $8 billion to the Canadian economy in 2010, up from $6.5 billion in 2008.“The Harper government is committed to continuing to attract the best and brightest students to Canada,” said Minister Fast. “This study reaffirms our government’s commitment to international education. That is one of the reasons we are committed to refreshing our government’s Global Commerce Strategy and to developing a comprehensive plan to entrench educational links between Canada and international institutions for Canada’s long-term prosperity.”

The report found there were 218,000 full-time international students in Canada in 2010, up from 178,000 in 2008 and more than double the number of students in 1999. It estimated that international students supported 86,000 jobs and contributed $445 million in tax revenue.

“I am delighted that Canada is a destination that is growing in attraction for international students,” said Minister Fast while visiting the University of British Columbia. “The presence of international students and researchers taking advantage of Canada’s world-class facilities creates jobs and economic growth and contributes to our people-to-people ties with other countries,” such as China, France, India, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and the United States.

“Outstanding international students and researchers not only enrich our campuses but make Canada more competitive by sharing knowledge and expertise both during their time at university and afterwards,” said Stephen Toope, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of British Columbia.

A commitment to refresh Canada’s Global Commerce Strategy was announced in Economic Action Plan 2012. A more powerful international education strategy will help strengthen Canada’s engagement with emerging economies and ensure greater collaboration between Canada and institutions while boosting this country’s economic prosperity.

International news agencies, such as AFP, highlighted one of the recommendations in the report: Canadian post-secondary institutions may want to stop charging foreign students higher tuition fees than Canadians pay.

“Canada’s educational expertise is a valuable export that can be measured in comparison to other goods and service exports,” the report noted. “International students can also become a valuable source of highly skilled labor to our economy at a time when the western world is facing potential labor shortages, especially among top talent.” The authors of the study pointed out that, “given the competition in the global international education market, educational policy makers may need to re-examine the practice of differential tuitions and fees.”

To learn more about these findings, visit Attracting the Best and Brightest Students to Canada on the website of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada. An analysis of China as Canada’s strategic educational partner can be found here.