Canada’s Local Post-Secondary Education (PSE) Strategies

Ottawa’s Algonquin College encourages its students to leverage their education: “Transfer your course credits with ease to several universities that have articulation agreements with Algonquin College: Athabasca, Cape Breton, Carleton, Lakehead, Nipissing, Ryerson, Ottawa, and more. In addition, there is an in-depth articulation agreement with Thompson Rivers University for several programs.” (For more details visit Algonquin’s articulation page here).

Elgin Street in downtown Ottawa, looking north...

Elgin Street in downtown Ottawa, looking northwards towards the Parliament Buildings from Queen Street (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the absence of a national framework to regulate this type of arrangements, individual post-secondary institutions strike agreements with other higher education organizations in a largely ad-hoc fashion. Calls for a national post-secondary education (PSE) strategy are not new, although they seem to have intensified in the past few years.

A recent analysis in the Globe and Mail supports the point that Canada’s postsecondary “solitudes” – colleges, universities, polytechnics across sub-federal jurisdictions – and the lack of any integration mechanism hinder the country’s well-being. “Our failure to knit these systems together, and to link education and research to social and economic outcomes, will affect our long-term prosperity and capacity to innovate,” says Robert Luke.

There is talk of an “educational passport” that would allow credit transfers between all these different types of institutions and programs, across Canada. While such a mechanism is unlikely to be implemented at a continental level any time soon (there’s simply no political appetite for bold integration moves in North America), it would be highly beneficial for Canada. It would constitute that first but very concrete step towards a harmonized, truly national education system in this country.

Yet Canada’s educational jurisdictions are locked in standby mode: “we are the only [developed] country that does not have a national strategy for PSE – no established goals, no benchmarks, and no public reporting of results based on established measures,” Senator Art Eggleton points out. Erin Anderssen also notes that “the trend to joint programs between colleges and universities […] is still stymied by institutional snobbery and bureaucratic restrictions around credit transfers.” Agreements such as the ones between Algonquin College and various universities demonstrate however that the cause is not lost. These are definitely steps in the right direction.

Given the traditionally challenging relations between Canada’s levels of government, as well as the provinces and territories themselves (which are formally responsible for education), a national PSE strategy may yet be years, if not decades, away. At a local level, however, the type of dynamic interconnections between Algonquin, Carleton and Ottawa – to use the National Capital Region as a case study – gives one reason to hope.

Building Bridges between Secondary and Post-secondary Education in Ontario and Quebec

“The Enrichment Mini-Courses Program [EMCP] is a unique annual event in the world of Canadian education.” That’s how its organizers start describing this initiative, which allows secondary students from schools in Ontario and Quebec to attend post-secondary institutions for a week. Each May, about 125 mini-courses are offered to nearly 3,000 students from 21 school boards and private schools by instructors at two universities and one college in the Province on Ontario.

The University of Ottawa, Carleton University and La Cité collégiale host each year secondary students from Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec (grades 8-11 in ON and II-V in QC – 13-16 years of age) for 25-hour courses. The mini-courses are offered “in a variety of disciplines, such as information technology, psychology, engineering, journalism, music and law. They are highly interactive; they combine brief presentations, practical exercises, laboratory exercises, group discussions and field expeditions; and they provide an unforgettable learning experience!”

The Desmarais building at the University of Ot...

The Desmarais building at the University of Ottawa in Ottawa, Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The University of Ottawa, for instance, is expecting approximately 1,800 students in 2013 and will offer approximately 92 courses (48 in English and 44 in French). Carleton offers courses in English, while La Cité collégiale offers courses in French. Staff and graduate students at these post-secondary institutions are invited each year to submit proposals for mini-courses and are reminded that course “titles and descriptions must be ‘appealing’ to students of the levels [they] wish to reach.”

The students selected need to demonstrate excellent academic performance, yet student “placement is based on a random computerized process that occurs once all the application forms are received. Consequently, the first come – first serve principle does not apply.” Only one course is assigned per student, which they will attend one week long. The course themes are very diverse and cover a wide range of interests.

2012 course titles included: “The F–‐word: Exploring Feminism in Society,” “The Philosopher’s Stone: What Harry Potter, Clark Kent, Buffy, and Captain Kirk Can Teach Us about Philosophy,” “Bippity-Boppity-What? Jumping Down the Rabbit Hole of Classic Disney Movies” (Carleton), “The Holocaust and Europe’s Jews,” “Do You Want Kant and Aristotle as Your Facebook Friends?,” “Relationships and Sexuality 101” (Ottawa), “Découvrir l’animation 3D!” and “L’art culinaire et la gestion hôtelière : un univers savoureux” (La Cité Collégiale).

The program represents an excellent bridge between the secondary and post-secondary worlds in Canada’s two largest provinces. It is equally an investment in post-secondary education and an open invitation to university/college studies from the three post-secondary organizations involved. The latter usually encourage their student guests to take campus tours and explore in more detail their academic offerings.

Establishing such linkages early in a student’s high-school life potentially raises his/her interest in attending university/college upon graduation and increases their likelihood of pursuing post-secondary studies. One of the unintended side effects of the program is that it also assists graduate students and other junior faculty members who act as EMCP instructors in gaining meaningful teaching experience.

EMCP is not a unique program in North America (see Stanford’s High School Summer College and others); other universities and colleges have similar initiatives. This program is however one of Canada’s proven successes – over 50,000 secondary students used it since its inception, in 1981 – and constitutes a model for establishing similar linkages in other parts of the country.

(More information on the Enrichment Mini-Courses Program can be found here.)

Professional Education in Canada: State-of-the-art Programs Offset Premium Price Tags

In its September 17 issue, Maclean’s magazine included a set of statistics on Canada’s professional schools. Significant information was provided on tuition levels and access to programs ranging from engineering to environmental studies. An assessment of these figures reveals an environment in which students have a wide variety of options to choose from, but many of them require tough financial decisions. The monetary investment varies quite widely across the country and across professional areas. Below, a few key findings from three fields: MBA, law and medicine.

MBA: expensive programs, but lots of choices

Canada offers a wide variety of Master of Business Administration (MBA) programs. Maclean’s points out that “tuition and program length vary considerably – the differences are often determined by the type of program – as does the average GMAT score of incoming students. The traditional MBA – two years, full time – is no longer the only way to go, with many schools offering part-time studies.” Canada also offers a large range of Executive MBA (EMBA) programs, “targeted at people who already have a career but want to take it to the next level by earning an advanced degree […]. Tuition, often covered by employers, is generally high” – over $100,000 at some schools, but these programs are among the best in the world.

The vast majority of Canada’s MBA schools have a significant population of international students – at seven of 38 schools over 50% of the student population are international students. Two universities (Thompson Rivers and Vancouver Island – both in British Columbia) have well over 75% international students in their MBA programs. As with other specialties, tuition fees vary considerably from province to province and from school to school (Quebec programs charge significantly less – for provincial residents – than programs in the rest of Canada).

While the full cost of a MBA program at Université Laval is $4,563 ($10,163 for students who are not Quebec residents), the program tuition at Toronto’s Rotman School of Management is $88,446. Carleton’s Sprott School of Business charges $15,418 for its MBA program, while tuition at Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management is $22,702.

LAW: Quebec vs. Rest of Canada

In the province of Quebec, private law is based on the “civil law” tradition (and public law follows the “common law” tradition). This makes Quebec a hybrid legal system, as opposed to the rest of Canada where the common law is the standard. For this reason, most law schools in Quebec are teaching civil law (McGill, Université de Montréal, Université du Québec à Montréal, Université de Sherbrooke, Université Laval and the University of Ottawa). McGill, Ottawa and Montreal offer, however, dual common/civil degrees or the choice between the two legal specializations (the University of Windsor and York University do the same in Ontario).

Flag of Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

Flag of Quebec City, Quebec, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Given the traditionally lower fees in Quebec, the yearly tuition for civil law schools is just $2,493 ($6,183 for students who are not Quebec residents). The only exception is the University of Ottawa, where the tuition for a civil law program is $8,165 per year. For common law schools the tuition fees range widely, from $2,493 (McGill, for Quebec residents) to $27,420 at the University of Toronto – a ten-fold differential! The fees at the University of Ottawa’s common law school are $14,568 per year. These figures do not include “other compulsory fees.”

MEDICINE: significant financial investment and high competition

Some of the lowest tuition fees for medical school in Canada can be found – again, unsurprisingly – in Quebec (in some cases even if you are not a provincial resident). The highest, on the other hand, are at Ontario medical schools. The average tuition at four Quebec universities – Laval, McGill, Montreal and Sherbrooke – is $3,906 yearly, not including compulsory fees ($10,302 for students who are not Quebec residents). The average yearly tuition to attend a medical school in Ontario, based on figures from six universities – McMaster, Ottawa, Northern Ontario, Queen’s, Toronto and Western – is $20,955, not including compulsory fees.

Besides the high price tag, gaining admission to one of Canada’s medical schools is in itself a difficult process, given the soaring competition for the relatively few spots. This is a reflection of the value placed by students and the Canadian society on medical education and formal qualifications, and the high level of development reached by Canada’s medical schools. Maclean’s notes that “success rates for in-province applicants are generally higher than for out-of-province.” The international students’ success rate is the highest at the University of Calgary, AB (26%), Dalhousie University, NS (18%), and the University of British Columbia (12%).

Canada’s high tuition fees and record investment in education

In its latest Education at a Glance report (2012), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) lists Canada among the countries with high levels of tuition fees, but also well-developed student-support systems. The report’s country notes confirm that Canada is “a leader in higher education, with its high attainment rates and its ability to produce a skilled workforce with generally good labour-market outcomes.” The country spends about $21,000 per post-secondary student per year – the third-highest amount among OECD countries after Switzerland and the United States.

OECD research also suggests that Canada’s model (high tuition fee and student support) “can be an effective way for countries to increase access to higher education. However, during periods of economic crisis, high levels of tuition fees can put a considerable financial burden on students and their families and can discourage some of them from entering [post-secondary] education, even when relatively high levels of student support are available. This topic is highly debated in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.” The 2012 Quebec student protests were one of the latest and most visible efforts to engage the students and the larger society in a conversation on tuition levels in this country. As indicated in a recent blog post, the choice Quebec made will inform, if not define, the conversation on university issues in the province (and beyond) for years to come.

The Benefits of an International Education Strategy for Canada

Canada is increasingly interested lately in attracting international students and in promoting the many advantages of a Canadian post-secondary education. A recent news story indicates that Canada’s federal government is developing a new international education strategy for the country.

The Globe and Mail argues that “international students represent an economic bonanza worth tens of billions of dollars to countries like the United States, Britain and Australia. They were the first countries to really take advantage of this market. Canada, although late to the party, has made up significant ground in a short period of time.” The author (Gary Mason) points out that Canada will face stiff competition in attracting international students not just from other Western countries, but also from new emerging economies such as China and India.

Some of the figures provided in Gary Mason’s piece are definitely worth pondering about: in 2011, India increased higher education spending by 30 per cent; China aims to enroll half a million students in post-secondary programs by 2020, twice the current number; Brazil will spend two billion dollars over the next four years to allow its students to attend exchange programs in other countries.

In a related development, no fewer than sixteen Canadian universities will send representatives to a professional event in Beijing, called PhD Workshop China (November 24-25, 2012). They will present their graduate programs and recruit top Chinese students to study in Canada. Nine other countries will send representatives as well (Australia, Denmark, Fiji, France, Germany, Singapore, The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States). Canada will have the second largest institutional representation – after Germany, which will be present with 26 universities.

According to the organizers, the event “provides leading overseas graduate schools a focused opportunity to meet top graduates from the most important colleges and universities across China.” PhD Workshop China 2011 attracted 160 delegates from 85 universities across the globe, including Canada. Last year, about 1,300 pre-registered students from 29 provinces throughout China attended meetings and interviews with overseas delegates, professors and admission officers.

74 per cent of these students were Master’s level students, while 14 per cent were doctoral candidates. The top 10 areas of PhD study were:  Materials Science; Chemistry/ Chemical Engineering; Life Sciences; Accounting/ Banking/ Economics/ Finance; Biology/ Biotechnology; Computer Science and Technology; Geosciences/ Earth Science; Law and Legal Studies; Electronics and Automatic Control; and Linguistics/ Languages/ Interpretation.

Yet this is just one of the venues used by Canadian universities from coast to coast to attract international students, particularly from China. Equally, Chinese universities are engaging their Canadian counterparts, encouraging students here to enroll in exchange programs in China. Led by Peking University, one of the most prestigious Chinese higher education institutions, a group of top 14 universities from China came to Ottawa’s Carleton University, in May 2012, to provide first-hand information on Chinese institutions and their programs.

“Studying abroad undoubtedly broadens students’ life horizons, and contributes to one’s personal, intellectual, and career growth. The mobility of students has also become one of the most important impetuses for countries’ social and economic growth,” Carleton University noted. A federally-led international education strategy for Canada would bring all these disparate initiatives together and would advance Canadian interests in the area of education in a more effective and integrated fashion.