Canada failing in university grad stakes

NationalPost.com – NP/full comment – Canada failing in university grad stakes
Posted: October 16, 2009.   John Ivison

Canada is “the lucky country”, according to David Naylor.

The soft-spoken University of Toronto president believes – despite its cold fronts, high taxes and maddening federal structure – Canada has the worst system of government, except for all the others.

“This is an amazingly successful, inclusive democracy that has an abundance of natural resources and a multicultural population that is a model for the rest of the world,” he said.

That said, he is on a mission to point out a problem that threatens Canada’s otherwise rosy future — namely, that we are sending far fewer of our young people to university than almost all of our international rivals. 

The statistics are quite shocking — all the more so for having received such scant attention. Canada has long prided itself on having the highest post-secondary participation rate in the OECD. But, closer inspection reveals that those participation rates are driven overwhelmingly by high community college attendance rates. The latest OECD numbers for 2007 suggest that when it comes to tertiary type A graduation rates (most commonly universities), Canada ranked 20th of 24 countries, ahead of only Hungary, Austria, Germany and Greece. Countries like Poland, Portugal and the Slovak Republic left Canada far in their wake.
The OECD numbers also suggest that Canada’s relative position has slipped badly over time — we ranked fourth in the number of 55-64 year-olds with a university education, but 12th in the 25-34 year old age bracket.

Perhaps most worryingly, in advanced research programs, Canada is being lapped by the competition — Portugal has nearly four times as many PhD or equivalent students; Finland has three times as many; while the U.K. and Australia have double the number.

“This is the lucky country. We’ll be fine and our kids will be fine. But more than a few of us are getting a visceral sense of unease about how our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren are going to do, unless we get smarter as a nation,” said Dr. Naylor, who was in Ottawa this week talking to the Canada 20:20 policy centre.

To get smarter means more university students, since these are the people who enter graduate education and go on to carry out the research and development that helps boost competitiveness.

Dr. Naylor’s contention is that the challenge is too great for any one province and that it will require a co-ordinated national effort to turn things around. “Notwithstanding the importance of our constitutional boundaries, we’re going to need some leadership from the federal government to push us into the 21st century,” he said.

At the Canada 20:20 discussion, it was suggested that a federal department of higher education was the solution — something that was seriously discussed under Paul Martin’s Liberal government. 

The mere suggestion of Ottawa taking a more active role in higher education is enough to raise hackles in provincial legislatures, particularly Quebec. The idea would likely receive a similarly chilly response from a Conservative government that has promised to legislate itself out of areas that it considers provincial jurisdictions.

Alex Himelfarb, who was Clerk of the Privy Council during the Martin government and is now director of the School of Public and International Affairs at York University’s Glendon College, acknowledges that governments of all shades have been “constitutionally timid” when it comes to leading dialogue on the future of higher education. “We can fully respect the primacy of provinces – Ottawa wouldn’t regulate education or pretend it knows how to deliver it. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t facilitate a dialogue.”

Dr. Naylor said he recognizes many Canadians are attached to regional models but that, at the same time, they want to think big. “It’s a nation that is decentralist by instinct but also pines for a sense of national purpose and national projects.

“You’ve got to wonder whether one of our great national projects in the next few years shouldn’t be building a much stronger talent base by enhancing early childhood learning; through higher completion rates at high school; though giving urgent attention to aboriginal education…and by making sure our university participation rates and graduate education rates begin to approximate those innovation leaders in the industrialized world,” he said. 

Ottawa is already involved in higher education through Human Resources and Skills Development Canada’s Learning Branch, which administers the Canada Student Loans program, and Industry Canada. In recent years, Ottawa has broadened its involvement in higher education – under the Liberals, through the Canada Research Chairs program, which is designed to attract and retain research professors; more recently, under the Conservatives, in the form of the $50,000 a year Vanier Scholarships, which seek to draw world class doctoral students.

But Dr. Naylor envisages Ottawa taking on a far more muscular role than at present. “I’m absolutely sure there will be all kinds of constitutional cross-fire. No-one imagines the federal government operating in this space at some granular level but many of us imagine a coordinated national effort over the next few years.”

For example, he suggested that HRSDC could play a leadership role by setting up a Smart Canada Secretariat that could co-ordinate talent development through the life-cycle and ensure that the potential of new and aboriginal Canadians is fully realized.

While the federal government has made some progress in formulating a national brand in higher education, in typically Canadian fashion, this effort has been hampered by the need to give all institutions and regions equal billing.

But a successful Canadian education brand is going to be crucial in the coming years, as universities look overseas for revenue that is not dependent on cash-strapped governments, that have been funding budget increases in education that have outstripped general expenditures for the past five years.

Canada’s performance in this area, when compared to English language competitors like Australia and the U.K., has been in the words of one recent report “only slightly better than abject”. While Canada has attracted 2,600 students from India, Australia and the U.K have attracted 10 times that many. The British spent $50-million in the last two years on promoting its Education U.K. brand while Canada’s effort – the new Edu-Canada brand – has stuttered out of the gate.

The Educational Policy Institute’s examination of the likely effects of recession on post-secondary education, said that Canada’s universities have thrown away inherent advantages such as quality of life and proximity to the U.S., because they don’t seem to understand the value of a national brand in education and have chosen not to co-operate with one another in recruitment efforts.

The authors, Alex Usher and Ryan Dunn, also laid blame at Ottawa’s door. “The Government of Canada should be spending much more time on this form of services export than it does.”

Mr. Usher and Mr. Dunn suggested that the real opportunity lies not just in attracting overseas students to Canada but in partnering with institutions abroad, so that large Canadian universities generate revenue by packaging courses and certifying students in Africa and Asia.

Everyone seems to agree that Canada is a lagging badly. But there is also widespread agreement that we have the means to leap up the innovation ladder. “If we can find a way to harness and market [Canada’s advantages] we could draw talent of our choice from everywhere in the world – and keep them here,” said Dr. Naylor.

The perils of not doing so were laid bare by Dr. Himelfarb. “Talent follows opportunity. If there’s no buzz around our universities — if Canada’s not seen as a hot place to be — we could easily slip back to being hewers of wood and drawers of water,” he said.

National Post    jivison@nationalpost.com

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