Advanced Education in Canada: How We Compare

November 11, 2017
Kristine St-Laurent

The 2017 edition of the OECD’s Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators was recently released, comparing the quality of educational outcomes across 35 OECD countries. The report suggests that while Canada performs well, there are still areas for improvement. The Education at a Glance findings also link to a number of public policy issues relevant in the BC context, such as better aligning skills to labour demand, building a more innovative economy, and expanding our tradable service exports.

Here are the latest things you should know about education and Canada.[1]

We Are Good At It

Not just in one way, but two:

  1. Our domestic population is highly educated. In 2016, 61% of 25-34-year-old Canadians held a tertiary[2] qualification. This is the second highest share among all 2017 OECD Education at a Glance participants, after Korea (70%).
  2. Canada is an attractive place to study, and international education is a growing source of “export” earnings. The OECD estimates that the Canadian education market hosts nearly 12% of all international students studying abroad. In 2015, BC post-secondary institutions and K-12 schools hosted 130,053 international students, up 44% from 2010.[3] Out-of-country students are an important source of export earnings for the province. Over the course of 2015 the international student body spent over $3.5 billion in tuition and living expenses in the province. Foreign post-secondary students pay tuition that is four to six times[4] higher than that paid by Canadians. The latest data finds that, in 2015, international student spending provided a $2 billion boost to the province’s GDP and supported 29,300 jobs. Canada and BC are well situated to increase exports of educational services thanks to the growing global demand for education.

It’s Worth The Effort

The gap between skilled and non-skilled is widening. On average within OECD countries, adults with a tertiary education earn 56% more than those with only high school graduation. And while the future may look rosy for many workers with advanced education, those left behind face a bleaker outlook. Lower-skilled individuals pay an increasing price for not possessing tertiary educational credentials, in terms of diminishing employment opportunities and lower wages. Young adults with high school or less are less likely to be employed today than ten years ago. Moreover, skills gaps are expected to widen with the rise of artificial intelligence and the accelerating pace of technological change generally.

More Education = Better Health

The benefits of education go beyond income and jobs. Individuals with tertiary education are less likely to suffer from depression. Only 8% of Canadian women with advanced educational qualifications report having depression, compared to 13% of those with high school or less. On top of that, there is a large body of cross-national research confirming that more education is associated with longer life spans and healthier lives.

Completion Remains A Challenge For Many

Despite rising levels of educational attainment in Canada, not everyone who starts a program finishes. A new indicator on completion rates shows that one in five Canadians do not complete their programme of study within two years of the programme’s theoretical end date. While this is better than the OECD average graduation rate of 54%, the Canadian figure still points to a loss of human potential and a sub-optimal use of scarce resources as many people fail to complete post-secondary programmes.

There’s Work To Do To Support Graduate Students and Spur Innovation

Overall, Canada performs well amongst OECD peers by having a population with a high level of tertiary education. However, the 2017 report notes that Canada lags behind the OECD average in the production of graduate-level degrees. In 2016, 21% of 25-64 year-olds held an undergraduate degree compared to an OECD average of 16%. However, only 10% of Canadians in the same age group have obtained graduate degrees, while the OECD average is 12%. Of concern, this gap is bigger among younger Canadians aged 25-34 years: only 10% have completed a graduate degree, five points lower than the OECD average of 15%.

There’s still work to be done to support graduate students and innovation in Canada and BC. In the 2016-2017 school year, BC had just under 20,000 full-time graduate students enrolled and trailed behind the Canadian average in the number of graduate degrees granted per capita. British Columbia is the only major province not to offer graduate student support and scholarship programs, placing us at a disadvantage in driving innovation and building advanced skills. Given the outsized contributions of highly-educated workers in a knowledge-based economy, the province should do more to support graduate students attending BC post-secondary institutions.

[1] OECD Education 2017 data looks at elementary, secondary, and tertiary/post-secondary education.

[2] A third level of academic pursuit after high school graduation. Minimum of two years full-time study, which includes apprenticeship certificates, diplomas and academic degrees. For full definition, see OECD’s Glossary of Statistical Terms:

  1. Tertiary-Type A Education
  2. Tertiary-Type B Education

[3] Not including privately run language schools.

[4] Tuition fees vary by academic level, program and institution.

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