Education and Skills
The data on this page are current as of June 2014.
- British Columbia, Ontario, and Alberta are the top performers among all the provinces, earning “B” grades on the Education and Skills report card.
- Manitoba, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador all earn “D’s” overall, while P.E.I. earns a “D–,” scoring worse than the lowest-ranked international peer country.
- The largest provincial differences occur on student reading, science, and math skills—with provinces earning anywhere from an “A+” to a “D–” grade.
Putting education and skills in context
Education is typically seen as the most powerful route to improving private and public prosperity and well-being.
Educated people not only earn higher incomes but also contribute disproportionally to business innovation, productivity, and national economic performance. There is a strong and direct relationship between educational attainment and economic growth. A 2003 multi-country study from the European Commission found that if the national average educational attainment level is increased by a single year, aggregate productivity increases by 6.2 per cent right away and by a further 3.1 per cent in the long run.1
Education also affects social outcomes. Higher educational attainment has been linked to increased civic engagement, higher life satisfaction, and lower crime rates.2 Moreover, there is evidence that more educated people make decisions that lead to healthier and longer lives.3 Education is an important contributor to well-being and a critical force for driving success.
Notably, however, two provinces that perform well on the economy report card perform poorly on the education report card. This can be explained by the fact that natural resource wealth has boosted the economic performance of the two provinces but, in some cases, provided jobs that do not require high levels of educational attainment. Also, the education report card reflects the performance of the current provincial population. The resource wealth in Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador is relatively recent; the influence of the increased economic wealth on education outcomes may not be felt for some time.
How is education performance measured?
This report card benchmarks the provinces and Canada against 15 international peer countries. The peer countries are chosen based on three criteria: standard of living, population size, and geographic size (to exclude city-states). They are the most advanced and wealthiest countries in the world. (For more information on how the peer countries were selected, see the methodology section.) This may mean, however, a country that is a leader in one of the performance areas or on select indicators may not be included in the peer group because it did not meet the selection criteria. Singapore and South Korea, for example, were among the top performers on the 2012 student skills test indicators, but are not included in the report card because they do not meet the criteria for inclusion.
A total of 23 indicators are used to assess provincial performance in the Education and Skills category. Comparable international data are available for 21 of these indicators. Like all How Canada Performs report cards, the Education and Skills report card focuses on outcomes. It tells us what countries and provinces are achieving, not what their efforts are. Consequently, education inputs—the human, financial, and material resources channelled into the education system—are not graded.
The selected indicators are organized into a framework that distinguishes between three levels of education and skills attainment. While undoubtedly there is overlap between the levels (e.g., adults who return to complete secondary school), distinguishing between the levels of education helps show where countries are excelling and where interventions may be necessary. This framework also allows for greater discussion of how the performance at one level may affect performance at other levels.
- K–12: Indicators in this level focus on the performance of students from kindergarten to Grade 12. Countries are compared on their performance on the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test administered to 15 year olds every three years. PISA assesses students’ skills in reading, math, and science. Countries are also evaluated on how well immigrant students are faring on PISA compared with native-born students, as well as on the number of resilient students—those students who are disadvantaged socio-economically yet score well on the PISA math test. Finally, high-school attainment rates are compared.
- Post-secondary education: Indicators in this level focus on country and provincial performance at the post-secondary level. The share of the population that has graduated from college and university is compared, as well as the difference between the tertiary attainment of men and women. The share of PhD graduates and graduates in science, math, computer science, and engineering are assessed. Countries and provinces are also evaluated on the share of international students they attract to their post-secondary institutions.
- Adults and work: The third level of the framework assesses the skills and outcomes of adults and the working population. The skills of adults are assessed using the OECD’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). Adults are tested on their literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills in technology-rich environments. The income advantage of completing a college or university education is also assessed.
Do Canada’s youth have the skills needed to succeed?
Canada performs well at the national level on the 2012 PISA reading, math, and science tests. At the provincial level, however, significant differences emerge. Some provinces managed to earn high grades—such as Alberta and B.C., with all “A”s or “B”s—but several other provinces are performing significantly below the levels needed. Even within provinces there are differences in outcomes. For example, Quebec earns an “A” grade for its large share of students with high-level math skills but a “D” on high-level science skills.
Also troubling is that, like the majority of its peers, Canada’s performance on student skills declined between 2009 and 2012.
While the poor performance of some provinces is troubling, the fact that other provinces are excelling on certain aspects of student skills means that there is an opportunity to learn from those provinces. What policies, practices, and techniques are they using to produce excellent results? How can other provinces replicate their successes? Provinces can also look to international peers. Finland perennially performs well on student tests. And while most countries performed worse on the 2012 test, Japan successfully reduced its share of students with inadequate skills, earning “A” grades on all six measures of student skills in the 2012 PISA test.
The PISA reading, math, and science tests measure the degree to which “students near the end of compulsory education have acquired some of the knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in modern society.”4
The results can be seen as an indication of student preparedness for post-secondary education or entry into the labour force, as well as full participation in their communities. It is critical to ensure that students are equipped with the skills they need to be well prepared for whatever future endeavors they choose to pursue.
What challenges do the provinces face in post-secondary education?
Nine provinces earn “A”s on the share of their populations whose highest level of education is a college diploma.5 Grades on the indicator measuring the population share whose highest attainment is a university degree are slightly lower (“B”s and “C”s) for all provinces but Ontario, which earns an “A” grade.
Among the challenges for post-secondary education in all provinces are the low numbers of science, math, computer science, and engineering graduates per 100,000 population aged 20–39, and the low numbers of PhD graduates per 100,000 population aged 25–39. Quebec’s “C” grade is the best provincial performance on the PhD indicator. Doctorate holders in the private sector (an estimated 20 to 30 per cent of doctoral holders join academia6) make significant contributions to society and the economy through their research and innovation capacity.7 Yet, compared with firms in the U.S., Canadian firms in most industries hire fewer PhD graduates and pay them less.8 This failure to take full advantage of the capacity of PhD graduates to innovate is a management issue.9
Some countries have begun to broaden the concept of doctoral education to include more doctorates with an applied focus. Denmark was the first European country to introduce a three-year industry-focused doctoral project that students complete in cooperation with a university and private company.10 In 2007, Denmark earned a “D” on the PhD graduate indicator—it now gets a “B” grade. Germany, which earns an “A” on PhD graduates, also offers industrial PhD programs. By integrating businesses into doctoral education, the expectation is that these graduates will have advanced skills that are readily applicable to industry.
Another challenge facing most provinces is the large and growing gender gap in post-secondary education. The share of women with a university degree or college diploma is higher than that of men in all provinces.
The Conference Board of Canada launched the Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education to address the advanced skills and education challenges facing Canada today.
Is Canada’s workforce sufficiently skilled?
No. Given that Canada is a leader on post-secondary educational attainment, one might reasonably expect that the country would also be a leader on adult skills. Yet Canada and most provinces do relatively poorly on adult literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills, earning mainly “C” and “D” grades.
What accounts for Canada’s poor performance on adult skills? One reason is that literacy and numeracy skills are not “fixed” forever—individuals can lose skills after they leave school, through lack of use.11
The longer someone has been out of the formal education system, the more impact other factors will have on their proficiency, such as their work and social environment. On average, the younger cohort, aged 16–24, have higher literacy scores than adults aged 45–65, and these results hold no matter what level of education the person has.12
In the absence of continuing education or workplace training, it appears likely that, on average, the skills of Canada’s workers diminish over time.
Another reason is the relatively poorer performance of immigrant adults in Canada combined with a higher proportion of immigrant test-takers in Canada than in peer countries. (See section below, “How do immigrants fare on adult skills?)
It is noteworthy that some countries with lower levels of educational attainment than Canada are outperforming Canada on adult skills; Norway and Finland are two examples. This may, in part, be a function of the relatively high participation rate of adults in non-formal job-related education in these two countries.
The International Institute for Management Development’s World Competitiveness Yearbook 2013 ranked Canada 28th out of 59 countries on the importance of workforce training to Canadian employers.13 The Conference Board has expressed concern over the low investment in, and low priority placed on, workplace training. According to the Conference Board’s learning and development outlook, Canadian firms spend about $0.68 for every $1.00 American firms spend on learning and development.14 Only 55 per cent of the organizations surveyed agreed that “learning is a top priority within my organization,” down from 74 per cent two years earlier.15
Increasing the skills of Canada’s labour force will require not only efforts on the part of individuals but also commitment by workplaces to prioritize ongoing learning and invest in training. Businesses, and the labour market in general, do not recognize or reward Canada’s post-secondary graduates as much as its peers do. For example, the earnings advantage of getting a university degree over a high-school diploma is lower in Canada than in the United States.
How do immigrants fare on adult skills?
Canada has a diverse population. According to data from the 2011 National Household Survey, 22 per cent of the population aged 16–65 are immigrants.16 Immigrants are not evenly dispersed across the country. Eighty-five per cent of all immigrants to Canada live in three provinces: Ontario (53.3 per cent), British Columbia (17.6 per cent), and Quebec (14.4 per cent). The remaining 15 per cent of immigrants live in the other seven provinces and three territories.17 It is important to assess how immigrants are faring on adult skills, particularly in provinces where immigrants account for a large portion of the working-age population.
In general, a smaller proportion of adult immigrants than people born in Canada have high-level skills, and a larger proportion have inadequate skills. This does not mean that these immigrants have poor skills in their native language; however, they are performing poorly in one of Canada’s official languages, either English or French. Although the PIAAC test assesses a limited though vital skill set, it does not capture the multitude of ways in which immigrants contribute to Canada’s society or economy.
Research by the Conference Board has assessed some of the ways immigrants make an important contribution to Canada. The Leaders’ Roundtable on Immigration has addressed some of these issues, as have the following reports:
- Jessica Brichta and Michelle Parkouda, Immigrants and Innovation: How to Measure the Return on Your Investment in Immigrants as Innovators (Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada, 2013).
- Michelle Parkouda, The Influence of Immigrants on Trade Diversification in Saskatchewan (Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada, 2013).
- Michelle Downie, Immigrants as Innovators: Boosting Canada’s Global Competitiveness (Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada, 2010).
- Vadim Kukushkin and Douglas Watt, Immigrant-Friendly Businesses—Effective Practices for Attracting, Integrating, and Retaining Immigrants in Canadian Workplaces (Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada, 2009).
- Vadim Kukushkin, Immigrant-Friendly Communities: Making Immigration Work for Employers and Other Stakeholders (Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada, 2009).
How do Aboriginal people fare on education and skills outcomes?
Aboriginal people are an important group to consider in any discussion of education and skills. The Aboriginal population in Canada is growing: 4.3 per cent of the Canadian population identified as Aboriginal on the National Household Survey in 2011, up from 3.3 per cent in 2001.18 Statistics Canada estimates that by 2031 the Aboriginal population could reach 2.2 million,19 an increase of over 35 per cent from 2011.19 The effects of this growth will be felt in different ways throughout Canada. For example, forecasters estimate that by 2030, one in four people new to Saskatchewan’s labour force will be Aboriginal.21
It is readily recognized that Aboriginal people as a group have lower levels of educational attainment in high school and university. Although accurate data is difficult to obtain, the 2011 National Household Survey provides some insights.22 Among 25–34 year olds who identified as Aboriginal, the national high-school attainment rate was 72 per cent, compared with 92 per cent for all Canadians. Among the provinces, the lowest rate was recorded in Manitoba, at 64 per cent. And while Aboriginal people lag significantly behind the non-Aboriginal population on university attainment, the rates for college attainment are not as far apart.
As a group, Aboriginal people also have lower levels of adult literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills. However, when education is taken into account, Aboriginal people have literacy and numeracy skills on par with the non-Aboriginal population. Clearly, improving education outcomes is an important factor in improving the skills of the Aboriginal population.
It is important to note that almost 15 per cent of Aboriginal people report having an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue, likely affecting their performance on the PIAAC tests, which are administered in only English or French in Canada.23 Much more thorough and sensitive analysis, including comparisons among First Nation (on and off reserve), Inuit, and Métis outcomes, is needed to fully understand both the reasons for the gap and the actions and policies needed to close the gap. Moreover, current performance measures do not adequately account for historical impacts, such as the intergenerational legacy of the residential school era, on Aboriginal educational outcomes.
- Michelle Parkouda and Jessica Brichta, Realizing the Potential: Priority Investments in Saskatchewan’s First Nations and Métis People (Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada, 2013).
- Alison Howard, Jessica Edge, and Douglas Watt, Understanding the Value, Challenges, and Opportunities of Engaging Métis, Inuit, and First Nations Workers (Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada, 2012).
- Ashley Sisco, Margaret Caron-Vuotari, Carole Stonebridge, Greg Sutherland, and Gilles Rhéaume, Lessons Learned: Achieving Positive Educational Outcomes in Northern Communities (Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada, 2012).
What does Canada’s report card look like?
Overall, Canada ranks third among its international peers and scores a “B” grade on the Education and Skills report card. Canada’s strength is in delivering a high-quality education to people between the ages of 5 and 19 in core areas of reading, math, and science. Canada has the highest rate of college attainment and the second-highest rate of high-school attainment among its international peers. Canada also gets an “A” grade on ensuring that the gap between the education performance of immigrant youth relative to Canadian-born youth is small.
The country’s grades on adult skills, however, are weak and have deteriorated over the past decade. Canada’s other weaknesses are its low numbers of students graduating with PhDs and with degrees in science, math, computer science, and engineering.
Which provinces are at the top of the class?
No province receives an “A” grade overall, but three of Canada’s four largest provinces rank among the top five jurisdictions overall and score “B” grades: British Columbia, Ontario, and Alberta. Collectively, these provinces account for about 63 per cent of Canada’s population.24 Japan and Finland are the only two comparator regions that fare better, ranking first and second, respectively, and scoring “A” grades.
The three leading provinces have many results in common. For example, they all earn an “A+” on high-school attainment, ranking higher than the top-performing peer country, and earn “A+” or “A” on college attainment and equity in outcomes. Given that a high-school diploma is a prerequisite for higher education, these provinces are particularly well positioned to have high rates of college and university attainment. In addition to their relatively strong performance on the educational attainment indicators, these three provinces have some of the best results in Canada on PISA, an assessment of the skills of 15 year olds in reading, math, and science.
The chart below each provincial analysis is a snapshot of that province’s performance relative to the top-performing peer country—represented by the red line—for 21 of the Education and Skills indicators. The two indicators measuring the income advantage for college and university graduates are not included in these snapshots because we do not have internationally comparable data. A score close to the red line means the province is close to the top-performing country on the given indicator. A score crossing the red line (above 100) means the province does better than the top-performing country. The worst-performing country is represented by a score of 0. A negative score means the province does worse than the poorest-performing peer country.
British Columbia is the top-performing province, ranking third overall. B.C. earns an “A+” on high-school attainment, doing better than the top-ranked international peer on this indicator, the United States. Given that high-school attainment is a necessary precursor to post-secondary education, it is not surprising that the province is a strong performer on college attainment (“A”) and university attainment (“B”). B.C. also performs well on student skills, scoring an “A+” for its low share of students with inadequate reading, and “A”s for its low shares of students with inadequate math and science skills and for its large share of students with high-level science skills.
B.C.’s adult population, however, does not perform as well. British Columbia has a large share of adults with inadequate reading and math skills, earning “C” grades. The province’s poorest performance is on two indicators where all of Canada appears to be particularly weak: the number of PhD graduates and the number of graduates in science, math, computer science, and engineering.
Ontario ranks fourth on the overall Education and Skills report card. The province’s top grades are “A+”s on high-school and college attainment. Ontario also does well on university attainment, scoring an “A” grade. A relatively low share of Ontario students are classified as having inadequate reading (“A”), math (“B”), and science (“B”) skills. While it is important that most students are mastering the basics, the province could do better at increasing the number of students with high-level math (“C”) and science (“C”) skills.
Ontario excels at integrating immigrant students and has the smallest gap between the performance of immigrant and non-immigrant students on the student math test, which earns the province an “A” on the equity in outcomes indicator. Ontario’s strong showing on this indicator is particularly significant given that it has the largest provincial share of immigrants. Ontario’s worst grade is a “D” on the number of PhD graduates in 2011—an indicator where almost every province performs poorly relative to the top peer countries—Switzerland, Finland, Germany, and Sweden.
Alberta is in fifth spot. The province earns an “A+” on high-school attainment. The province performs well on both college (“A”) and university (“B”) attainment. Alberta’s students do well on student reading, math, and science tests, earning “A”s and “B”s.
The adult population fares slightly worse, earning Alberta “C” grades for its relatively large share of adults with inadequate reading, math, and problem-solving skills. Similar to British Columbia, Alberta’s worst performance is on the number of PhD graduates and graduates in science, math, computer science, and engineering. Alberta also fares poorly on the gender gap indicator, as significantly more women than men have a tertiary education, and on the indicator measuring the income advantage of a university education.
Which provinces are bringing home “D”s?
Manitoba, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador all earn “D”s on their overall Education and Skills report cards. Prince Edward Island earns a “D–,” which means it ranks below the lowest-ranked peer country, France. While the performances of these five provinces vary across the 23 indicators, they all have low shares of students with high-levels of reading, math, and science skills—earning “C”s or “D”s—and have a low share of their populations with university degrees compared with the other provinces.
The chart below each provincial analysis is a snapshot of that province’s performance relative to the top-performing peer country—represented by the red line—for 21 of the indicators for which international data are available. The two indicators measuring the income advantage for college and university graduates are not included in these snapshots because we do not have internationally comparable data. A score close to the red line means the province is close to the top-performing country on the given indicator. A score crossing the red line (above 100) means the province does better than the top-performing country. The worst-performing country is represented by a score of 0. A negative score means the province does worse than the poorest-performing peer country.
P.E.I. is the worst-performer among all the comparator regions. It earns “D–” grades on five indicators, ranking below the worst-performing peer country on the number of PhD graduates; on the number of graduates in math, science, computer science, and engineering; and on three of the six student skills indicators—high-level reading, math, and science skills. In fact, the province does poorly on all student skills indicators, scoring “D”s for its large shares of students with inadequate reading, math, and science skills.
Adults fare slightly better on skills tests, earning “C”s on both high- and low-level reading and math skills. P.E.I.’s best performance is on college attainment, where it earns an “A+.” The province also gets an “A” for high-school attainment. Another notable strength for the province is its high share of international students in its post-secondary institutions. P.E.I. leads the provinces on this indicator with a “B” grade.
Newfoundland and Labrador ranks third from the bottom on the overall Education and Skills report card. The province’s worst grade is a “D–” on the share of adults with inadequate numeracy skills, where it ranks last among all the provinces and peer countries. The province earns “D” grades on the other five adult skills indicators. It fares somewhat better on student skills, where it earns primarily “C” grades and scores one “B” for having a low share of students with inadequate science skills.
Newfoundland and Labrador does well on college attainment, earning an “A” grade for the high share of college graduates in its population. It also earns “A”s on two other indicators: the income advantage for college and university attainment. Although these indicators were not benchmarked internationally, Newfoundland and Labrador is the best-performing province on both, something that speaks to the strength of the province’s economy.
New Brunswick ranks 22nd among the 26 comparator jurisdictions. The province earns “D–” grades on the number of PhD graduates and the number of graduates in math, science, computer science, and engineering. The province performs relatively poorly on student skills in reading, math, and science, as well as on adult skills in numeracy, literacy, and problem-solving in technology-rich environments. However, the province earns an “A+” on college attainment and “A”s on high-school attainment and on the indicator measuring equity in outcomes, meaning there is no significant gap in the performance of immigrant and non-immigrant students on PISA’s math test.
Saskatchewan places just ahead of New Brunswick and is 21st overall. It ranks below the worst-performing peer country on four indicators, scoring “D–” grades for PhD graduates; graduates in math, science, computer science, and engineering; the share of adults with inadequate problem-solving skills in technology rich environments; and the gender gap in tertiary education. While 47 per cent of adult women in Saskatchewan have completed tertiary education, only 28 per cent of men have.
Saskatchewan earns a “C” on students with inadequate reading skills and two “B”s for having relatively low shares of students with inadequate math and science skills. The province earns “A” grades for high-school attainment and for equity in outcomes—a measure of the difference between the scores of immigrant and non-immigrant students on PISA’s math test.
Manitoba ranks 17th among the 26 jurisdictions. Like P.E.I., New Brunswick, and Saskatchewan, Manitoba earns “D–” grades on both PhD graduates and graduates in math, science, computer science, and engineering. On the whole, Manitoba secondary students performed poorly on the latest PISA tests—the top grade was a “C” for the share of students with inadequate science skills. Manitoba scored “D”s on the other five student skills. Adult skills were also weak in the province, earning “C”s for its shares of people with high-level and inadequate literacy and numeracy skills.
One relatively bright spot is Manitoba’s “B” grades on problem-solving skills in technology-rich environments. The province receives “A” grades on three indicators: high-school attainment, college attainment, and equity in learning outcomes. Equity in learning outcomes assesses the difference between the scores of immigrant and non-immigrant secondary students on PISA’s math test.
Which provinces are in the middle of the class?
Quebec and Nova Scotia both earn “C” grades on their overall Education and Skills report card. While the two provinces perform well on some indicators, weak performance on others pulls down their overall ranking.
The chart below each provincial analysis is a snapshot of that province’s performance relative to the top-performing peer country—represented by the red line—on 21 of the Education and Skills indicators. The two indicators measuring the income advantage for college and university graduates are not included in these snapshots because we do not have internationally comparable data. A score close to the red line means the province is close to the top-performing country on the given indicator. A score crossing the red line (above 100) means the province does better than the top-performing country. The worst-performing country is represented by a score of 0. A negative score means the province does worse than the poorest-performing peer country.
Quebec earns a “C” overall, ranking 10th among the 26 comparator jurisdictions. Quebec’s performance on the 23 indicators is uneven. The province earns “A” grades for high-school and college attainment and shines when it comes to student math skills, scoring an “A+” for having a low share of students with inadequate math skills and an “A” for its high share of students with high-level math skills. Quebec is the highest-scoring province on the resilient students indicator—a measure of the number of students who, despite having a disadvantaged socio-economic background, score well on the PISA math test. This indicator is an important measure of equality and mobility.
But adults in Quebec do not perform as well on literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills tests, earning “C”s and “D”s, including a “D–” for performing worse than the lowest-ranking peer country, the United Kingdom, on the share of adults with inadequate problem-solving skills in technology-rich environments.
Nova Scotia earns a “C” and places 12th overall. The province earns “A” grades on high-school and college attainment, and a “B” on university attainment. Nova Scotia has the best provincial performance on the number of graduates in math, science, computer science, and engineering, although it only earns a “C” because the international peers do much better.
Nova Scotia’s performance on student and adult skills is mixed. The province earns “B”s for having low shares of students with inadequate reading and science skills, but earns “D” grades for having low shares of students with high-level reading, math, and science skills. With respect to adult skills, Nova Scotia earns an “A” on high-level problem-solving skills in technology-rich environments. Other adult skills, however, earn the province “C” and “D” grades.