Printer icon Print Page

Interview—Education: How Canada Performs

, President and CEO, answers questions about the Education indicator of How Canada Performs. Problems with the player? Download the mp3 file


How does Canadian education measure up compared to its peers?

Well Canada’s system’s education and skills really is one of the best in the world. We rate an A overall. But there are some opportunities to better match what Canadian learn to evolve in labour markets needs.

What are Canada strengths?

Our strengths are in a number of areas. High school and college completion are ranked very highly; students with low level reading skills, low level math skills, and low level science skills ranked highly, so vis a vis the other developed countries that we rank here, on the 20 different indicators we find that those three indicators for low level reading, math, and science skills we do pretty well. We’re giving a basic education across the board.

Equity in outcomes is also very good. What that really speaks to is the issue of how do the children of immigrants do vis a vis the children who are Canadian born , so they do fairly well so and again with  regard to our English as a second language or French as a second language, we are doing  fairly well. Students with high level reading skills also do well. So we do comparatively well there. We teach children to read better than most countries in terms of more advanced reading skills. Also the performance of our disadvantaged schools is very high compared to many other countries and this speaks to the difference between how students do coming out of advantaged versus disadvantaged schools within the country. So we actually do comparatively well on that.

And what are Canada’s weaknesses and what is needed to make progress on these weaknesses?

Well I think our big glaring weakness where we get a D and we have got a long way to go despite some effort here is the number of PhD graduates. This really disadvantages the economy and society with regard to the high level skills for some growing high technology areas in genomics, material science, and computing, these sorts of areas. We really need to improve that. We performed 15th out of 16 countries in this particular area. Science, math, computer science, and engineering graduates we don’t do very well on either. This really puts us at a disadvantage in regard to the high tech sorts of opportunities that exist in most developed countries.

One area we do poorly on that we really need to be conscious of is the return on higher education, particularly for men but also for women. If you look at it in the United States, if you go to college or university, your return on that investment is much higher than it is in Canada. We graduate a lot of individuals from university they are not finding the kind of lift in their salaries career opportunities that they might if they were in the United States. And this impacts the return on the investment they’ve made. Adult literacy interestingly at the low level, is not very good. This may be a historical issue; we seem to be doing very well at teaching current students low level reading skills but we seem to have a historical issue with regard to low level reading skills in the population at the adult level.

Another area that again is related to the math and science is high level science skills; we don’t do very well on those. And so while we give everybody a fairly good solid base science education according to the rankings, we don’t do particularly well on the high level skills. Again this disadvantages us in areas of biology, physics, computing, and all these sorts of areas that we really need in a developed economy. Those are high value areas for the economy. They provide resources for us to support the economy in society and our demands there. There are some areas that we do okay, we are not poor but we are okay. Some of them are around university completion We get a B. We get a B in terms of how many foreign students we have in the system vis a vis other countries. A number of other countries are bringing in foreign students. And it’s not just a question of them bringing in because they want to export education it’s a question of them bringing them in and it actually enhances learning for the students in their own system because they learn about the world, they learn about other countries. It prepares them for a truly globalized world in a more effective way.

Where is the need to make progress?

There really are a couple of pressing needs.

  1. First is to strengthen the linkage between high school and post secondary education. Now we have a real opportunity there to help start to provide pathways for people, to ensure they have the requisite skills to go forward and to provide a pathway for them to the workplace jobs and careers.
  2. The other is to work in the post secondary system to identify pathways that are more coordinated, maybe from the university through college program to a career or maybe from college through university to a career maybe from a college to a polytechnic to a career. And I think those sorts of things are fairly important. So we really need to put some resources into the linkages in terms of identifying skills, in terms of identifying pathways or offering pathways.

There is another issue that’s imbedded in here that we really need to think about.  In cases like Germany, there are really well laid out pathways. If we take a look at the system there are pathway between trade schools and high school. There are pathways between university and professional areas and they are little bit better laid out. But in addition, other countries like the U.S. cover them differently, I suspect, and here we don’t have solid proof, in the U.S. they do spend more money on career services in different institutions. They help you think through the resources; they help identify the resources that you need to help you pull together the pathway that you want to move forward with. But these things are costly. And we haven’t always built them into our institutions, in a way that makes them sustainable. When there are budget cuts, when there are downturns, those kinds of services tend to get clawed back or capped.  What happens is it impacts the individual’s ability to develop their own career plan.