By Michael Skolnik

In 2012, the proportion of Canada’s adult population that had completed some type of tertiary education program was the highest of any OECD member country. While the OECD comparisons are at the national level, Ontario’s patterns of educational attainment are similar to the patterns for Canada, being slightly higher on some indices than the national average.

When we break down the OECD data, we discover that Canada’s high rate of educational attainment is due largely to the fact that it leads other countries by a significant margin in the proportion of the population that has attained a sub-baccalaureate credential, i.e., a postsecondary diploma or certificate. For example, 25% of Canadians had completed a diploma or certificate, compared to an average of 10% for all OECD nations. However, the picture regarding attainment of a baccalaureate degree is much different. Reflecting more recent trends in the attainment of a baccalaureate or higher degree, among 25-34 year olds, Canada was tied for 17th among the 34 OECD countries.

Baccalaureate educational attainment, 25-34 year olds (Source: OECD)

About half the students who enter postsecondary education in Ontario start in a college. Few of them are able to attain a baccalaureate degree, by my estimate about two out of a hundred college entrants. The barriers that prevent college students from obtaining a degree constitute a major bottleneck for educational attainment in Ontario. And it is a bottleneck that disproportionately hits people in the most vulnerable groups. For example, the participation rate of indigenous people in Ontario colleges is more than double their participation rate in universities; and large differences in participation rates between sectors exist also for lower income groups, people with disabilities, single parents and people in rural areas.

Many countries have addressed the twin problems of lagging baccalaureate attainment rates and inequality of opportunity by empowering institutions in their non-university sectors to become major providers of baccalaureate degree education (see my recent paper that compares degree-granting by colleges in Canada and other jurisdictions).  For example, in the Netherlands, which is tied for third internationally in baccalaureate degree attainment, the hogescholen account for twice as many baccalaureate degrees as the universities.

The motives for this type of reform in Europe were to make the postsecondary systems more efficient; to increase the knowledge and skills of the workforce; and to broaden opportunity for study at the baccalaureate level by increasing access for groups that had been underserved by universities, including students from the vocational and general streams in the secondary schools. This doesn’t mean that only students from these streams enroll in college degree programs; in Germany, more than half the applicants to bachelor’s programs in the fachhochschulen are from the pre-university stream.

Ontario gave the colleges limited authority to award degrees in 2000, but this was done in such a way as to minimize its impact. No additional funding was provided for degree programs; limits were placed on the number of degree programs a college may offer; applications to mount a degree program normally take more than two years to be approved, and colleges are still prohibited from awarding degrees in some applied fields of study, most notably nursing. But the biggest restriction is that, unlike the situation in most other countries, colleges may admit to their degree programs only students who meet university admission requirements.

In addition, Ontario’s requirements for faculty who teach in applied degree programs in the colleges work against hiring individuals who have the necessary professional experience for preparing students for their field of practice. As a consequence of these restrictions, 15 years after the legislation for colleges to award degrees was enacted, colleges account for only about 2 per cent of all baccalaureate degrees in the province. By contrast, 18 years after a similar reform was made in Finland, over 60 per cent of the baccalaureate degrees in Finland were awarded by institutions that are comparable to our colleges.

The attractiveness of the colleges to university students in Ontario is indicated by the fact that as of the latest year for which data are available, 8.5% of college students were university graduates and another 8.0% had previously attended a university. Substantially increasing the proportion of baccalaureate degrees in Ontario that is awarded by colleges would make our postsecondary system more sustainable and enable the universities to concentrate more on their intellectual, advanced studies, and research functions. It would also increase opportunity for study at the baccalaureate degree level, particularly for those who have been underserved by universities, and those who prefer a more applied type of postsecondary education and a more teaching-centered learning environment.

Reaching the percentages of baccalaureate degrees awarded by colleges in the Netherlands or Finland (or Germany, or Denmark, or Ireland) may be unrealistic for Ontario, but why not remove the restrictions on the colleges in regard to offering baccalaureate programs, and set a target close to the figure for New Zealand: say, “20 in 25”, that by 2025, 20% of baccalaureate degrees should be awarded by colleges?