Why Alberta’s education system is better

The reasons may surprise you

Alberta is as a maverick when it comes to higher education. The province prepares students for post-secondary better than its neighbors, has some of the country’s most satisfied students and punches above its weight in research.

Now there’s even more evidence that the rest of Canada should pay attention to how Wild Rose Country approaches higher education.

New University of Saskatchewan research, which included 12,000 first-year students, found that grades for Albertans tended to drop just 6.4 points from Grade 12, but fell as much as 19.6 points on average for students from another province. In other words, a student from Alberta who graduates with an 86 average is likely to end first-year as an 80 student, while students from that other unnamed province would average 66.

One reason Alberta’s students are much better prepared is that they study long and hard to pass provincial standardized exams, which account for 50 per cent of their Grade 12 marks. Students in other provinces are graded more subjectively, making it easier for teachers to give high marks.

The higher standards are well-known. In recognition of the high standards, the University of British Columbia automatically raises Albertan students’ grades two per cent when they apply.

But it’s a lot more than standardized tests that make Alberta’s schools succed. Here are six more reasons the rest of Canada ought to pay closer attention to Alberta’s higher education system.

1. Public funding of universities is highest in Alberta.
Statistics Canada says that 72 per cent of funding for Alberta universities came from public sources in 2009. The next highest was Newfoundland at 69 per cent. It was only 49 per cent in Nova Scotia.

2. Albertans outperform their peers well before university.
Alberta’s 15-year-olds came second in the world in reading and fourth in the world in science in the 2009 PISA study, the gold-standard international test. Those were the top scores in Canada.

3. Alberta has two teaching-focused universities that work.
Grant MacEwan and Mount Royal Univeristy have faculty who spend most of their days teaching, rather than conducting research—unlike nearly every university east of Edmonton. And both institutions score exceptionally well on the National Survey of Student Engagement. When asked “if you could start over, would go to the institution you are now attending?,” 50 per cent of Mount Royal seniors and 60 per cent of Grant MacEwan seniors said yes. The average is just 45 per cent.

5. Alberta’s transfer system works.
In Sept. 2009, nearly 12,000 post-secondary students transferred between schools in the province. Many of the transfers are from the provinces’ teaching-focused institutions and community colleges into big research institutions. Harvey Weingarten, then-president of the University of Calgary, told the authors of Academic Reform that transfer students are “academically indistinguishable.”

6. Even with teaching-focused universities, Alberta remains a research leader.
Despite having more students in teaching-only institutions and only 11 per cent of Canada’s population, Alberta holds 17 per cent of the Canada Excellence Research Chairs, which come with up to $10-million apiece. Alberta also has 12 per cent of the prestigious Vanier Scholarships. The University of Alberta has the second highest per-faculty research funding in Canada at $309,332.