On Campus

Why Canada can’t get world-class post-secondary education

If 43 European countries can agree on university quality assurance, why can’t our ten provinces?

Canada is miles behind European countries when it comes to university quality assurance, argues Judith Maxwell, fellow and founding president of Canadian Policy Research Networks. In an insightful Globe and Mail column published Monday, Maxwell compares the awkward Canadian higher education system to an initiative in Europe and finds that not only is Canada lagging behind, but also doesn’t even have the data needed to determine where to start.

Maxwell draws attention to an embarrassing fact about Canadian higher education: we just don’t know that much about it. In 2007’s Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development annual report on education, Canada received more M’s – meaning: “data missing” – than actual data. In fact, there are more gaps in Canadian education than that for any other country.

For example, Maxwell notes that Canada is unable to track students after they leave college or university. There is also no solid data on drop out rates. Of the 96 post-secondary education indicators requested by OECD, Canada was unable to provide 57.

Canada has “no clear picture” of how post-secondary education fares in comparison with other countries, said Paul Cappon, president of the Canada Council on Learning, in an interview last year.

Other countries aside, Maxwell is concerned that the lack of data is a barrier to improving post-secondary education. “Altogether, Canada spends $36-billion on higher education. Ministers of Education often use the rhetoric of a world class system. But until provinces are armed with better data and the capacity for quality assurance, we are all in the dark about what works and what needs fixing,” she writes.

One of the main reasons for the lack of data is that post-secondary education is a provincial responsibility, not a federal one. Each province collects its information differently and on its own schedule. Because there is no federal ministry of post-secondary education, there is no mechanism for compiling and standardizing data.

The problems stemming from the lack of a federal ministry don’t stop at data collection. Maxwell also notes that all six provinces that have recently completed major reports on higher education have signaled a need to improve integration between university and college systems, allowing for smoother transferability of course credits and so on. But the reports didn’t even touch the topic of inter-province transferbility.

Perhaps it’s too daunting of a task. Only B.C., Quebec, and Alberta currently have internal credit transfer systems. The Council of Ministers of Education Canada – one of Canada’s only national bodies on education – has no power to make changes beyond issuing statements and bringing ideas back to their respective provincial governments. Moreover, Maxwell notes, “the Pan-Canadian Consortium on Admissions and Transfers creates a forum for exchanging best practices in credit transfer, but progress has been painfully slow.”

Maxwell suggests a European initiative called the Bologna Process as a model for improvement. The process started in 1999 when 29 European countries (17 signed on later) committed to implementing standards that would allow students and professors mobility and increase Europe’s international competitiveness in higher education.

She summarizes the frameworks that the countries (fully supported by their universities) agreed to as such: “Comparable bachelor, master and doctoral degrees; standards and guidelines for quality assurance; a system for accumulating and transferring course credits; and fair recognition of foreign degrees and other qualifications.”

It’s not likely that Canada could attempt such a lofty goal without national leadership. But a start would be standardizing the way data is collected by the provinces in order to begin assessing quality.

Maxwell sums up her position with a rallying cry to the universities: “In a world where knowledge is the essence of comparative advantage, our universities and colleges can’t afford to wait for provinces to take the lead. Their best bet is to invent their own version of the Bologna Process in order to weave together a pan-Canadian system – a system that will be truly ready to take on the world.”

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