Are we pushing too many young people to go to university?
A new paper by Ken Coates argues that a preoccupation with universities and a tendency to overlook the more job-relevant training offered by colleges and polytechnic institutes is leading too many young Canadians astray. The paper, published at the end of March by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives as part of its “Jobs and Skills for the 21st Century” initiative, grabbed headlines because of its suggestion that we should cut university spaces by 25 to 30 percent and refocus our attention on producing more career-ready college graduates.
There is nothing wrong with shining the spotlight on Canada’s college sector and its success in aligning programs with job opportunities. There is a problem, however, with arguing that, if we want more college graduates in order to address anticipated skills shortages, we need fewer university ones. If the goal is to better align education with the needs of the labour market, we need to do better than engage in a zero-sum trade off between the college and university sectors.
As a first step, it is worth pointing out that Canada already stands out internationally because of its of its exceptionally strong college sector; by international standards, however, its university sector is comparatively small.
Canada ranks third in the OECD in terms of the proportion of its young adult population (age 25 to 34 years old) that has attained a tertiary education (whether college or university). This respectable position, however, is the result of the fact that the proportion of young Canadian adults with a college degree is very high, at 25 percent. This is good for second place in the OECD, behind only Korea.
By contrast, Canada ranks only 17th in the OECD in terms of the proportion of young adults with a university degree (32 percent). True, more young Canadian adults have a university degree than a college diploma. But is also true that in no other country is the difference between the relative size of the two groups of graduates as small.
This doesn’t mean that we could not benefit from even more college graduates. The point is simply that Canada does not look at all like a country that has over-emphasized university education to the detriment of colleges…