Blog by Matt Kerr

<< back to article list

University Education in Canada

University Education in Canada
By Sofia Rasmussen

Canadian universities have, for many years, ridden a wave of general constants—standard enrollment, moderate student debt, and generally bright post-graduate job prospects. As Canada’s population explodes and education-related costs continue to skyrocket, however, things may be tilting away from such sunny skies. Most reports dated 2010 and later rank Canadian higher education beneath most American and European counterparts. Education authorities have been quick to acknowledge the problems, however, vowing to improve the quality of the country’s university systems in the coming years.

The vast majority of Canadian universities are funded and administered on an exclusively provincial basis. There is no federal oversight of the larger university program, which many believe may be one of the reasons that standards are slowly slipping. There also isn’t much private funding, which means that students are not inundated with offers to get the best online PhD degree, but also that students’ options are limited.

“Our governments have failed to work together to develop policies to improve the learning futures of Canadians of all ages,” Paul Cappon, the President and CEO of the Canadian Council on Learning, said in a 2011 report. That report, titled “Canada Slipping Down the Learning Curve,” detailed myriad ways in which Canada’s once solid grip on higher education seems to be quietly eroding. “While Canada does possess strengths in education, we are not setting the conditions for future success,” Cappon added.

Universities across the country are funded primarily through provincial mandates. This means that tuition is typically very low on the student end, and higher education is generally seen as accessible. Some schools have better reputations than others, of course, but in most cases, young Canadians who desire postsecondary education can get it relatively cheaply. In Ontario, for instance, 75% of high school graduates went on to pursue advanced learning in 2011, according to George Fallis, economics and social science professor at York University. “Universal higher education has been achieved,” Falls said in a February 2012 University Affairs article.

Provincial funding guarantees that education will be available, but top-down mandates are not always clear—or even consistent—with respect to where money needs to be allocated.  As more and more young Canadians seek university education, there is necessarily a drain on resources as new slots must be created in many programs. Sometimes, the cuts come to personnel and administrative staff, as the University of British Columbia announced in early 2012. Other times, however, it can come as a shift of resources away from research, or as a siphoning of funds to more technical and vocational-focused colleges where educational needs are less rigorous.

Cost differential is one of the main things that sets Canadian schools apart from their U.S. counterparts. In the United States, states underwrite portions of public university expenses, but the brunt of the costs are borne by students. Private colleges, where students bear all costs, are also very common in the United States; few schools of this type exist in Canada.

In addition to paying less, many Canadian graduates are also loath to give back to their degree-granting institutions, or to see much loyalty to them in the years after graduation. American and many top European universities boast of extensive endowment funds and private grants unmatched by Canadian counterparts. American alumni also seem more willing to support their alma maters through financial gifts and bequests. “Philanthropy is very important in the U.S. for private universities, but also the major public ones,” Robert Birgeneau, former University of Toronto president, told Canada’s MacLeans magazine in March 2012. “Affluent Canadians need to step up. I put a large amount of energy into interacting with well-to-do alumni, educating them on the fact that because of the state disinvestment, if they don’t step up their degrees are not going to be worth what they seem to be.”