Access is the central issue driving higher education policy in Canada.
Higher education is the responsibility of the provinces under the country’s federal arrangements, but while there are considerable differences among these provincial systems in terms of structure, tuition fee levels and funding approaches, increasing participation is a core policy objective across the country. In that light, a new national study and a new Ontario initiative are receiving considerable attention.
The study, Postsecondary Enrolment by Parental Income: Recent National and Provincial Trends, was published by Statistics Canada in April. While Canada has had very high participation rates in post-secondary education (meaning universities and community colleges) for quite some time, the study – by Marc Frenette, a highly respected researcher – illuminates how these rates have continued to rise during the 21st century.
Overall, the participation of 19-year-olds increased from 53 per cent in 2001 to 64 per cent by 2014. But perhaps most surprisingly, Frenette finds that the greatest gains in participation rates have been among those whose families are in the lowest quintile for income. Their participation rates climbed by 25 per cent, from 38 per cent to 47 per cent, compared with an 8.3 per cent increase, from 73 to 79 per cent, among those in the top quintile.
But the study also notes that there have been major differences in the participation gains across the country. The eastern provinces have been far more successful than those in the west. The greatest overall gains were in Newfoundland and Labrador (19 per cent) and Ontario (16 per cent), while Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Quebec all had increases of more than 10 per cent. The greatest gains in the west were in British Columbia (6 per cent) and Alberta (4 per cent).
The differences between the provinces are even greater for students from low-income families. There were dramatic increases in Ontario and New Brunswick, while their participation rates actually declined in Saskatchewan, in the west.
What accounts for these disparities? The availability of high-salary, low-skill jobs in agriculture and natural resource industries in the west clearly influences participation in post-secondary education. But there have also been important differences in whether and in how provincial governments have supported enrolment growth.
Affordability is a key issue, but prospective students have frequently found it easier to obtain information about tuition costs than about the full level of financial assistance that may be available to them. One big reason for this is that student financial assistance often involves a number of different, independent mechanisms. Students have access to needs-based grants and loans from governments, merit- and needs-based funding from institutions and a range of credits available through the tax system.
The problem has been exacerbated by policy discussions that have tended to focus on tuition fee increases, rather than taking a more holistic look at affordability for low- and middle-income families. But things are finally taking a turn for the better in that regard. The government of Ontario is moving towards a new approach. With full implementation planned for 2018, the province is introducing an integrated student funding system that will link provincial and some institutional mechanisms so that students will receive a net tuition bill at the beginning of the academic year. Many students will learn that their tuition expenses will be wholly covered by government grants, and that they will have access to additional grants and loans to support living costs.
Implementation of the new approach is quite challenging because it involves a restructuring of funding mechanisms and the linking of government and institutional processes and data systems. But Ontario’s initiative has tremendous potential to further increase participation rates, especially among low-income and other under-represented populations. For would-be students concerned about tuition costs and debt, net tuition billing will represent a new level of transparency in terms of understanding the real price of post-secondary education, allowing them to make more informed choices.
Other provinces are already considering adopting this approach, and there is little doubt that participation rates in Ontario will be closely monitored to assess its impact.