Cut university enrolment by 30%, expand colleges, CEO-commissioned report urges

Canada would be better off if universities admitted 30 per cent fewer students every year and the college and polytechnical system got more of a focus, a report commissioned by the Canadian Council for Chief Executives says.

University of Saskatchewan professor cites short-term thinking by schools, policy-makers

Education stuck in the past?

8 years ago
Duration 8:24
The Big Picture panel debates a proposal to put fewer resources into universities and more into colleges

Canada would be better off if universities admitted 30 per cent fewer students every year and the college and polytechnical system got more of a focus, a report commissioned by the Canadian Council for Chief Executives says.

The report, written by Ken Coates, a professor at the School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan, looks at the imbalances inherent in Canada's education system and concludes that neither students nor the economy are well-served by the status quo.

Coates says short-term thinking by schools and policy-makers is just as much to blame as a bias against so-called "blue collar" jobs by families and young people.

Put together, the result is that the current glut of ill-trained university graduates is being flooded into an economy that by and large has no use and no demand for them.

"Canada could dramatically improve the quality of university education by cutting enrolment as much as 25 to 30 per cent while maintaining budgets at roughly the same level."

Colleges deserve more

That's a significant cut by any measure. But Coates's recommendations don't merely consist of blocking access to people and giving them no other options. Rather, he's a fan of technical schools and thinks they should be the beneficiaries of a major government push.

Students at a community college work on a car's engine. Too many students and families have a bias in favour of universities over colleges, Monday's report claims. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

"Canada's superb and growing polytechnics system gets it," he says. "Its administrators and educators work closely with employers, focus on career-ready programs, and adapt quickly to new technologies and changing workplace requirements."

"Young adults and families should lessen their preoccupation with a university education and be far more open to the opportunities provided by colleges and polytechnic institutes," Coates says.

Most parents and young adults have a bias toward universities over colleges, harkening back to a time when university degrees were more rare and the key to unlocking higher earnings potential. A lowering of standards over the decades has watered down the value of that degree, however, even as the costs and prevalence of it has skyrocketed.

"Parents, it seems, do not particularly want their children to be plumbers or radiation therapists, and continue to be optimistic — overly so — about the economic prospects for university graduates in general," he says.

Governments also blamed

Governments are just as much to blame, he says, because of a focus on what he calls "bums in chairs" which has led to more universities being created, larger class sizes basically across the board  "and often reducing educational quality in the process," he says.

Governments do a terrible job of picking winners and losers in the economy, he says, even in job markets where governments essentially control the supply and demand — such as teaching and nursing.

"Every marginally talented student in the country can get into a college, and most can get into a university, even though many are ill-suited or unprepared for the experience," Coates says.

"Canada needs to shift away from this open-access approach — based on the idea that everyone 'deserves' a degree, or at least the chance to try to earn one — to one that is based on achievement, motivation and compatibility with national needs."

Coates says colleges deserve more attention precisely because they do such an excellent job of matching training with real-world employment needs and potential. But "so long as the economy was capable of absorbing large numbers of generalists, allowing universities to claim a huge income premium for their graduates, there was little or no need for universities to re-appraise their own program priorities."

He does not, however, let students off the hook for their perceived job prospects, noting that by and large, "the current generation of young people is defined by a sense of entitlement and an expectation that their lives will somehow unfold along a predetermined and positive trajectory."