Canada's education system cons students into spending thousands on degrees that don't lead to jobs. Academics say that's fine, but there is a better way. What if we held schools accountable for success?
Stop me if you've heard this one before: Teenager enters university. Four years later, she graduates with no job in sight. After a year or two of unpaid internships, our young hopeful decides it's time to become more practical and so returns to school for more focused training. A couple of years later, the now 20-something student graduates again and—with luck—finally lands that elusive starting job. This is welcome, because by now the young worker has built up a small mountain of debt in her extended journey through the Canadian educational system.
Judging from the experience of my family and friends, this pattern has become increasingly common. More and more young adults think it's typical to accumulate a couple of degrees or diplomas before getting started in life.
Is this good news? If you listen to the self-congratulatory chatter of Canada's academics, you would think our collective ability to amass credentials amounts to a national triumph. But if you peer beneath the surface, you might come away with a radically different opinion. Instead of a national accomplishment, our swollen post-high-school educational system looks from many angles like an impediment to economic growth—a wasteful bureaucracy run by teachers and administrators who staunchly advance their own interests while ignoring the students they supposedly serve.
It's a problem that afflicts not just the young, but also mid-career job changers. Consider a relative of mine who decided to return to school after raising a family. She had earned a bachelor's degree long before, but her skills were out of date, so she hoped to find a relatively quick way to retrain. After looking around, she discovered a two-year program at a local community college that would equip her to become a library and information technician. The college assured her repeatedly that every graduate found a job.
That continued to be the college's line through the first year of the program. Midway through the second year, however, the rhetoric suddenly shifted—instructors began to talk of the need to take whatever part-time work might come a student's way. By the end of the program, the reality was clear: There were very few jobs to be had for any new graduates.
This bait-and-switch experience may be an isolated case, but I suspect not. As the years have gone by, several of my friends have found employment teaching at the college level. They're a charmingly cynical bunch. One former colleague teaches journalism at a community college in rural Ontario. When I asked him how many of his graduates actually found jobs in the news industry—a sector that has seen steady layoffs in recent years—he did his best to evade the question. Finally, he acknowledged that very few of his students land work in the field "per se." But, "hey, we give them a life experience."
The point, of course, is that many of those students may not realize they're buying a life experience. These gullible teenagers may—poor fools—believe they're actually training for a job. If they knew the real numbers, they might choose not to waste three years and many thousands of dollars.
A bit more accountability would be welcome. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says that Canada lavishes a higher proportion of its economic output on "tertiary" education—schooling at a level higher than high school—than any other developed nation except the United States. It spends double the amount that Germany and Switzerland do, and at least a third more than Australia, France, Japan and the United Kingdom.
This vast investment in education buys us…well, it buys us a lot of diplomas. According to the OECD, Canada leads the world in the percentage of adults who have attained some type of advanced qualification—55% of working-age people now boast a tertiary credential, ranging from short-term training programs to PhDs.
Unfortunately, that exalted level of education doesn't seem to be reflected in unusual prosperity. Indeed, Canada doesn't seem to be getting nearly as much bang for its educational buck as other countries. In a 2016 report, the OECD attempted the heroic feat of measuring the public costs and benefits of tertiary education in various countries. Canada came up very short. The OECD figured that Canadian taxpayers collectively derived a net financial return of just under $70,000 (all figures in U.S. dollars) on their investment in a man's tertiary education, compared to an OECD average of $143,700. For women, the Canadian return was $51,500, compared to an average of $74,100.
You have to approach such number-crunching with caution. Still, the figures suggest we could be more efficient in how we spend our dollars. Let me suggest two reforms that might help.
One would be to require programs to monitor their graduates for five years, and provide prospective students with hard numbers on just how many former students are employed in their field and what they're earning. If nothing else, this would give applicants an objective view of the deal they're signing up for.
Another excellent idea would be to separate training from accreditation. Imagine if a would-be computer programmer or economist or MBA had to pass a test of her competence administered by an independent panel before getting her degree. In such a system, incentives would shift. Schools would no longer have a built-in motivation to sign students up for the longest, most expensive training possible. Instead, universities would compete to provide the fastest, most effective training possible because students would inevitably go to the schools that provided the best combination of speed, low cost and high pass rate on the common test.
A system like that could be the first step to putting limits on Canada's bloated and not very effective system of higher education. It can't happen soon enough.