Martin Hicks – Stop (en)Rolling Over

Martin Hicks
Martin Hicks, executive director, data & statistics

In Ontario, higher education enrolment forecasting is important business.  This is not surprising.  Enrolment growth drives money to institutions, generates investment by government and delivers ever higher participation and attainment rates for Ontarians.

What will postsecondary enrolment in Ontario be in 10 years and how should we plan for it?  To find out, we look at enrolment forecasts.  Over the decades, their entrails have guided us through the baby boom, the rise in women’s participation, the baby boom echo and then the maturing massification of higher education.

Accommodating these phenomena is an accomplishment we celebrate.  Ontario is an acknowledged world leader in adult attainment (the percentage of adults with a postsecondary credential).  Almost every Ontario budget applauds the growth and layers on new investments for more, even as officials within the Ministry of Finance quietly worry about how this all is to be afforded.

Today, the latest forecasts look ahead to anticipate the baby boom echo’s own echo. The forecast calls for continued growth after a brief (5 to 10-year) hiatus.

While this is interesting information, forecasts need no longer foretell our future. Enrolment growth is not something that inevitably happens somewhere out there and to which the government and institutions are obliged to passively respond. The decision to grow or not to grow is precisely that: a decision.

Ontario, with world-leading adult attainment levels, ought to entertain a range of options beyond simply surrendering to a rolling series of forecasts that extrapolate demographic data and participation rate trends.  Are we not at the point where, in an informed and intelligent way,  we should actually decide consciously and deliberately on how big we want our public postsecondary system to be and call that our provincial enrolment policy?

Some might say that ever more enrolment is, in fact, the best policy.  They would argue that the optimal enrolment policy goal is 100% participation – universal higher education.  Here are the problems with this goal:

  • It is a policy in search of a rationale. We do not need universality to serve the job market; there is no evidence to suggest that 100% of jobs require higher education.  We do not need it to give individuals a leg up to the top of the income curve; if everyone attends then there is no more advantage.  We’d quickly hit above 100% attainment as Ontarians scramble for multiple credentials in order to distinguish themselves.  We do not for reasons of societal equity; equity is achieved by actively leveling the opportunity to attend, not passively flooding the market with ever more spaces.
  • Despite these observations, if we had unlimited resources we might go ahead and continue to grow enrolment anyways. But we are all out of money.
  • There are other priorities on which we know we should focus. The same OECD report that places Canada and Ontario as international leaders in young adult (25-34 year old) postsecondary attainment also places those young graduates in the muddling-middle of the pack in terms of their literacy and numeracy proficiency.  The Ontario government is strongly signalling that its priorities are shifting to quality and a better student experience.

Universal health care?  Yes.  Universal elementary and secondary education?  No need to discuss.  Universal higher education?  Not so fast.  Given that we already have world beating adult attainment levels, we should consider declaring victory and make it our policy to focus on priorities, like increasing the quality of the postsecondary experience and the global competitiveness of our postsecondary institutions, other than further enrolment growth.

Martin Hicks is HEQCO’s executive director, data and statistics.

One reply on “Martin Hicks – Stop (en)Rolling Over”

Thank you for this rational analysis. I believe that higher-education institutions need to be responsible for taking a harder look at the actual job opportunities that await graduates, rather than ballooning a system that already forces students to attain ever-higher credentials, now that an undergraduate degree is essentially the baseline. That is, institutions should consciously redefine their “marketplace”–not as they do now, as student demand, but as job demand for skills. Easier said than done, but perhaps universities and colleges can lead in this analysis, as governments appear to be at sea.

Further, a number of world education systems include apprenticeship programs, which Canada (and I believe Ontario) are woefully lacking. Not everyone needs or wants a university degree and, increasingly, as colleges seek degree-granting status for parity with universities, we may end up with a merged system that is increasingly less relevant to many students and the marketplace.

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