Canada's two solitudes endure in the value placed on higher education, with English-speaking young adults twice as likely as their francophone peers to see a university degree as the key to success, according to a new national poll.
The findings, which come at a time when Quebec is struggling to lower high school dropout rates, indicate that a change in mindset, as well as curriculum, is needed to improve provincial graduation rates, says the group that commissioned the study.
"You are going to need a fairly substantial value shift to help people understand how important a university degree is," said Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies. "There is something out there that is giving the message that a university degree isn't necessarily going to translate into success."
The poll, conducted last month for the group by Leger Marketing and released exclusively to The Globe and Mail, asked 1,500 Canadians in all parts of the country if they thought a university degree was now a minimum requirement for success. What it found was a wide gap in views when the respondents' first language was taken into account - a gap that only increased when results of the youngest of those surveyed were broken out.
Fewer than 20 per cent of 18- to 24-year-old French speakers said a university degree was required, compared with 40 per cent of the English group. That difference increased even more when compared with those whose first language is neither English or French - generally first- or second-generation Canadians. More than two-thirds of young people in this group agreed a degree is needed to be successful, a result that is in keeping with the high percentage of new Canadians who go on to higher education.
For George Widz, a Montreal police officer who has worked for the past 15 years to keep children in school, the importance of such values is no secret.
"If mom doesn't care and dad doesn't care about education, the seeds of dropping out are planted right there," said Sergeant-Detective Widz, who runs an after-school football program with the help of McGill University players in the southwest area of Montreal. "I tell them there is so much you can do in life, once you get that piece of paper on the wall."
Bank executive Jacques Ménard, who led a task force to examine Quebec's high dropout rates, has described them as an "economic disaster for the province, but also a human tragedy." His group this spring called for a number of actions to reduce the dropout rate, including initiatives to reinforce the value of education.
Michel Perron, a professor at the University of Quebec at Chicoutimi, and a key member of the Ménard task force, cautioned that the survey results are likely affected by the high importance many in the province place on technical degrees.
A poll done for the Ménard group this spring, he noted, found nearly 90 per cent of respondents said postsecondary education was important when college training also was included as an option. Part of the gap between French and English respondents in this most recent study could be explained by the higher number of Quebec residents who go into the trades, he suggested.
Still, Prof. Perron said action needs to be taken in the province to stress the importance of education.
Mr. Jedwab said there is clearly a connection between the lack of value placed on a university degree and the province's high dropout rate. "Both of them reflect the idea that education may not be as crucial to your career outcomes as most observers believe," he said.
The risk, he said, is that there will be a growing disparity among groups unless action is taken to change such attitudes toward education.