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Students in a high-school credit accumulation class at the Kiikenomaga Kikenjigewen employment and training service in Thunder Bay.MOE DOIRON/The Globe and Mail

Canada has been a strong performer in postsecondary education and skills development for many years. On key measures we are at or near the top of international rankings and highly skilled Canadians contribute to economic prosperity, social innovation, and political and community well-being.

But there are signs that Canada's performance may be deteriorating and, despite a commitment to equality, opportunities and achievement in skills and higher education have been poorly distributed across regions and groups. A new report from Canada 2020, Skills and Higher Education: Towards Excellence and Equity, reveals that we are not doing enough to achieve the levels of excellence and equity in skills and higher education we need to sustain a prosperous economy and fair society.

Consider excellence. Over 51 per cent of Canadians hold a university or college credential – versus an OECD average of 32 per cent – and another 12 per cent hold trades certificates. Canadian adults perform at or above the OECD average in literacy and problem-solving skills, and our 15-year-olds – our future university and college graduates and skilled tradespeople – rank near the top in PISA scores in reading, math and science.

Still, our performance is weakening and competitors are catching up. Adult numeracy is below the OECD average, and given our world-leading rates of university and college attainment, scores in literacy and problem-solving should be much higher. We have too few people with advanced degrees (particularly PhDs), insufficient graduates from the STEM disciplines, deficits in essential, innovation and commercialization skills, and a poor track record on workplace training. Moreover, as Canadian PISA scores have declined in recent years, while those of key international competitors have improved, our next cohort of college and university students will have a weaker foundation for success.

We also need to think about equity. According to The Conference Board of Canada, Canada earns an "A" and ranks second among 16 peer countries for equity in reading scores between Canadian-born students who speak the language of the PISA test at home and Canadian-born second-generation students who do not. We also earn an "A" and rank third among peers for low differences in reading scores between students in the most and least economically disadvantaged schools in the country.

But these equity achievements deteriorate when we look at the education and skills attainment of Canadian adults through the lenses of region, Aboriginal status, gender, and immigration status.

- British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario perform well both in educational attainment and scores in literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills. But other provinces and territories – particularly Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, and Nunavut – lag far behind.

- By 2011, nearly 48 per cent of those who self-identify as Aboriginal held a university, college, or trade credential versus more than 63 per cent of non-Aboriginal Canadians – an attainment gap of over 15 per cent. The literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills of Aboriginals also lag those of non-Aboriginals – though, notably, similarly educated Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals achieve similar scores.

- Among 25-to 34-year-olds, 65 per cent of women hold university or college credentials versus 49 per cent of men. At the same time, women are still vastly underrepresented in many science and engineering disciplines, as well as skilled trades. In fact, differences in achievement between men and women begin to reveal themselves in the K-12 system, with girls outperforming boys in reading, but lagging in math.

To improve excellence and equity in skills and higher education, we should consider six policy options. These include making substantial investments in Aboriginal youth and addressing the barriers they face to higher education. We should support programs to address gender differences in skills and higher education attainment, and improve credential recognition and skills development for immigrants. Employers must be encouraged to increase investments in training to fulfill their responsibilities for skills development.

Additionally, federal and provincial governments should work together to establish a national learning outcomes assessment program to track and improve the skills development performance of higher education institutions. Finally, the federal government should create and fund an independent, arms-length Canadian Council on Skills and Higher Education (CCSHE) to ensure that educators, employers, policy-makers and other stakeholders have access to independent expertise, research and advice to support their efforts to achieve greater excellence and equity in skills and higher education.

We do well, but we can do much better.

Daniel Munro is Principal Research Associate, Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education at The Conference Board of Canada.

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