For the past two decades, the population of Canada has been the subject of a vast and largely unnoticed experiment whose results have enormous relevance for the world.
The experiment used the entire adult population to test this question: Should higher education become nearly universal, with college and university degrees as widely held as high school diplomas? Given that postsecondary credentials have traditionally provided a large benefit to some people, will they continue to produce those benefits if held by nearly all people?
We have tested that hypothesis by dramatically expanding our degree-holding population during both a boom and a recession: In 2000, Canada had 1.3 million people enrolled every year; after a decade and a half that number has risen by more than 50 per cent, to 2 million annually. The proportion of adult Canadians holding university and college degrees rose from 40 to 51 per cent, making Canada the most educated country in the world, the only place where the majority of adults have a degree.
Many predicted that it would fail. Canada would become subject to "degree deflation," with a postsecondary education losing its income value as it ceased to be an elite status symbol. Or there'd be a "skills gap," with a glut of people holding useless bachelor's degrees when what we need are more jackhammer operators.
The opposite proved true. As enrolment expanded dramatically, so did the value of a degree.
In the slump year of 2010, the most recent year for which figures are available, people who'd earned a degree less than two years before experienced unemployment rates of only 5 per cent and employment rates of more than 90 per cent, less than 10 per cent of which was part-time employment. This was a higher employment rate than in 2005, at the peak of an economic boom. Two years after graduation, bachelor's holders earned a median salary of $53,000 and new college grads earned $41,600, up from $49,000 for university and $38,000 for college in 2005 (there's strong indication that these figures have continued to improve).
Postsecondary education remains, after its big expansion, a great investment for both students and governments, with no sign of declining returns. Canadian economists Karim Moussaly-Sergieh and François Vaillancourt found that a university degree in 2009 (after the big expansion) earned graduates an annual pretax profit on their tuition investment of 20 per cent for men and 25 per cent for women – and that Canadian society earns 9 per cent annually on every dollar it invests in public education. University of Montreal economist Brahim Boudarbat and University of British Columbia economists Thomas Lemieux and W. Craig Riddell concluded that a Canadian with a BA now earns 40 per cent more than a Canadian with a high school diploma; in 2005, it was only 32 per cent more.
Not only is it now clear that the benefits of higher education continue, and even improve, as the enrolment numbers increase, but there are fairly conclusive signs that Canada still does not produce enough degree holders.
Earlier this year, Ottawa quietly released its Canadian Occupational Projection System, which projects the coming job shortages and surpluses to the year 2022. Positions that have "chronic" job shortages include registered nurses, dentists, management consultants, industrial electricians, aerospace engineers and opticians. Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates found that 80 per cent of the projected job shortages are in fields requiring a university degree.
The rest are all construction-trade jobs created by the housing and resource boom – and their demand projection was based on $150 (U.S.)-a-barrel oil and low interest rates, so are unlikely to materialize. In other words, virtually all of Canada's future employment growth will be in degree-requiring fields (far more so than in skilled trades) and there are not currently enough university places to fill the demand.
In 2007, 65 per cent of new jobs required a postsecondary education; by 2011, 70 per cent did, and forecasts predict that by 2031, almost 80 per cent of jobs will need a degree. In other words, we already have more degree-requiring jobs than we have degree holders; one analysis predicts that by next year, Canada will have 550,000 more university-requiring jobs than we have degree-holding workers.
You would think, given the dramatic results of this experiment, that Canada would be plunging into a project to make university universal. But, in fact, we're retreating. Postsecondary education is a provincial responsibility, and most provinces are in fiscal trouble these days, focusing their dwindling resources on seniors rather than students; education spending is frozen. Ottawa's contribution is a pittance. Universities are floundering. At the very moment when they've proved their worth, and just as we're about to need them more than ever, we're cutting them adrift. It's time to get the whole country onto a campus.