Postsecondary education across Canada constantly changes and evolves. There are always new issues, trends, and priorities emerging that require innovative and collaborative solutions from institutions, provincial and territorial governments, and other stakeholders. Providing a high-quality, accessible experience to all qualified students has been an objective across Canada's provinces and territories for many years, and new policies and initiatives are regularly introduced to achieve this objective.
In Canada's postsecondary sector several pan-Canadian priorities and issues are complex and require multifaceted solutions. These include, among others: new credential types; institutional sustainability; new forms of teaching and learning; postsecondary digitization; access and affordability; student mental health and well-being; student mobility and internationalization; and the Indigenization of postsecondary education.
New Academic Credential Types
Postsecondary institutions across Canada offer a wide range of academic credentials, the most common being certificate, diploma, and degree. A significant share of the Canadian population has one of these traditional academic credentials which generally provide economic benefits to those who obtain them.
In recent years, there is an increased interest in new types of academic credentials, sometimes called “micro-credentials” — programs that are typically shorter, flexibly delivered, and industry focused. These new academic credential types have promising potential to fill a perceived gap between the skills that traditional academic credentials provide, and the skills that employers seek, and to support access to postsecondary education for learners who may not be able to complete a program leading to a traditional academic credential.
However, evidence on these academic credentials' impact is minimal.1 As a result, institutions across Canada have begun experimenting with offering new academic credential types to learners, while provinces and territories have begun designing polices and strategies to assess the potential benefits for students, employers, and institutions that a broader range of academic credential could have.
Ensuring the long-term sustainability of postsecondary education is a priority for Canada's provinces and territories. Sustainability refers both to an institution's ability to meet its financial obligations for many years to come, as well as an institution's ability to preserve and enhance students' academic experience.2
Recently, the immediate and long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on institutions' revenues and expenses has been a key concern. Provinces and territories are working with institutions and other stakeholders to develop and implement policies in areas such as: institutional funding, tuition fees, international student enrolment, faculty renewal, capital funding, and other areas. The common objective is to ensure that Canadian institutions can continue to provide a high-quality academic environment for many years to come.
New Forms of Learning
Institutions are innovating and diversifying the teaching and learning methods they use to provide high-quality instruction to students on a regular basis. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, online learning had been increasing in prevalence at Canadian institutions for many years, with a majority of Canadian institutions offering at least some form of online learning and enrolment in online courses growing annually.3
Work-integrated or experiential learning — where students participate in a range of different types of work placements (e.g., co-ops, practicums, applied research projects) as part of their postsecondary program — is an area that provinces and territories seek to support because it has demonstrated improved learning and labour market outcomes, and is already prevalent at institutions across Canada.4
At the international level, Canada acknowledges that the 2019 UNESCO Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education has the potential to improve academic and professional mobility internationally and advance international cooperation in higher education. Provisions in the Global Convention are inclusive of all forms of learning, including not only formal higher education but also informal, non-formal, and lifelong learning through higher education.
The digitization of postsecondary education in Canada is not limited to online learning. Postsecondary institutions in Canada are also pursuing ways to digitize their administrative responsibilities toward prospect students and alumni. This includes:
- the admission process for the initial intake of prospect students' academic documents (for review of their application for further studies at the institution).
- issuing official transcripts and degree certificates to their own alumni and other organizations requesting the information (for students who have successfully completed studies at their institution).
For example, MyCreds.ca, an initiative led by the Association of Registrars of the Universities and Colleges of Canada (ARUCC), is a digital platform that institutions can use to securely upload verified copies of student transcripts and credentials so that students can access and share their digital qualifications with employers and other institutions.
Several institutions and other organizations in Canada have signed the Groningen Declaration, an international agreement that commits signatories to work to share best practices and coordinate policies to advance the portability of digital student data internationally.
Access and Affordability
Ensuring that postsecondary education is accessible and affordable for all qualified learners who wish to attend has been a priority for many years in Canada.
Several provinces and territories have supported institutions to increase postsecondary participation of underrepresented groups, such as low-income students, students whose parents did not attend postsecondary education, students with disabilities, and Indigenous students. To do this, provinces and territories have introduced both financial supports (e.g., scholarships, bursaries, grants) and nonfinancial supports (e.g., academic upgrading, bridging programs). In recent years, many provinces and territories have been experimenting with providing targeted free tuition in the form of student financial aid for lower-income students that matches or exceeds the cost of average tuition.
Student Mental Health and Well-Being
Postsecondary education can be a demanding and stressful experience for many students, and institutions and provinces and territories in Canada are prioritizing initiatives to alleviate student anxiety and promote student mental health and well-being.
Individuals aged 15 to 24 are more likely to experience mental health issues than other age groups, and make up a significant portion of the postsecondary student body.5 At the pan-Canadian level, in 2020 the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) released the National Standard of Canada for Mental Health and Well-Being for Post-Secondary Students. Institutional initiatives such as on-campus counselling, peer support groups, academic preparation sessions, and other services are meant to ensure a mentally healthy and fulfilling environment for all students.
Student Mobility and Internationalization
International students are a major and growing demographic in Canadian postsecondary education. From 2009–10 to 2017–18, international students went from 8.2 percent of total enrolments to 14.7 percent at universities, and from 5.2 percent to 13.2 percent at colleges.6
International students make a social and economic contribution to Canadian postsecondary education. They increase diversity in classrooms and on campus, promoting a variety of viewpoints, opinions, and cultural perspectives. They infuse the local community with greater cultural diversity and they create long-term relationships between communities across Canada and communities in the students' home countries. Entering Canada as an international student also represents a pathway to permanent residence in Canada for many individuals. Canada has introduced measures to retain and support international students to become contributing members of Canadian society, such as through the federal Post-Graduation Work Permit Program (PGWPP), which allows students who have graduated from a Canadian postsecondary institution to obtain a work permit to gain work experience and qualify for permanent residence in Canada.
International students originate from a wide range of countries, such as France, India, China, the United States, and others.7 Provinces and territories are working to diversify the market of international students, both in terms of which countries they are coming from but also which Canadian institutions they are attending, to ensure that institutions and communities outside major metropolitan areas can benefit from the increase in international student enrolment.
Institutions' admission offices work to recognize international academic credentials in order to admit international students to their academic programs, in keeping with UNESCO conventions related to qualification recognition, to remain competitive with other institutions seeking to attract the brightest international scholars. Through the EduCanada brand, provinces, territories, and federal governments work to promote Canada as a study destination for international students.
Indigenous Postsecondary Education Institutes
The growth and development of Indigenous Postsecondary Education Institutes (IPSIs) has been on the rise in Canada for many years. There are 62 IPSIs across the country. IPSIs are mandated, governed, and operated by Indigenous nations. They offer programs grounded in Indigenous world views and design academic programs specifically for Indigenous students.
IPSIs may be degree granting or non-degree granting, and they may operate in partnership with non-Indigenous colleges or universities, or by offering their own independent academic programs. In some provinces and territories, IPSIs are recognized through provincial or territorial legislation, similar to degree-granting institutions. Their funding arrangements vary, and often include reliance on either core provincial or territorial operating funding or proposal-based program funding. Some may be accredited under the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium (WINHEC).
IPSIs play a unique role in supporting Indigenous students to succeed in Canada's postsecondary education system. They build community, deliver programs by Indigenous people for Indigenous people, establish partnerships, increase access to postsecondary education, provide enhanced support to students, and contribute to the revitalization of Indigenous languages and cultures. Determining the future growth and development of IPSIs, and how to support Indigenous students to succeed in postsecondary education, is a key priority for provinces and territories.
Comprehensive review of this information: March 2021
S. Kato, V. Galan-Muros, & T. Weko, “The Emergence of Alternative Credentials,” Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2020. Retrieved from https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/education/the-emergence-of-alternative-credentials_b741f39e-en
H.P. Weingarten, M. Hicks, & G. Moran, “Understanding the Sustainability of the Ontario Postsecondary System and its Institutions: A Framework,” Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, 2016. Retrieved from https://heqco.ca/pub/understanding-the-sustainability-of-the-ontario-postsecondary-system-and-its-institutions-a-framework/
N. Johnson, “Tracking Online Education in Canadian Universities and Colleges: National Survey of Online and Digital Learning 2019 National Report,” Canadian Digital Learning Research Association, 2019. Retrieved from http://www.cdlra-acrfl.ca/publications/
Academica Group, “Taking the Pulse of Work-Integrated Learning in Canada,” Business/Higher Education Roundtable. Retrieved from https://www.bher.ca/category/reports/taking-pulse-work-integrated-learning-canada-full-report
“Youth Mental Health Stats in Canada,” Youth Mental Health Canada. Retrieved from https://ymhc.ngo/resources/ymh-stats/
M. Frenette, Y. Choi, & A. Doreleyers, “International Student Enrolment in Postsecondary Education Programs Prior to COVID-19,” Statistics Canada, 2020. Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-626-x/11-626-x2020003-eng.htm
“International Student Enrolments at Canadian Public Colleges and Universities, 2017–18,” Statistics Canada. Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-627-m/11-627-m2020006-eng.htm