Statement made on 24 April 2007 by Senator Catherine Callbeck
Hon. Catherine S. Callbeck:
Honourable senators, I rise today to speak on the inquiry of Senator Tardif regarding the state of post-secondary education in Canada.
First, I want to thank the honourable senator for initiating this inquiry on a subject that is also of great importance to me. I want to thank Senators Trenholme Counsell, Segal, Losier-Cool and Moore, who have spoken on this inquiry. Today, I would like to further that debate and discuss the issue of broadening access to post-secondary education.
Senator Tardif reminded us that we must aim higher than our current post-secondary attainment of 44 per cent if we are to compete on the global stage with countries such as the United States, India and China. Today, we are told that 73 per cent of new jobs in our knowledge-based economy will require post-secondary education. That means that three out of four new jobs will require post-secondary education. With Canada's post-secondary attainment rate for young Canadians aged 25-34 at only 53 per cent, that means that we have a gap of 20 per cent between our current post-secondary attainment rate in that age group and the post-secondary attainment rate.
If that is not enough, certainly other numbers should alarm us. Canada's population will shift in the next decade. By 2026, there will be 300,000 fewer young adults, which means that unless we increase participation substantially, the hallways of our colleges and universities will echo for lack of students and we will have gaps in our labour market. There will not be enough graduates to fill the high-skilled jobs created by the knowledge economy or left vacant by retiring baby boomers. Remember, honourable senators, within 20 years it is expected that retirees will outnumber new workers four to three.
According to the Canadian Millennium Scholarship Foundation, 30 per cent of 18-20 year olds in 2001 were enrolled in or had completed university; 35 per cent were in college. That leaves 35 per cent of young Canadians on the outside looking in. We know who some of these young Canadians are— some are Canada's Aboriginal people. Fifty-eight per cent of our Aboriginal youth living on reserve do not even finish high school. Some are youth from low-income families. Less than one-half of students from families whose income is below $25,000 participate in post-secondary education.
In Canada today, most students or potential students are from middle- and high-income families. Post-secondary participation for children with higher annual family incomes — that is, over $50,000 — range from 63 per cent to 77 per cent. More than 80 per cent of children whose parents attended university will attend university themselves. They are students who come from families where going to college or university is a family tradition; where going to college or university is the last step before adulthood. Children growing up in these families do not hear the words, "if you go to university." They hear, "when you go to university."
Canada's challenge is to increase the number of young Canadians who hear these words. To do that, we need to make some changes. We have to make post-secondary education attractive for more than just middle- or high-income Canadians. We have to increase participation by Aboriginal people, youth from low-income families, people whose families have no history of higher education, and youth from rural Canada.
We have to show young Canadians that post-secondary education is an option. We have to elevate their educational ambitions. We need to make higher education a tradition for more families and a possibility for all families. As Senator Trenholme Counsell stated, we must do more to create an environment where each young Canadian can contribute to the very best of his or her potential.
How do we do this? The most obviously first step is to make post-secondary education more affordable.
Unfortunately, this is not what is happening today. In 2006-07, the average tuition and fees for an undergraduate university student is $4,347. Compare this amount to 1990-91 when it was $1,464. This amount of $4,347 does not include many other costs associated with post-secondary education. Students have to live. They have to eat. They have to buy books. These costs are not trivial and they must be taken into account.
The average student debt today is more than $22,000. According to Statistics Canada, even while taking inflation into account, bachelor degree graduates from the class of 2000 owed on average 76 per cent more than graduates from 1990. Student debt is certainly continuing to increase.
Let us be clear. The federal government is certainly doing a lot. In 2004-05 the federal government spent more than $12 billion on post-secondary education and training, which was an increase of 60 per cent from 1997-98. The federal government has also introduced tax measures to help, or encourage post-secondary education.
The Department of Finance projected that the use of these types of education tax measures in 2005 would total more than $1.5 billion, which was up 92 per cent from 1998. We are making investments, and these are essential, but they are not enough. While it is true that post-secondary education is the responsibility of the provinces, all Canadians benefit from an educated and competitive workforce. Even if the specific action is provincial in jurisdiction, the vision should be pan-Canadian.
Following World War II, the Veterans Rehabilitation Act served as a national approach to meet the educational needs of returning veterans. We provided support to students to cover tuition and living expenses. They received support, as long as they made satisfactory progress, and graduated with an education or trade and virtually no debt.
The post-war years were years of great prosperity in Canada. We had a large workforce that made Canada a world leader. This example clearly illustrates the national benefits of investment in post-secondary education.
I am not advocating free tuition, but I do think we need to provide more assistance based on need and ability. I believe we can increase accessibility by keeping things simple and streamlining options and information so that potential students feel confident they will get the support they need.
Our goal must be to ensure that the ability to learn, and not the ability to pay, is a deciding factor for post-secondary education.
In his remarks, Senator Segal spoke about income contingent repayment, which is a recommendation from the Royal Commission in Ontario. This plan would enable youth to take courses without paying tuition prior to enrolment. Repayment would begin after university through the income tax system, based on the ability to pay. I realize there are many pros and cons to this approach, but certainly it is an idea worth exploring.
Investments in education are blue chip investments. Governments get a good return on their education dollars. University graduates who work full time typically earn $1 million more over the course of their careers than people with a high school education. College graduates take home $3.7 billion more every year than they would if they stopped after high school.
Indeed, because of this, post-secondary graduates contribute much to this country's tax base, which funds our social and other government programs. People with post-secondary education have a better quality of life, are healthier and are employed in higher paying, more fulfilling jobs.
It is clear that higher education pays off for graduates and everyone else. Canadians who attended college save us an estimated $343.7 million per year in social services they do not need to use.
While working to make post-secondary education less expensive, we also need to change the culture we have created around post-secondary education. We still tend to equate post-secondary education with going to university, and university is something for the middle or high income groups, although this thinking has begun to shift in recent years.
In today's job market, post-secondary education has clearly become essential. It should also be noted that when our economy demands that three out of four workers need a post-secondary education, we are not just talking about universities, we are talking about colleges. I think colleges have a greater role to play in providing a practical education, post-secondary options that are not entirely academic.
Colleges are especially important in light of the fact that over the next 20 years, skilled tradespeople will be desperately needed. These post-secondary institutions will certainly have an important role to play as we move towards making post-secondary education more inclusive.
Senator Losier-Cool has already spoken about the success of New Brunswick community colleges, about which I agree completely, because I had the privilege of teaching business administration in the community college of Saint John in the 1960s.
Speaking of success, I want to mention the many achievements of post-secondary institutions in my home province of Prince Edward Island. Holland College is making a tremendous contribution to the province's economy by producing highly skilled workers and tradespeople whom we need now and in the future.
The University of Prince Edward Island is also expanding, making great strides to recruit more faculty members, improve campus facilities and create more research opportunities. UPEI has achieved the number five spot in Maclean's undergraduate university rankings last November, making great progress up the ladder since being ranked eighteenth in 2000.
I want to point out that not only are UPEI and Holland College achieving success individually, but they also collaborate in programs, such as its new Bachelor of Education Degree in Human Resource Development, which prepares students to teach in the field of adult education.
I believe that colleges and universities need to collaborate more. Credits earned at college can be applied to university. This initiative is one way to decrease the cost and the risk of failure for students who are forging a new tradition for themselves and for their families.
We also need to look at distance education options so we can take advantage of our computer age and use information technology as an educational tool. This could particularly benefit young people in rural areas.
Senator Tardif has proposed that the Senate establish a subcommittee to explore some of these issues of post-secondary education in greater depth. I support her initiative, as I feel that our post-secondary education system is critical to the future success of Canada. I urge all honourable senators to do the same for the sake of post-secondary education and Canada's future.