We need more degrees

Although educational attainment in Western Canada has been rising in recent years, it still has a long way to go to catch up with other parts of Canada and some of our international competitors

Although educational attainment in Western Canada has been rising in recent years, it still has a long way to go to catch up with other parts of Canada and some of our international competitors. The share of the labour force aged 25-54 with post-secondary credentials (certificate, diploma or higher) was about 56 per cent in Manitoba and Saskatchewan in 2007, compared with a national average of 65 per cent. This east-west gap creates real concerns for all Canadians.

The key concern is productivity and long-term quality of life. A highly educated workforce is more productive and competitive. In the long-term, this means higher real incomes, greater economic success, and ultimately a better quality of life, both at the individual and the aggregate social level.

We need to do a better job of helping students in Western Canada complete high school and enrol in post-secondary education. While the high school graduation rate has risen in every Canadian province during the past decade, approximately 9.5 per cent of those aged 20-24 do not have a high school diploma and drop out rates in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta are 12.6, 10.3 and 11.3 per cent, respectively. In rural Manitoba and Alberta, drop out rates exceed 20 per cent. Additionally, high school graduates in the West are the most likely to delay entry into post-secondary education, or choose not to attend at all, according to results from the national Youth in Transition Survey.

Geography, community context and cultural differences explain the results. Children living in rural and Aboriginal communities have less exposure to adult role models with higher levels of education.

In Saskatchewan and Manitoba, cultural differences are particularly acute, as aboriginals account for 14 per cent of the population.

Children from remote aboriginal communities beset with social and economic barriers, cultural loss and high mobility between schools have a harder time completing high school. Another distinction of western Canada, until recently, was a plethora of high-paying jobs for young, low-skilled workers in Alberta, Saskatchewan and northeastern British Columbia, which was a strong draw for many high school students who were struggling academically, financially or both.

Additional obstacles include those who do not live near a college or university and have fewer professional jobs waiting in their home communities upon graduation. Low income and lack of access to credit presents difficulties to many students in the rural West, particularly for those who must move to another community to go to school.

A comparison of educational programs and initiatives throughout western Canada, Ontario, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island in 2008 shows that each province delivers education in a unique set of social, geographic and economic circumstances, and that many programs are in a state of evolution.

Each province is making inroads in reducing drop outs or boosting post-secondary participation. For example, New Brunswick has legislated a minimum high school leaving age of 18, dovetailed with labour legislation that does not allow students to work during school hours. This is now being contemplated in other provinces. For students under 18 not in school, Ontario is planning to withhold drivers’ licenses. Whatever the merits of these particular initiatives, they demonstrate an awareness of the need to take action.

Using cutting edge educational models, the Netherlands and Denmark have made the greatest progress in keeping students in school. The Netherlands has adopted a spate of educational reforms to reduce its formerly high youth unemployment, while Denmark is actively working to make educational attainment an essential part of its national economic strategy.

Despite numerous provincial initiatives and significant population movement within the region, there appear to be few interprovincial efforts in the West aimed at dealing with the issues of drop outs and encouraging post-secondary enrolment. While provincial co-operation is growing, there could be greater cross-pollination of information, successes and promising ideas among the western provinces.

Our goal should be to ensure that as many westerners as possible complete high school and go on to post-secondary education.

Marlyn Chisholm writes for the Canada West Foundation.