Increasing access to postsecondary education is a challenging problem with no easy solutions. But given Canada’s demographics and the rapidly changing nature of our economy, it’s a problem we cannot ignore. We can’t afford to be satisfied with current participation rates while key components of our population are ill-equipped to engage with the emerging social and economic realities of the twenty-first century.

Canada needs a large, highly-educated workforce, but an aging population and a declining birthrate mean that we need to increase and broaden participation in postsecondary education. Canada’s participation rates in postsecondary education are relatively high and roughly comparable with our OECD peers, but not all Canadians obtain the education they will need for meaningful employment in our increasingly knowledge-based economy. The children of high income, highly educated parents are far more likely to attend a college or university than the children of parents with low incomes and lower levels of education. The absence of further education severely limits job options, but it also has broader implications since postsecondary education is associated with a wide range of social returns, including a healthier population, greater civic engagement, and lower crime rates.

There are several trends and needs that boosting access to higher education will address. Demographic projections tell us that  the size of the Canadian workforce will be declining just when there will be  an increasing need  for skilled knowledge workers within industry. Right now, many skilled immigrants are under-employed. There is a need for further and continuing education programs to address the needs of adults. Furthering Canada’s economic and social development requires a broadening of access to postsecondary education to include populations that have previously not been equitably represented. Canada’s aboriginal populations, for example, have much lower levels of education than the Canadian population as a whole. And without proactive interventions, the children of poverty are unlikely to access the education that they will need to improve their social and economic circumstances.

Over the last decade the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation sponsored a program of research and a series of policy conferences focusing on accessibility in Canadian higher education. Originally commissioned by the foundation, this article is an  attempt to summarize the key policy issues and recommendations that emerged from this research and these important policy discussions.

Insights and Context

Access issues are multi-faceted and extremely complex. Sir David Watson has noted that access issues are “wicked problems” in that they are difficult to define and no clear solutions may exist. Modifications to student financial assistance mechanisms are part of the solution, but there is now considerable research evidence supporting the conclusion that increasing access is not simply about finding more money. It is about developing multi-dimensional solutions that address the complex challenges associated with increasing accessibility for those from low socio-economic backgrounds or from families without any prior experience in postsecondary education (“first generation” students), as well as Canada’s Aboriginal peoples, and other under-represented groups.

Increasing access is far more complicated than simply tinkering with institutional recruitment and admissions procedures. It means ensuring that increasing numbers of students complete high school so that they are appropriately prepared to attend postsecondary education. It means finding ways of ensuring that every student views postsecondary education as a realistic option and has the knowledge and support necessary to make informed choices. It means more than simply doing the same thing for more people; it means doing things differently because what we have been doing has failed large segments of our population.

The problem is further complicated by the fact  there are also substantial differences in demographics, levels of access, access policies, and system structures among provinces. While increasing access to postsecondary education should be a Canadian priority, there is no simple, national solution, Increasing access means bringing together governments, institutions, business, and communities to find approaches to increase access to postsecondary education in ways that recognize national, provincial, and local contexts. The challenges associated with increasing access for rural Aboriginal populations in Saskatchewan are quite different from the challenges associated with increasing access for first-generation students in Montreal.

However, there are a number of key problems that must be addressed in order to move forward. The first is that there is no clear sense of agency or urgency. The issue involves multiple governments, institutions, and stakeholders, but there is little sense that the problem is “owned” by anyone, and there is limited recognition of its importance. Federal, provincial, and territorial governments are  aware of access issues, as are postsecondary institutions and a range of community and business organizations, but  “everyone’s problem” has become “no one’s problem” since there is general agreement that something should be done without agreement on responsibility. Given that there are already skill shortages in some fields and that demographic projections suggest  Canada may not have the knowledge workers required  for our continuing economic development, there is also an urgency to solve  this problem that is seldom publicly acknowledged. There is a need for leadership and for greater clarity in terms of who is responsible for what.

The second problem is goal ambiguity. Increasing access to postsecondary education is an explicit objective in several provinces, but it is a goal that is often vaguely defined without clear measures of success. There is a need for greater clarity in establishing goals and priorities for accessibility to postsecondary education.

Finally, Canada’s capacity to define and address access issues has become severely limited by an extremely inadequate data and research infrastructure supporting policy development in this area. Conference participants noted serious problems with delayed reporting of national data, the lack of timely, international, comparative data, and the absence of national data on key policy questions. A number of other OECD nations have made significant investments in data collection and policy research, but Canada simply does not have the national data and research infrastructure necessary to make informed policy decisions on postsecondary education.

In addition to these contextual factors, a number of specific recommendations have emerged from recent conference discussions and research.

Steps to Moving Forward:

1.  Identify a pan-Canadian agency or organization

The first step  is to identify a pan-Canadian agency or organization that can facilitate collaboration, discussion, and information sharing among the important stakeholders in this policy area, including multiple governments, agencies, institutions, communities, students, and employers. There is a need for a national body to facilitate knowledge mobilization while recognizing that most of the problems will require provincial and local community solutions. This organization can provide a forum for a national policy conversation and act as a clearing house for the exchange of research findings and information on successful practices. In the discussions of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation ’s 2008 policy conference, there was considerable consensus that a pan-Canadian agency is needed, but participants noted that this role could be fulfilled by a range of different organizational types, including a private foundation or publicly supported agency.

2. Develop and communicate clear goals for increasing participation in, and graduation from, postsecondary education

An important step in moving forward in this policy area is to develop goals and communicate a clear message that increasing access to postsecondary education is an issue of national importance. We also need to work towards increasing student success by establishing goals for postsecondary completion. Accessibility and student success are issues of economic development, social justice, and citizen empowerment. Canadians need to know that broadening participation in postsecondary education to ensure that we have a population equipped to function in a knowledge society and economy is a necessity, not simply a nicety. Governments, institutions, businesses and community organizations can all play a role in increasing accessibility to postsecondary education, and moving this issue forward will require bold leadership, role clarity, and collaboration.

3. Develop a national strategy to strengthen our data collection and research infrastructure on postsecondary education

Our current data and research infrastructure supporting postsecondary policy development is completely inadequate. There have been substantive delays in reporting even the most basic national data elements, such as college enrolment. Some OECD reports exclude Canada because comparative Canadian data are not available. The longitudinal data tracking the ways in which students move through our educational systems are quite limited, and we do not have  the capacity to look at the differences in access and success of sub-populations. With the demise of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, we will undoubtedly see a decrease in sponsored research focusing on student financial assistance and accessibility.

It is extremely important to strengthen Canada’s capacity for policy development by ensuring that we have a policy research infrastructure that will support informed decisions and further the level of public debate. It is important to develop a “culture of evidence” where access policy is informed by research. Given the magnitude of Canada’s public investment in postsecondary education, Canada’s federal and provincial governments need to be able to monitor the sector and make decisions that are informed by policy research and analysis. A possible starting point for moving forward on this issue might involve supporting a comparative analysis of other national data and policy research systems so that Canada can learn how countries have developed the infrastructure to inform postsecondary policy. We could then  create a national panel to make specific recommendations on strategy and approach.

4. Focus on transitions and student mobility

Many access problems involve difficulties in transition, including student transitions between school levels within the school system, between schools and postsecondary institutions, between different postsecondary institutions, between postsecondary institution and the labour market, and between the labour market and postsecondary institutions. Schools, universities, and colleges are often separate silos, and it is important to “rethink” the educational system, perhaps by including strategic solutions that look across the educational spectrum from pre-school to graduate school and adult education, in order to develop more holistic solutions. We need to strengthen the system’s capacity for accessibility by developing transparent arrangements for articulation and transfer, revisiting the roles of existing institutions, considering the creation of “open” postsecondary institutions, and ensuring that appropriate resources are in place. We need to promote lifelong learning by providing open gateways so that adults can regularly return to obtain the postsecondary education they require in a rapidly changing world.

5. Early interventions are key

Student experiences in elementary and secondary school play a major role in framing futures decisions about postsecondary education, and it is extremely important to ensure that every student recognizes the importance of completing secondary school and pursuing further education. Early, proactive interventions can play a major role in expanding horizons and providing young people with a greater sense of possible future pathways. It is important to develop a culture where postsecondary education is regarded as a normal aspiration for every student, and school staff play an integral role in helping young people believe in themselves and reinforcing high educational expectations. Solid career development programming can provide a foundation of information and counseling. Postsecondary education institutions can intervene through the development of mentorship programs that link successful postsecondary students with local youth and by providing secondary school students with opportunities for early success, such as through dual-credit programs. Postsecondary education institutions can also provide students with an early opportunity to visit and learn about the range of programs available through our colleges and universities.

6. Target support to the populations with the greatest needs

Increasing accessibility to postsecondary education for under-represented populations requires focusing resources and initiatives on the individuals and groups with the greatest needs. A great deal of federal and provincial support to access is provided through universal programs but, given limited public resources, it may be time to shift the balance between universal student financial assistance (through tax credits and savings programs) and targeted student financial assistance programs. Some successful programs provide support to communities that develop local academic support and mentorship programs. Career development services should be targeted to second-chance learners, the unemployed, the under-employed, and the unhappily employed. Simply providing more resources to all will not address the needs of under-represented populations; governments need to wisely invest in targeted programs, and they can find some of the resources to do so by modestly reducing the current emphasis on universal programs.

7. We need a coherent career development strategy in every province and territory.

Career development plays an essential role in ensuring that individuals have access to the knowledge and tools necessary to make informed decisions about their careers, but this important function is often ignored in public policy. Each province and territory should develop a career development strategy that will address the needs of its population. Career development services should be provided to citizens of all ages, and they should focus on career and educational transition and mobility issues. These strategies should also reinforce the importance of research on career development and the movement towards evidence-based practice.

8. Strong partnerships are essential

Broadening accessibility requires strong partnerships as organizations and institutions work together to find new ways of helping Canadians further their education. These partnerships can involve schools, postsecondary institutions, community organizations, and business. Investments in time and energy are necessary to sustain these collaborations,  and, since they frequently rely on personal relationships and voluntarism, these partnerships are often fragile. The development of partnership “tool kits” and descriptions of exemplary practices could play an important role in strengthening existing partnerships and encouraging the development of new relationships that will bring relevant individuals, groups, and organizations together. Government funding could be used to seed and sustain partnerships, and to leverage ongoing private support.

9. Postsecondary education outreach and support programs must be well conceived and holistic

Postsecondary institutions can play a major role in broadening access to postsecondary education through targeted outreach and recruitment initiatives and in supporting student success through academic support and mentorship programs. Successful initiatives must be well-conceived and holistic. The voices of the under-represented must be heard if their needs are to be understood and addressed. Academic support programs can play a key role in helping students that are experiencing difficulties, but these initiatives must recognize the complex realities of individual student lives. Academic staff must understand the important role that they play in student success; faculty need to be engaged in these initiatives and play a key role in ensuring that all students receive the support that they need to complete their programs.

11. Increase accessibility for adult learners

Broadening accessibility to postsecondary education means focusing attention on the challenges of adult learners. There may be a need to increase the range of program offerings available through part-time, evening, or weekend studies. Special programs can ease the transition for those who require a second chance to succeed in postsecondary education. Transparent credit recognition arrangements, prior-learning assessment mechanisms, and open and workplace learning initiatives can play an important role in addressing the special needs of adult learners.

12.  Foster success for Canada’s Aboriginal populations

The level of education of Canada’s  Aboriginal population is, on average, much lower than the level of education of the population as a whole. It is extremely important that Canada’s Aboriginal populations have the resources necessary to increase access to schools and postsecondary education for their communities. We need to honour the Aboriginal leadership and respect aboriginal approaches to education.

Concluding observations

The research and policy conferences supported by the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation have left behind an important legacy of research and informed policy discussions on accessibility as an important policy issue in Canada. There is considerable consensus that increasing access to postsecondary education is a challenging, complex problem without easy solutions, but it is a problem that Canada cannot ignore. Given Canada’s demographics and the rapidly changing nature of our economy, we cannot afford simply to maintain current participation rates while key components of our population are ill-equipped to engage with the emerging social and economic realities of the twenty-first century. We need to broaden access so that all members of our society can reach their full potential.

Glen A. Jones is Ontario Research Chair on Postsecondary Education Policy and Measurement at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. The author can be contacted at: