OECD survey finds post-secondary education strong, innovation weak

The OECD’s Economic Survey of Canada 2012 was released on 13 June, assessing the nation’s macro-economic trends and making recommendations for the future. The 120-page document, though relevant to several sectors, consists of two chapters – the first on innovation and the second on post-secondary education.

The paradox of the report lies in the striking difference between the sectors, with Canada’s innovation productivity steadily declining while post-secondary education ranks highly in several OECD comparisons.

Among Canada’s post-secondary education accomplishments is its leading position as the country with highest proportion of adults (25 to 64 years) that have completed post-secondary. Canada stands at 49% compared with the OECD average of 30%.

Canada is also number one for the percentage of adults who hold a college (tertiary-type 5B) diploma (24%), compared with the OECD average of 10%.

In terms of funding for post-secondary education, Canada is placed third in two major indicators: the percentage of gross domestic product funding (both public and private) spent on post-secondary education, and the per student funding granted to institutions.

Overall, Canada is in a strong position when compared with other OECD countries in almost all post-secondary education indicators.

Strong critique of innovation and productivity

The Economic Survey’s coverage of Canada’s post-secondary education success however, was overshadowed by the first chapter’s strong critique of national innovation and productivity.

When compared with the United States, Canada’s hourly productivity and per capita income have been decreasing in real terms over the past 30 years.

Science and technology innovation has also lagged behind other OECD nations, with a need for more research and development investment. The report warned that Canada is too dependent on its natural resources and should improve its innovation productivity to remain competitive in the future.

Although the majority of Canada’s innovation indicators raised some concerns, the country does stand above the OECD average in three science and technology outputs. It is important to note, however, that each of the success areas relates once again to post-secondary education.

Canada is almost 20% above the average for the number of science degrees awarded, researchers employed and scientific publications in academic journals.

The above findings had scholars debating the connection between innovation and post-secondary education at a symposium hosted by Glen Jones of the University of Toronto’s Higher Education Group.

Following a presentation by OECD authors Alexandra Bibbee and Peter Jarrett, higher education scholars Creso Sa and Michael Skolnik were invited to discuss the report.

Sa began his critique by arguing that the report does not add anything new to Canada’s national conversation on science and technology innovation. He referenced the 1973 Lamontagne Report, which highlighted Canada’s lack of innovation almost 40 years ago.

He called for new data categories that would more accurately represent the relationship between Canada’s post-secondary education and innovation to shed light on current discrepancies.

Another critique came from Michael Skolnik, who challenged the structure of the report, asking why post-secondary education was seemingly positioned as the solution to Canada’s innovation shortfalls.

Although he applauded several of the report’s recommendations to improve post-secondary education (restructuring financial aid and performance-based funding), he suggested that others needed to be more nuanced.

The report’s recommendations include increasing access to post-secondary education by shifting the student-funding balance to grants rather than loans, increasing the skilled labour force by recruiting more foreign students, and differentiating between institutions that focus on teaching and research.

But, as Skolnik pointed out, these suggestions do little to upgrade the types of post-secondary education credentials students are receiving – whether college diplomas, undergraduate degrees or graduate degrees.

Skolnik also called for new data categories, arguing that Canada’s diversity between and within the college, polytechnic and university sectors is often lost in the OECD’s comparative data.

He also contended that there is presently little way to assess the entrepreneurial abilities of current graduates. If post-secondary education is to assist in improving innovation, OECD indicators should address qualitative programmatic design, not just post-secondary education access numbers.

Overall, the Canadian paradox of lagging innovation but strong post-secondary education might only be understood by redesigning measurement tools to relate post-secondary education to innovation success.

Canada and other nations would benefit from an advanced set of macro-indicators that connect the country’s post-secondary initiatives with science and innovation productivity.

* Grace Karram Stephenson is a higher and international education specialist with the Comparative, International and Development Education Centre in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto in Canada. Email:

* Visit to watch the symposium and access survey findings.