Back to School 2017, A comprehensive analysis of Canada’s education system

This week’s CSBR Student Economist utilizes data and analysis from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to provide a detailed snapshot of Canada’s education system and how it compares to the education systems of nations around the world.

On September 12, 2017, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a thirty-five-member intergovernmental economic organization of developed economies dedicated to conducting research and identifying best practices, released Education at a Glance 2017: OECD Indicators, a compilation of information on the state of education in nations worldwide.  In the 456-page report containing over 125 charts and 145 tables, the OECD’s Directorate for Education and Skills analyzes and summarizes almost all aspects of the education field from the outputs of educational systems and the larger societal impacts of learning to learning environments and the organization of schools within various nations.

According to the OECD’s findings, Canada possess one of the world’s most highly educated adult populations with over sixty-one percent of the population aged 25 to 34 years old possessing a tertiary education[1] certification/degree; Canada’s percentage of young adults with a tertiary degree is the second highest in the OECD (Korea-70%) and is higher than the proportion observed in the United Kingdom (51%), the United States (48%), the EU22[2] (41%), and is significantly higher than the average among OECD member states at forty-three percent.[3]

Though Canada has a comparatively large share of adults with a tertiary education, only ten percent of Canadians aged 25 to 34 have completed a masters or doctoral degree which is smaller than the average across OECD nations of fifteen percent.  Moreover, though Canadians tend to earn tertiary education qualifications at higher rates than citizens of almost all other developed countries, the earnings benefits realized by Canadians as a result of their tertiary education are comparatively smaller; a Canadian having completed tertiary education earns on average forty-one percent more than a Canadian who only completed secondary education whereas across OECD member countries tertiary educated individuals earn on average fifty-six percent more than individuals who only obtained a certificate at the secondary education level.[4]

In addition to describing the educational attainment and related post-graduation earnings of Canadians, the OECD also depicts the international flow of students into and out of the Canadian educational system.  As of 2015, Canada experienced a large net inflow of international students; 11.9% students enrolled in tertiary education institutions in Canada (172,000 students in total) were neither Canadian citizens nor permanent residents of Canada; whereas, only 3.4% of Canadian tertiary education students were enrolled in institutions outside of Canada which is significantly less than the OECD average of 5.9%.[5]

The OECD also found that Canadian governments (federal, provincial, and local) devote an elevated share of public expenditures towards schooling and educational purposes when compared to the OECD average.  As of 2017, Canada spends 13.4% of its total public expenditure on primary to tertiary related education including 6.4% of total public expenditure allocated to tertiary education alone (on average OECD members spend 11.3% and 6.2% on primary to tertiary and tertiary levels, respectively).  Furthermore, the average annual expenditure per student at a Canadian tertiary-level educational institution is estimated to be 21,326 USD, thirty-two percent greater than the OECD average of 16,143 USD.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) takes a different approach to comparing educational systems and educational attainment across nations.  The UNDP produces a metric aptly named the Education Index (EI) which is calculated from dividing the sum of the Mean Years of Schooling Index (MYSI) and the Expected Years of Schooling Index (EYSI) by two.  The MYSI is calculated by dividing the Mean Years of Schooling (MYS) for an individual in a certain country by fifteen; the EYSI is calculated by dividing the Expected Years of Schooling (EYS) of an individual in a certain country by eighteen.[6]

After data collection and calculations over a period of twenty-five years, it is easily apparent that Canada has both a high educational attainment level, similar to that of other developed countries, but also that Canada has increased educational attainment over the preceding decades (increasing from 0.806 in 1990 to 0.89 in 2015 with a rapid jump between 2000 and 2005).[7]

Overall, the Canadian education system (primary through tertiary) ranks among the world’s best in terms of attainment, final degree level, and quality; the strong reputation of the Canadian education system is also reflected by the large net inflow of international students willing to pay elevated tuition prices (compared to Canadian citizens).  To increase technological innovation and provide employers with a highly educated and skilled workforce, Canada should explore incentives and programs to raise the percentage of residents obtaining masters and doctoral degrees (an area in which Canada currently trails other developed nations).  Furthermore, the Canadian provincial and federal governments should monitor tertiary level tuition rates and government expenditures on education to control costs and ensure efficiency and effectiveness within the educational system.


John Butler

Works Cited

[1] The OECD defines tertiary education as “those having completed the highest level of education, by age group. This includes both theoretical programmes leading to advanced research or high skill professions such as medicine and more vocational programmes leading to the labour market.”

[2] The EU22 is the unweighted mean of observed data for the 22 countries that possess membership in both the European Union and the OECD; these nations are: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, the Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

[3] Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD).  “Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators” p. 44, 2017

[4] Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD).  “Education at a Glance, Country Note-Canada.” 2017

[5] Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD).  “Education at a Glance, Country Note-Canada.” 2017

[6] United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).  “Education Index”

[7] United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).  “Education Index 2015”

Picture titled, "University College, University of Toronto," taken by Umair Khan on June 14, 2015, obtained through Creative Commons (