Low education enrolment

The Conference Board of Canada recently released “How Canada Performs,” a report outlining Canada’s relative performance in specific areas compared to 16 other developed countries.

Although Canada was granted an A ranking in Education and Skills, it received a D grade for the indicator measuring PhD graduates, securing a last place position among the 17 countries included in the study.

“I was somewhat alarmed when we ranked so low compared to the rest of the world,” said dean of graduate studies at Laurier Joan Norris. “I really want to find out what the…rating is all about and why the Conference Board thought we ought to get a D rather than an A, which is really what we would like to strive for.”

Brenda Lafleur, Conference Board of Canada program director, forecasting and analysis and author of the report, told the Cord that one goal of the report is “to create awareness and to start people discussing Canada’s place and ranking in the global economy.”

The value of doctorate level education

Lafleur explains that in terms of Canada’s number of doctoral graduates, there are complications about whether there should, or will be, any change. “If there are not jobs out there asking for PhDs and if they aren’t paid significantly more….It is probably rational for students to not continue on to PhDs,” said Lafleur.

Norris commented that a major limitation of the PhD report is that the indicator is based on the number of PhDs per capita and only graduates between the ages of 25 and 29 are considered in the study. With this kind of analysis, the question of quantity versus quality inevitably comes into play.

Lafleur acknowledged this shortcoming, stating that while other indicators could be adjusted accordingly to balance quantity and quality, it was challenging to obtain data on quality at the PhD level. Lafleur also expressed hopes to extend the analysis in order to address this issue.

Tara Orchard, co-ordinator of Career Consulting at Laurier’s Career Development Centre, notes that many Canadians are taking longer to complete their PhDs, often spending time in between degrees working to help fund their education.

Even without this factor, the Canadian education system, consisting of a four year undergraduate degree, often two year masters program, and four year doctoral program easily puts PhDs at age 29, or out of the stipulated age bracket. Differing education systems in other countries have implications for the number of students who graduate within this range.

“There was no attempt to look at the different kinds of programs,” stated Norris. She used the example of Laurier’s social work PhD program to further demonstrate the restrictions of the report, explaining that many who study social work at this advanced level have spent years in practice after completing their masters and return for their doctorate as mature students.

Lafleur justified the use of the 25 to 29 age range by referencing a report which outlined the typical graduation rate for each country and each type of degree. This study indicated that in Canada, 26 to 29 years old was the typical age range for PhD graduation.

Skeptical herself of these numbers, Lafleur used data for a wider age range, 25 to 34, to test whether the exclusion of more mature graduates skewed results. This study changed Canada’s ranking minimally, moving it up one spot to second last, but the results were not significantly different than those from the original 25 to 29 age range.

The report attributes Canada’s “comparative weaknesses” in doctorate level education to its “failure to fund world-class universities.” According to Norris, funding is a significant concern, as institutions in Canada, particularly in Ontario, are relatively poorly funded, whereas many other countries provide financial support more generously.

A lack of payoff

The report states that compared to other countries, Canada offers little incentive in terms of employment opportunities and financial benefits, suggesting that the lack of payoff dissuades the pursuit of doctoral studies.

While Orchard admitted that Canada possibly graduates fewer PhDs as a result of creating less opportunity, she stresses the value a doctorate has for those who leverage their degree properly.
“If they have positioned themselves appropriately more education pays off financially…[and they] can get the right compensation within [their] field.”

Norris added that within academia, the income potential for PhDs is much greater than master level graduates. In the private sector, however, there is a great deal of variation.

Doctorate degrees consume considerable time, money, and effort, and may not add significantly more value over a lifetime than a masters level education. “Most people get PhDs not because of the money,” said Norris, “but because they love what they are doing and want to pursue something at a much greater depth.”

Although Norris believes that most graduate students are highly focused, Orchard explained that uncertainty of how to use one’s PhD can result in underemployment of doctoral graduates. However, higher education and knowledge, when complemented with the right experience, can be leveraged effectively.

Orchard states that historically, most PhDs do not find jobs in academia, but in the private sector, and she and Norris both noted the decline in the number of opportunities in academia in the last few years in Canada. Given this factor and the economic constraints that determine research funding, it is evident that doctoral graduates in Canada may face challenges.

Quality in question

Norris comments that although the report “certainly caught our attention” by giving Canada a “D” grade for PhDs, she had anticipated a more detailed report and would have liked to have seen some acknowledgement of the quality of education.

“In Ontario we’ve been very concerned about quality assurance in graduate programs for many years,” explained Norris, “and all of our programs are reviewed very rigorously and accredited before moving forward.”

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