Introduction and analytical approach

Table of Contents


The purpose of the project was to conduct a research study and develop a report with options and recommendations on whether Ontario has the appropriate mix of labour market focused credentials within its publicly funded postsecondary education system to meet student and labour market needs.

The changing postsecondary education landscape

Across the developed world, the landscape of higher education is being transformed as jurisdictions adapt their postsecondary education systems to address issues associated with changing patterns of enrolment, the growth of the knowledge economy, shifting market demands, and increasing fiscal restraint (Altbach, Reisberg & Rumbley, 2010).

Rising expectations of postsecondary education

Higher education participation and enrolment has expanded considerably over the past century, and particularly since 1970. The phrase “massification of higher education” (Trow, 1974) has become commonplace to explain a shift towards greater access to higher education in general, as well as the role that colleges and universities play in contributing to social and economic advancement.

With rising participation, the demographics of the student population become increasingly diverse. The numbers of women, minority populations, students from lower socio-economic strata, older students returning to gain additional credentials, international students, part-time students; and other students who have not traditionally attended college or university represent the vast majority of enrolment growth. This shift in student profile creates a need for new and adapted student services to address an increasingly diverse set of needs. Opening the doors is not enough; institutions must also adapt their services, supports and teaching approaches to the changing composition of students.

In addition, a primary goal of postsecondary education systems is to help meet current and future needs for talent and skills to remain competitive in a rapidly changing economy. Significant increases in postsecondary education participation are seen as a necessary corollary of modern economic and social development that requires a highly skilled and educated population. Many jobs that once needed relatively low-skilled labour have been transformed by technological change into increasingly sophisticated work, requiring both up-to-date technical knowledge and advanced problem-solving abilities (Burning Glass Technologies, 2014).

Mass participation has brought a corresponding increase in interest in the quality and outcomes of higher education (Neave, 2012; Neave, 1988). Employers want to be assured that graduates will have the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed for the workplace and that outcomes will be consistent among the graduates of similar programs. As the costs of postsecondary education rise, students want to be assured that the programs in which they are investing their resources are of high quality and will prepare them to achieve their employment goals.

Governments, too, increasingly expect postsecondary institutions to demonstrate accountability for how efficiently they are using public funds and how effectively they support economic and social development through high quality postsecondary education. As a result, employers, students and governments are increasingly interested in understanding the outcomes of education (Harmon et al., 2014; Tremblay et al., 2012). Further, a need to facilitate the mobility of students and workers has led to the development of credentials frameworks and program standards along with an emphasis on the articulation of learning outcomes at both the credential and program levels (BCCAT, 2014; Carter et al., 2011).

Responding to change

Increased access to postsecondary education and rising expectations of how institutions support individual student and broader social and economic outcomes has led some jurisdictions to differentiate their systems such that different institutions, or groups of institutions, perform different roles. This has involved the emergence of new kinds of institutions and increasing specialization of institutions, specifically through the expansion of teaching-only institutions (Tremblay et al., 2012; Clark et al., 2009). The overall trend is one where the postsecondary sector as a whole is taking on broader responsibilities in terms of whom it educates and for what purposes, while individual institutions have increasingly specific mandates.

In addition to moving toward greater differentiation of postsecondary institutions, many jurisdictions have expanded the range of credential offerings, particularly those designed to meet the needs of the labour market. Many new credentials being developed and offered by both colleges and universities are vocationally oriented, linking generic skills such as thinking, communications and problem solving with the application of occupational skills.

Situating Ontario

This context of change is helpful in understanding the evolution of Ontario's postsecondary education system. Postsecondary enrolment rose exponentially over the past several decades, and like other jurisdictions, there's an increasing emphasis on assessing and assuring education quality in a transparent manner. There is also a general consensus that there has been a shift in Ontario toward a knowledge economy and a related shift in the skills demanded in the workforce over this timeframe.

In 2012, the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities signaled its intent to transform Ontario's publicly funded higher education system. This was in response to the changing global landscape of postsecondary education systems and evolving economic, social and student learning realities.

Following a series of consultations with the college and university sector, the Ministry released Ontario's Differentiation Policy Framework for Postsecondary Education, in November 2013. The framework positions differentiation as the primary policy driver for the system, with an overriding goal to build on the well-established strengths of institutions, enabling them to operate together as complementary parts of a whole, and give students affordable access to the full continuum of vocational and academic educational opportunities that are required to prosper in our contemporary world. After the release of the differentiation policy framework, all colleges and universities signed Strategic Mandate Agreements (SMAs) with the Ministry to align with the directions set out in the final framework.

Through the consultation process, SMA negotiations, and follow-up discussions, the issue of expanded credential options surfaced as a recurring theme. Ontario's existing mix of postsecondary credentials is an important consideration as the Ministry moves forward with a policy of greater institutional differentiation.

In April 2014, the Ministry engaged SRDC to conduct an evidence-based review of Ontario's credential mix and to address the following question:

Does Ontario have the appropriate mix of labour market focused credential options and opportunities in its publicly funded postsecondary education system to ensure successful student and labour market outcomes that will contribute to Ontario's economic productivity and competitiveness?

Analytical approach

This report presents detailed findings of our analysis of Ontario's current credential mix. Our approach to the research drew on four key lines of inquiry:

  • Empirical evidence – We provide an analysis of Ontario's existing credential mix using both the college and university graduate surveys. Throughout the report, we review the relevant literature to ground our research.
  • Stakeholder consultations – We consulted with key stakeholders to gain a deeper understanding of Ontario's credential mix from the standpoint of students, employers, and postsecondary institutions and other system actors.
  • System mapping – We undertook a mapping exercise of Ontario's postsecondary education system to establish our background knowledge and provide a solid foundation for other lines of inquiry. Findings from our mapping exercise are integrated in our analysis of global trends and comparator jurisdictions.
  • Inter-jurisdictional scan – We analyzed credential frameworks and systems in seven other jurisdictions. We explored how the credential mix in each of these jurisdictions differs from Ontario's current mix. We also paid careful attention to the evidence base in each jurisdiction, assessing the extent to which there is evidence to suggest each credential mix is aligned with student and labour market needs.

Taken together, this approach allowed us to present a rich analysis of what is working well, where there might be gaps and where there might be potential opportunities for system enhancement.

Key questions guiding our analysis

The purpose of this report is to present the findings of our research. The report is guided by the following 11 questions:

    What do the data on graduate outcomes tell us?

  1. Are recent graduates finding jobs?
  2. Are graduate earnings commensurate with their investment?
  3. Do graduates work in jobs related to their studies?
  4. Are graduates increasingly pursuing additional qualifications?
  5. Does the story change as graduates have opportunities to obtain more work experience?

  6. What do employers need?

  7. What does the literature say?
  8. What are employers saying?

  9. What are stakeholders and system experts saying?

  10. What are students saying?
  11. What are system stakeholders and other commentators saying?

  12. What can we learn from other jurisdictions and from trends and proposals in Ontario?

  13. What can Ontario learn from other comparator jurisdictions?
  14. What are recent trends and proposals in Ontario related to labour market focused credentials?

Data sources

The information we used to address each of the guiding questions comes from three main sources:

1. Survey data

  • College and University Graduates Surveys – The Ontario College Graduate Outcome/Graduate Satisfaction Survey (GOSS) and the Ontario University Graduate Survey (OUGS) capture outcomes for recent Ontario postsecondary education graduates
  • Ontario College Employer Satisfaction Survey – Captures employer attitudes and perceptions of recent Ontario college graduates that they currently employ
  • Labour Force Survey – Captures outcomes for all Ontario postsecondary education graduates, which helps us understand how postsecondary education graduates fare as they have opportunities to gain more work experience
  • National Household Survey – Captures outcomes for all Ontario postsecondary education graduates and allows analyses of outcomes of older workers by field of study (only available every five years).

2. Employers

  • A review of the relevant research literature, including recent surveys of employers in Ontario
  • Ontario College Employer Satisfaction Survey – Captures employer attitudes and perceptions of recent Ontario college graduates that they currently employ
  • We conducted consultations with employers/industry groups, including: Information and Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), the Centre of Excellence in Financial Services, GM, and IBM.

3. Student and System Stakeholders

We conducted consultations with a range of stakeholder groups including:

  • Organizations representing interest of students: Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, (OUSA), Regroupement étudiant franco-ontarien (RÉFO), Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario (CFS-O), College Student Alliance (CSA)
  • Institutions and organizations representing interests of institutions: Colleges Ontario (CO), Council of Ontario Universities (COU), individual postsecondary education institutions
  • Quality assurance agencies: Ontario College Quality Assurance Service (OCQAS), Ontario Universities Council on Quality Assurance (OUCQA), Postsecondary Education Quality Assessment Board (PEQAB)
  • Organizations representing interests of faculty: Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA)
  • Credit transfer agency: Ontario Council on Articulation and Transfer (ONCAT).

We also supplemented our analysis with a scan of the literature to identify evidence from other system experts and commentators.

4. Jurisdictions

The inter-jurisdictional scan included seven jurisdictions:

  • Canada: Alberta, British Columbia
  • US: Oregon, Washington State, Wisconsin
  • EU: England, Ireland.

Focus on labour market-related credentials

This review is focused on labour market-related credentials (diplomas, advanced diplomas, post-diploma certificates and degrees) at the sub-baccalaureate and baccalaureate level. While the province lacks a formal definition for labour market-focused credentials, for the purposes of this study, we define labour market-related credentials broadly as credentials that combine theory and application and are designed to prepare graduates for specific occupations or fields of practice. These programs generally are created with a specific career-focus in mind and are offered in response to employer demand, often with industry input into program learning outcomes. These programs prepare students for a wide range of fields such as engineering, health, technology or business administration.

This definition attempts to distinguish between programs designed to prepare people for direct labour market entry versus programs with a primarily academic orientation, but we recognize that in practice, this distinction is often difficult to operationalize. We recognize that most postsecondary programs, particularly at the degree level, have as one of their objectives, the preparation of graduates for employment in a related occupation. As such, they are included in the scope of our study. However, we also recognize that these programs also have broader objectives, such as preparing students to contribute to the social, scientific and cultural life of the province and country. While we strongly believe that these broader objectives are a defining feature of postsecondary education, our mandate for this review requires us to focus primarily on the employment-related objectives and outcomes of these programs.

Note that apprenticeship certificates, while they are highly labour market focused, are out of scope for this review. Also note that second entry professional programs (medicine, dentistry, law, optometry, and veterinary medicine) are out of scope because in the vast majority of cases, these programs require a baccalaureate degree for entry.2

Organization of this report

Our report is organized into five chapters:

  • Chapter 1 – A closer look at student outcomes – This chapter provides a synthesis of our findings from the Ontario graduate data.
  • Chapter 2 – Evaluating employer needs – This chapter looks at student outcomes data from the lens of employer demand and satisfaction. We also consider the literature on employer perspectives and present what we heard from consulting with employers/industry groups.
  • Chapter 3 – What we heard from students and system stakeholders – This chapter provides a summary of what we heard from stakeholders from the consultations.
  • Chapter 4 – Findings from other jurisdictions – This chapter reviews recent credential proposals in Ontario against our key findings from an analysis of global trends in labour market focused credentials, and a comprehensive analysis of the credential mix in seven jurisdictions.
  • Chapter 5 – Detailed recommendations – This chapter summarizes our findings, and identifies some key gaps and opportunities for Ontario's credential mix, followed by a set of detailed recommendations.

2 As per instruction from the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, we include Education programs because many of these programs can be taken concurrently with other undergraduate studies, and thus it could be argued that Education programs are not a true second entry program.