Executive summary

Table of Contents

Project purpose

The purpose of this report is to present the findings from a comprehensive research study with recommendations on the following question:

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

The evaluation of the postsecondary education credential mix1 included an in-depth analysis of student outcomes, consultations with a wide range of stakeholders including students, institutions, and quality assurance bodies, as well as a consultation and review of research on employer needs.

The study also considers recent proposals for new postsecondary education credentials in Ontario, as well as global trends in higher education that focus on labour market outcomes of students. This includes a detailed scan of seven jurisdictions to further explore those trends in more detail.

The changing postsecondary education landscape

With the growth and expansion of today’s knowledge economy, postsecondary education has become a necessity for most careers and essentially a requirement for entry to the labour market. Governments must ensure that they develop a workforce with the right knowledge and skills to support changing economic realities. As a result, greater attention is being placed on the role of publicly funded postsecondary education systems in achieving economic and social objectives. Substantial increases in participation in postsecondary education bring rising expectations from students who trust that their investment in college or university will position them for success in life and in the labour market. Finally, the broader public expects to see more concrete results from our colleges and universities, particularly in a time of increased fiscal restraint.

Higher education systems around the world are grappling with how these rising expectations force a rethinking of what quality and innovation means, including major shifts away from traditional teaching and learning methods towards dynamic, collaborative, and responsive programming, as well as different ways of thinking about results – away from primarily inputs and towards outcomes and impacts.

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.

To set the foundation for postsecondary education transformation, the Ministry released its differentiation policy framework, reaffirming the importance of quality and of providing access to the full continuum of labour-market focused and academic opportunities that are required to prosper in our contemporary world. As part of this transformation, the Ministry also negotiated and signed Strategic Mandate Agreements (SMAs) with all publicly assisted institutions in Ontario to articulate institutional strengths within the context of government priorities. Ontario’s mix of credentials is an important consideration as the Ministry moves forward with its transformation agenda. It is timely to examine how Ontario’s postsecondary education credentials contribute to successful labour market outcomes and to consider how to best position the system to continue to thrive.

A closer look at student outcomes

Our research examined the graduation, earnings, employment and satisfaction outcomes associated with each of Ontario’s postsecondary education credentials. Together, these measures give us a picture of the outcomes of Ontario’s credentials over time.

In general — and as expected — outcomes are generally better for more advanced credentials although considerable variation exists when adjusting for field of study.

When comparing initial outcomes for college students (6 months after graduation) and university students (6 months and two years after graduation) with national data sets, our analysis suggests that employment and earnings outcomes quickly improve as graduates gain labour market experience.

Smoothing the transition from school to work is critical

While Ontario’s existing credential mix performs well, our analysis indicates that earnings have declined and unemployment rates have risen for recent graduates. The decline in earnings and unemployment rates are in line with the timing of the global financial crisis and subsequent recession, and have not yet recovered to pre-2008 financial crisis levels. Lower rates of employment and lower earnings are a “medium term” problem where we show that by age 27-29 on average, graduates have established themselves in the labour market. Field of study emerges as a significant factor in the time it takes graduates to transition from postsecondary education to the workforce.

Evaluating employer needs

There is an ongoing debate with respect to whether a “skills gap” exists and what the data reveals. Research suggests that while employers report difficulties finding skilled employees, employer perceptions are not enough to give a clear picture of actual demand. Wage and unemployment data suggest that there is no widespread skills mismatch and that difficulties filling positions are often tied to regional and occupation-specific considerations.

Employers are prioritizing work experience when recruiting entry-level positions and as a result, graduates with work-integrated learning experiences have an edge in the labour market. This finding is supported by KPI data that indicate that for both college and university graduates, work-integrated learning is associated with lower unemployment and higher earnings six months after graduation.

What we heard from students and system stakeholders

Feedback from students underscored their concern about the transition to employment and their difficulty in finding reliable career advice. They expressed strong support for increasing work-integrated learning opportunities and in-class applied learning to increase their employment prospects upon graduation.

Feedback from colleges, universities and other system stakeholders varied with respect to whether the current mix of credentials is flexible enough to respond to student and labour market needs and whether gaps existed. Both colleges and universities can demonstrate how they are delivering “advanced applied” education and are responding to the needs of students and employers. However, there is no system-wide approach or principles for defining what this means – especially when it comes to degree level education with an applied focus. Ontario’s credential mix has evolved with no deliberate articulation and laddering between credentials and, as a result, divergent approaches to learning outcomes, quality assurance, and credit recognition create obstacles to viewing the credential mix as a unified whole.

Given these issues, there was little consensus from stakeholders on how to best support students’ transitions into the labour market and meet the needs of a 21st century workplace. Some stakeholders emphasized that they are already innovating with delivery approaches within the current credential mix; others suggested that new credentials are required. While stakeholders recognize that collaborative programming and credit transfer can provide the best of both theoretical and applied education, differences in quality standards and assurance practices limit working together.

Recent credential proposals in Ontario

Findings from this study were not definitive in addressing whether a new labour market focused credential is required in Ontario. The study was able to present considerable evidence that Ontario’s existing credential mix continues to benefit students as a whole, but returns on investment vary and are initially delayed for recent graduates. A lack of linked application and outcomes data prevented analysis of outcomes controlling for student characteristics, and a lack of long-term outcomes data made it difficult to provide definitive answers on labour market transitions.

Findings from other jurisdictions

Jurisdictions around the world are also thinking about their credential mix and how to best position the postsecondary education system to deliver the types of advanced technical education students and employers are seeking. Our analysis considered the relevance and applicability of these models in the Ontario context.

A focus on innovation to facilitate student labour market transitions

Improving student transitions and preparing graduates for the realities of the 21st century workplace are challenges common to all jurisdictions. Ontario, like other jurisdictions, is experimenting with innovative approaches to accelerate graduate transitions into the labour market, through a fundamental rethinking of how to educate students with a combined focus on academic reasoning and skilled application, including:

  • Expanding baccalaureate granting authority to colleges;
  • Encouraging pathways between applied and academic institutions; and
  • Experimenting with a range of delivery models, including collaborative programming, competency-based delivery, and work-integrated learning.

These innovations reflect an understanding that the knowledge and skills graduates need to successfully participate in society and contribute to the economy have changed over time. Our analysis suggests that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution that will meet the needs of all students. A range of options is needed to improve school-to-work transitions.

An increased emphasis on quality alignment, outcomes, and transparency

Findings from the review of credential models in the United States (Washington State, Oregon, Wisconsin), Europe (England, Ireland), and Canada (British Columbia, Alberta) noted that, like Ontario, public postsecondary education systems have introduced new credentials and expanded the degree-granting authority of the non-university sector over time. In many cases, the expansion of offerings and mandates has been facilitated by clear government oversight of postsecondary qualifications to ensure their consistent interpretation and relevance, as well as to support flexible qualifications linkages and pathways to foster trust, portability, and comparability.

By comparison, Ontario is unique. It has three quality assurance bodies with no formal process to coordinate approaches. In all jurisdictions examined, the central authority approving new programs is either an arms-length agency of the government or a government department/ministry. In general, community colleges offering degrees are subject to additional approval processes to assure quality, compared to universities.

Global trends indicate that differentiation is an important driver of system-wide quality and continued innovation. Here and elsewhere, governments are focusing on increased coordination and synergy between institutions and sectors as career oriented and academic postsecondary sectors continue to become more integrated.

Similarly, there is a growing recognition that the credential mix is more than the sum of its parts. The provision of education and training must be seen as a unified whole to support student choice, mobility and successful transitions to the labour market. Employers, students, and the public need to have continued confidence in the quality of publicly funded postsecondary credentials in Ontario independent of the institution or sector that offers the program leading to that credential.

New research into learning outcomes presents a promising avenue forward for Ontario to begin to create a common language for student learning and skills development. This can contribute to defining standards for postsecondary education that combine higher order cognitive skills with employability skills across the system.

The path forward: high-quality and innovative postsecondary education, represented with clear and consistent credentials

Together, the evidence suggests that it takes time for students’ investment in postsecondary education to pay off. Students who can demonstrate advanced abilities such as critical thinking and strong communications — grounded in technical skills and work experience — have a considerable edge in the labour market.

Ontario is already experimenting with approaches to strengthening and responding to labour market realities. The delivery of what can be described as “advanced applied” postsecondary education is converging across colleges and universities. We see opportunities to undertake a ‘whole of system’ approach to high-quality and innovative postsecondary education to support student transitions into the labour market.

Ontario needs to place emphasis on strengthening the conditions for system-wide quality, grounded in agreed-upon principles across college and university sectors. Concurrently, approaches to new credential design and delivery with a strong focus on labour market outcomes can be enhanced by promising research on learning outcomes and more deliberate experimentation to gauge the degree to which they are effective and whether they are scalable. Finally, all efforts can be supported with more effective use of outcomes data and by making these results available for students, employers, and the public.

Overview of recommendations

High-quality and innovative postsecondary education

Strengthen conditions for quality

  1. Reaffirm system-wide learning outcomes for the baccalaureate degree qualification in Ontario
  2. Re-think credential mix as an integrated whole with a focus on articulation and laddering to support student mobility
  3. Establish a province-wide approach to quality, with a protocol for the introduction of new credentials

Accelerate progress on learning outcomes assessment

  1. Support projects that advance the measurement of learning outcomes

Enable more deliberate experimentation with innovation

  1. Establish a research agenda and common evaluation framework to identify and scale what works
  2. Pilot test innovative approaches that accelerate program completion and labour market transitions

Improve accessibility, comprehensiveness, and comparability of data

  1. Link applicant, registration, and graduate data to enable comprehensive analysis
  2. Align data sharing practices with Open Government and Open Data commitments

Use transparency to foster trust and public confidence

  1. Ensure that the Ontario Qualifications Framework is a complete and up-to-date information tool for the public
  2. Create an online dashboard to allow students to compare the costs, quality and labour market outcomes of attending individual programs

1 For the purposes of this research, we define credential mix as Ontario College Certificates, Diplomas, Advanced Diplomas, Post-Diploma Certificates and bachelor’s degrees (both university undergraduate degrees and college degrees in applied areas of study). The Introduction and Analytical Approach section explains this in more detail.