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College Quarterly
Spring 1994 - Volume 1 Number 3
Setting the Wrong Challenge for Canadian Education
by D.E. Meaghan and F.R. Casas

The analysis presented by Kleiman and Miles in The College Quarterly (W'93) might have been more apropos if the title of their two-part article had been “The Education Challenge for the Canadian Economy.” Unfortunately, the two authors chose to rely on shaky statistical information and outright invalid international comparisons, thereby discrediting their contention that Canada ought to use resources allocated to education more wisely.

Let us begin with their claim that Canada spends 7.2% of its Gross Domestic Product on education, while Japan spends 5% and Germany 4.4% (Kleiman and Miles do not indicate the source or the year for this data). Presumably we should feel embarrassed that so much money produces such meagre results, although it is not clear in what areas Canadian education is “failing.” While we would not go as far as describing this comparison as one between apples and oranges, it would be more appropriate to use the figures computed by F. Nelson (1992) in the most systematic comparison available of spending on education in the 15 advanced nations comprising the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Those figures reveal that in 1989 Canada ranked second (behind Denmark) in terms of the percentage of its GDP devoted to public spending on education-6.6% compared to an average of 5.4% for all 15 nations. Canada, however, ranked fifth (behind Denmark, Sweden, Norway and France) in terms of the percentage of GDP devoted to public spending on elementary and secondary education-4.5% compared to an average of 4.2%. It is at the postsecondary level that Canada allocates a higher proportion of its GDP to public education, reflecting an ideology of attempting to offer all students an opportunity to achieve their full potential, in contrast to other nations which tend to equip a relatively smaller proportion of their youth with postsecondary learning. Paradoxically, Kleiman and Miles deplore the fact that too few Canadian youngsters pursue postsecondary education and they warn that, unless this proportion is increased, we cannot hope for a bright economic future. It should be noted, therefore, that with 4.95 students per 1,000 population enrolled in higher education programs, Canada trails only the United States in this respect, at almost double the OECD average of 2.69 (for those interested in these details, the much vaunted Germany ranks fifth with 2.59 and Japan a lowly thirteenth with 1.97).

Even more disturbing is the fact that the proportion of GDP spent on education is utterly misleading because such a comparison overlooks vital demographic differences. Canada, for example, has the third largest percentage of its population in the 4-15 age group, implying a higher need for education. The lower percentage of GDP spending on elementary and secondary education in Germany (3.1) is easily explained by the fact that it has only 9.7% of its population in this age group, compared to 13.8% for Canada. If Germany had as many school-aged children relative to its population as we do, it would spend 4.5% of its GDP to educate them. Under this criterion, Canada would rank eighth among OECD countries, with spending on elementary and secondary education below the average for this group of nations. How are we then to understand Kleiman and Miles' attempt through the use of misleading statistics to convince us that we are wasting education dollars?

This is not the only challenge we can offer to those who say that the Canadian education system is inefficient. Kleiman and Miles also attempt to inform us by revealing that per pupil expenditure in Canada is a “whopping” $3,665 versus $1,922 in Japan and $1,941 in Germany. What these figures do not reveal is that Japanese official spending on education figures do not include the substantial amounts Japanese parents invest in shadow education activities, such as student participation in after-school and weekend cram schools (the infamous jukus) to prepare for university admission examinations, as well as attendance for up to three years in college-prep establishments (yobikos) for high school graduates who fail college entrance exams. Baker and Stevenson (1989) have estimated the cost of these activities as adding as much as 6% to total education spending. In the case of Germany, nearly 20% of the K-12 population are engaged in apprenticeships financed by the private sector. One estimate places the cost (net of contributions of trainees to production) of this training at 65% of public expenditures for elementary and secondary education.

Kleiman and Miles further advise us that Canada is not well served by its education system because only 12.3% of students go on directly to postsecondary public education. They also mention that another 13.8% return to higher education, but they seem unwilling to give much weight to this phenomenon. Again, we are expected to take these figures as symptomatic of a problem which our trading partners somehow avoid. But, a 1992 OECD study shows that Canada ranked fourth in 1989 among twenty nations in Western Europe and North America plus Japan, Australia and New Zealand, in terms of the proportion of the 25-64 adult population which had completed secondary school, behind the United States, Switzerland and Germany. With 72%, Canada was ahead of Japan (70%) and well above the average of 54% for this group of nations. Canada's educational accomplishments look even more impressive at the postsecondary level where we ranked second with 15% of the adult population holding a university degree, behind the United States (23%) but ahead of third-ranked Japan (13%) and sixth-ranked Germany (10%). Also important is the extreme gender bias in some other countries: while 13% of Canadian females hold a university degree (compared to 17% for males), the corresponding proportion is a mere 7% in Germany (13% for men) and an even lower 5% in Japan (versus 21% of males). This type of educational achievement rarely gets reported in the media and it is sad that even Canadians involved in education overlook it.

Even if we disregard the fact that Canada fares well in such international comparisons and the fact that the school dropout rates have dramatically declined since the turn of the century, it is simply unacceptable to place the blame for the dropout phenomenon at the doors of our schools. A recent study by Statistics Canada (1993) concluded that a reasonable estimate of the school leaver rate is 18% and that “school leavers were more likely than graduates to come from single and no-parent families, from families who did not think high school completion was very important, and from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Taken together, 69% of leavers (compared with 33% of graduates) came from a 'high risk' background group. The overall picture which emerges from these data is one of cumulative disadvantage.” Under these conditions, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the type of education reform advocated by Kleiman and Miles is unlikely to make a dent in the dropout rate, especially when coupled with a call to curtail allegedly overinflated spending.

Finally, it strikes us that the call to increase the number of students who go on directly to postsecondary education is simplistic at best, even when combined with the claim that some are able to gaze into their crystal balls and predict where the jobs in this apparently jobless economic recovery will be. Perhaps we should take a lesson from history and remind ourselves that the nexus of education and economic growth is a complex one. Germany is reputed to have the world's best vocational training system but that did not prove sufficient when the recession hit: the country is now experiencing a 9.1% unemployment rate. And, while Japanese education is commonly held up as the education model to emulate on the assumption that there must be a connection between the stellar performance of Japanese students in international mathematics and science tests and the fact that Japan is the world leader in the export business, McMaster (1991) has pointedly noted that the manufacturing boom in Japan occurred in the 1960s, when only 32% of the 50 year-olds had completed high school and only 2.5% had been to university. It is therefore legitimate to conclude that Japan's economic miracle preceded its much admired education system rather that the other way around. Indeed, to this day, 32% of manufacturing workers in Japan have completed only compulsory education and a close look at the curves for GNP and educational enrollment shows that education lags slightly behind, suggesting that the rise and fall of family incomes affect the demand for education rather than educated labour pushing up productivity.

While it is difficult to make accurate cross-national comparisons, research indicates that Canada does not invest as much in training as some industrialized countries; however, Gordon Betcherman of Queen's University has identified three dubious claims that are advanced in support of an accelerated national training effort. First, it is often asserted that training will reduce unemployment by better matching the skills of unemployed workers with the requirements of vacant jobs. Such a claim overlooks the fact that the number of unemployed workers far exceeds that of unfilled jobs, so that the best training program could only have a marginal impact on joblessness. It is also commonly said that expanded training will take people off welfare rolls and enhance their employability. A recent review by the OECD, however, concluded that the effectiveness of such programs is “remarkably meagre.” Finally, training is offered as a means of increasing labour productivity, this despite the fact that the economic impact of job training remains poorly understood. While training is bound to have a positive impact on productivity, this may help Canadian firms compete more effectively in the global economy or it may reduce the number of employed workers with little change in total production.

There are certainly many issues surrounding the uncertain linkage between education and employment, and these must be addressed and more fully explored. But incorrect diagnoses of the ills allegedly afflicting our education system will hardly produce useful solutions.


Baker, D.P. and Stevenson D.L. [1989]. "Shadow Education and Allocation in Formal Schooling," a paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, April.

McMaster, G. [1991]. The Times Educational Supplement. 7 June.

Nelson, F.H. [1991]. International Comparison of Public Spending on Education. Washington, D.C.: American Federation of Teachers.

Statistics Canada. [1993]. Leaving School. September.

D.E. Meaghan is a college teacher with over twenty years in the classroom and a Trustee of the North York Board of Education. F.R. Casas is a Professor of Economics at the University of Toronto.