More than half of Canada’s working-age population has graduated from either university or college, the highest proportion in the G7 industrialized countries, according to the latest data from the 2021 census.

The share of post-secondary graduates in the working-age group – 25 to 64 – has now reached 57.5 per cent, extending Canada’s lead in a category it has topped since 2006. That figure is hailed as a positive economic and social indicator, as studies have shown that higher levels of education tend to be correlated with higher incomes and better health.

But a more complex picture emerges in the other details revealed in the census count: Men continue to finish university at a rate far lower than women, the gap in Indigenous university completion rates continues to grow and Canada trails its peer nations significantly in the share of population that has completed graduate studies.

Nearly 33 per cent of Canadians of working age had a university bachelor’s degree or higher in 2021. That marked a jump of 4.3 percentage points since the 2016 census. About half of that increase was due to immigration, as about 60 per cent of new immigrants arrived with a university degree.

Britain (41.3 per cent), the United States (39.5 per cent) and Japan (34.2 per cent) all have a greater share of population with a university bachelor’s degree. Canada’s improvement was partly due to younger citizens choosing university in greater numbers. But it was also partly a demographic affect, as younger generations enter the 25-to-64 category, while older ones with less formal education exit.

Canada’s performance on postsecondary-education metrics also owes a lot to the country’s college sector. A quarter of Canadians (24.6 per cent) have a college diploma or certificate, usually from a two-year program. That’s the highest rate in the G7 and compares favourably with the U.S., where the share of the population with an equivalent credential is about 10 per cent.

Pamela Best, assistant director at Statistics Canada, said one of the key reasons the country scores so highly on this metric is the CEGEP system in Quebec, which educates a much larger share of its student population than other provincial college systems.

Canada also had a lower share of population with a graduate degree, at just 9.3 per cent, compared with a range of 13 to 15 per cent elsewhere in the G7. A little more than 1 per cent of Canadians have a doctorate, and 8.2 per cent a master’s degree.

Ken Coates, a professor in the school of public policy at the University of Saskatchewan, said Canada has historically not produced as many graduate degree holders in the education field as the U.S. in part due to incentives offered in the latter country. He also said there has been a narrower talent pipeline to graduate school in the sciences, but that that is starting to change.

There also continues to be a significant gap between men and women in educational attainment. In the age group of 25 to 34, nearly 40 per cent of Canadian-born women have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with a little more than 25 per cent of Canadian-born men. The trend dates back more than 30 years ago to the early 1990s, when women first surpassed men in degree attainment, according to Statistics Canada.

The rate of growth in men’s university education rates picked up substantially in this census period. It grew nearly as much in the last five years as it had in the decade from 2006 to 2016. But at 2.2 percentage points, it still trailed the 3.3 percentage point growth rate among women.

The data also show it’s becoming more common for students who’ve graduated university to attend college after obtaining their degree. Colleges offer short, career-oriented programs that may add vocational qualifications to a university credential. In Ontario and B.C., close to a quarter of college students already had a bachelor’s degree in the 2020-21 school year.

“Society is privileging university education over all kinds of training and education. Many university graduates go back to get a college or polytechnic diploma to become employable. Many should not have gone to university in the first place,” Prof. Coates said. “This is becoming a dominant theme in Canadian postsecondary education.”

The post-university college route is even more common among international students, who pay lower tuition at college (often about $16,000 in Ontario compared with more than $30,000 at university). More than 36 per cent of international students at Canadian colleges have a bachelor’s degree already. Having Canadian education and work experience are significant advantages for the growing share of international students looking to stay in the country as permanent residents.

The census showed some gains in Indigenous education. In 2021, nearly 13 per cent of Indigenous people of working age in Canada had university degrees, up from 10.9 per cent in 2016 and 7.7 per cent in 2006. The increase is due in part to improvements in high-school completion rates among First Nations, Metis and Inuit.

However, university completion rates among Indigenous people are not growing as quickly as among the non-Indigenous population, so that gap continues to widen, Ms. Best said. In the 2021 census, the number of Canadian-born non-Indigenous degree holders grew by 2.9 per cent, compared with 1.9 per cent among Indigenous people.

The Globe and Mail, December 4, 2022