Neil Guppy and Scott Davies. Education in Canada: Recent Trends and Future Challenges. Ottawa: Statistics Canada, Minister of Industry, 1998, 203 pp., $34.95 paper.

One reads Statistics Canada reports for the same reason one peruses the dictionary - more for information than inspiration. This is largely true of Education in Canada; still, within a dense text, bulging with 64 tables and 58 charts, are some insightful observations on the state of Canadian schooling. The third monograph in Statistics Canada’s “census analysis” volumes, the book documents educational trends mostly from the 1960s to the early 90s. It focuses on school expansion, the teaching profession, regional variations, educational qualifications, and the “returns” to schooling. There are two additional chapters on postsecondary education, one of which sets the system in a comparative perspective. The book devotes considerable attention to the subjects of gender, ethnicity and race, and social class.

One senses that the authors, both of whom have written substantive interpretive articles on education, were constrained by an obligation to present their findings largely unadorned (in the Statistics Canada way) - with minimal editorializing. Their straightforward thesis - that Canada is a “schooled society”- is abundantly documented and difficult to dispute. Notwithstanding some significant regional disparities, school attendance and participation rates have grown dramatically in the last half of the twentieth century, and with those of the United States, lead the world at the post-secondary educational level.

More contentious is the authors’ explanation for this recent growth, which they attribute to the “demands of the emerging information age and the suggestion that educational levels in Canada must [continue to rise] if we are to keep pace with recent social and economic changes” (p.2). This rather conventional and modernized version of the human capital theory is consistent with government and business pronouncements, and reinforces the argument that Canadian students and institutions must adapt more effectively than they have to date to the needs of the “knowledge economy.”

Another Canadian sociologist, David Livingstone, contests this view in his own new book, The Education-Jobs Gap: Underemployment or Economic Democracy, (Toronto: Garamond Press, 1999). Most Canadians, he argues, are already sufficiently educated - and younger people, especially, are technologically proficient - but employers are failing to use their employees’ skills productively and imaginatively. The problem of underemployment is largely economic, not educational; policy changes are required at the governmental, corporate and managerial levels, less so in schools, colleges and universities. Guppy’s and Davies’ limited discussion is scarcely the last word on this important subject. Curiously, and surprisingly, Livingstone’s extensive work on the sociology of Canadian education (preceding this most recent book) is not included in Education in Canada’s references, which are otherwise quite extensive.

On other questions, the authors are more provocative and pertinent. They provide the most recent statistics available on the educational participation and achievement levels of ethnic and visible minorities and immigrants, and they find, with the exception of Aboriginal Canadians, and those of Portuguese background, no evidence of the traditional “British hegemony” (123). The impressive educational qualifications brought to Canada by recent immigrants, and the enormous academic strides made by second generation minority youth, have created, at long last, a relatively level educational playing field - at least with respect to ethnicity and race. Social policy, however, has not quite caught up to this reality, as educators devote more time to issues of diversity and difference than to the lingering, and almost forgotten, problem of social class. With rising tuition fees, and the privatization of many social services, the poor may face even more barriers to advanced education than in the recent past.

The authors’ findings on the educational opportunities of minority groups are confirmed in other Canadian studies, but at least one important question remains unanswered. How have ethnic and racial minorities fared in the workforce compared to other Canadians? Have greater schooling opportunities led to appropriate occupational and income rewards? The authors are able to answer this question with respect to social class and gender, but not ethnicity or race, and this remains a troubling gap in the literature. Sociologist Peter Li addressed this question in part with respect to the 1981 census, but what has happened in the 1990s? If racial inequities have endured in the world of work, this is further evidence that in the “knowledge economy” the mere accumulation of credentials is no guarantee of one’s occupational success.

Highly educated women have indeed narrowed the wage gap with men, but overall, females still earn less than males, and are generally enrolled in gender-specific educational programs. None of this is startling news, but the book effectively assembles the data in a comprehensive up-to-date manner.

The authors provide other useful information. They trace historically the continuing gender disparity in the constitution of the Canadian teaching force. They report that provinces with high levels of out-migration (with the curious exception of Alberta) have the lowest levels of educational attainment; and they disclose that only 6 in 10 students actually graduate from university. The book’s major strength is the access it provides to such information - and to the selected thematic analyses in which the authors engage. As a kind of massive statistical intervention, it will play a useful role in the ongoing discussion of the direction of Canadian education. In other publications, the authors will undoubtedly have more substantive contributions to make to the theoretical and policy debates.

Paul Axelrod
York University

May 1999
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