Skip to content

Canada’s Black Box of Higher Education Outcomes

December 2023


André Côté

André Côté

Graham Dobbs

Graham Dobbs


Tianna Thompson
Julia Colyar
Fiona Deller
Jake Hirsch-Allen
Andrew Parkin
Jackie Pichette




Executive Summary

There are nearly two million students enrolled in Canadian universities and colleges at any given time. Higher education is a large sector, with public institutions’ revenues totalling $60 billion annually. The system of post-secondary education is recognized as essential to Canada’s prosperity and labour force development, creating economic opportunity, social mobility, newcomer integration, and civic engagement for learners. Yet, there is alarmingly little understanding or analysis of the outcomes Canada’s higher education system produces—whether to inform public policy, align skills development, or ensure learners (and funders) are getting good value.

This report investigates the topic of outcomes tracking in Canadian higher education and related notions of quality and value assessment, with the aim of informing better post-secondary policy, education and labour market planning, and learner career pathway navigation.

Why do higher education outcomes matter? In today’s rapidly changing and increasingly competitive Canadian post-secondary marketplace, there are three compelling reasons why tracking outcomes is an imperative:

  • Transparency: To provide learners with the information they need to make informed decisions about education and training options
  • Improvement: To equip higher education and training providers with the information they need to enhance program delivery, learner experience, and post-completion success
  • Accountability: To inform governments and oversight bodies that fund and set policies, standards for quality assurance, consumer protection, and performance

In the first section of the report, a review of the current state of higher education outcomes tracking in Canada reveals a number of limitations. Provincial outcomes data are inconsistent and not easily accessible, navigable, or standardized. Data are generally not comparable by institution type across universities and colleges nor with apprenticeships. Data are not available at a granularity that allows assessment and comparison at the institution- and program-level. A key gap across Canada is the absence of graduate skills information that can align post-secondary data with labour market information (LMI). Lastly, there are no reliable data or information sources for new types of alternative credentials such as microcredentials, online certificates, or digital badges. Beyond the provincial level, the other important elements of post-secondary education (PSE) information architecture are described, including inter-governmental institutions, the Government of Canada, and Canadian participation in international initiatives.

The second section scans the post-secondary data and outcomes tracking systems in three peer jurisdictions, the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, providing a few general lessons for Canada. First, all three peer countries have national systems and institutions dedicated to post-secondary outcomes data collection and dissemination. Second, the three peer countries offer more timely, nationally comparable data. Third, peer countries offer transparency tools for students and other users that allow for comparison of institutions and programs nationally. Lastly, innovative higher education policy research is a key by-product. The US example especially demonstrates the power of a robust higher education data system with open data access in enabling deep research analysis that drives debate and public policy action.

Action Items to Build a Learning LMI System for Canada

Based on the findings about Canada’s current state and the comparative lessons from peer jurisdictions, the final section identifies a set of five actions that could improve Canada’s post-secondary data and information systems—which we refer to as “learning LMI” because it should constitute a key element in Canada’s labour market information (LMI) ecosystem.

  • Canada requires pan-Canadian leadership and coordination on higher education outcomes. Key federal/provincial/territorial bodies like the Canadian Education Statistics Council (CESC), Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC), Labour Market Information Council (LMIC), and Statistics Canada should be equipped with the mandates and resources to advance this pan-Canadian work.
  • Canada needs national, open-access learning data infrastructure. Like Canada’s three peers, this country needs a pan-Canadian institution to act as a public utility for education data, responsible for the collection, curation, and sharing of raw data for the collective benefit.
  • Policymakers should use funding levers to compel comparable, granular outcomes reporting. Canada’s federal/provincial/territorial governments should similarly use their funding and regulatory levers to compel reporting of data that is comparable across different types of providers and provinces, and detailed at both the provider and program levels.
  • Post-secondary outcomes data should be linked with LMI for jobs and skills in demand. The next frontier for Canada’s workforce ecosystem should involve mapping PSE programs and credentials to jobs and skills in the labour market—to provide that essential connection for both graduates and employers.
  • Learners and workers need better PSE transparency and navigation tools coupled with learning-to-career guidance support. These tools should be developed with key user groups (e.g., students, parents, K–12 and PSE guidance professionals) and integrated into high school guidance and workforce services to focus support on the learners who need it most.

Measure what matters, as they say. This report is intended as a “Call to Action” to Canada’s higher education leaders, policymakers, student groups, and other key stakeholders. It is time to open the black box.