Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 30, No.1

September 15, 2005


AT ISSUE: Access to our universities is better than ever

Economist James McIntosh says sociologists are too pessimistic about progress made

By Barbara Black

One argument against lifting Quebec’s tuition freeze is that it would restrict access to university. A number of studies by sociologists indicate that parents’ education and occupation still have a strong effect on whether their children will go to university.

Economist James McIntosh challenges those studies. In a paper he prepared this spring, McIntosh says, “Canadian education has experienced massive expansion over the last 50 years. This has been accompanied by an extensive student loan program, together with low fees for university attendance.

“Educational attainment has risen for all individuals independent of their social background. But access to postsecondary education, particularly university, has become easier for individuals whose parents were poorly educated or who had lower-income occupations.

“Social background remains important for the educational attainment of all individuals, but there has been a dramatic decline in this dependence for the younger cohort.”’

In other words, the children of university-educated parents still follow their example, but now, large numbers of the children of working-class parents are also going to university.

“The sociologist [Richard] Wanner, who is the most recent sociologist to make a contribution, used a method which has been discredited by [J.J.] Heckman, who won the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics.

“The paper by [socialogist H.A.] McRoberts did not look carefully at transition matrices. So the answer is in part not using proper methods and not being sufficiently careful.”

McIntosh wouldn’t speculate on whether the sociologists got the results they wanted for ideological reasons, but he wants more credit to be given to efforts since 1967 to improve access.

“The educational system expanded, especially the university sector,” he said. “This, together with low student fees, meant that more people could get post-secondary qualifications, especially those from disadvantaged social backgrounds.

“I think this is a great achievement of the Canadian welfare state, and it should be publicized.”

McIntosh is following the current discussion about post-secondary education, which has seen the premiers calling for a national conference on the issue. However, he feels more needs to be known about how the quality of higher education has changed before making any policy decisions on the further expansion of the educational system.

An expert in mobility research, he started his paper, called “Educational Mobility in Canada: Results From the 2001 General Social Survey,” about four years ago. You can reach Professor McIntosh at