Looking to the Horizon: Emerging Trends in Post-Secondary Education

Post by Amanda Coolidge, executive director, BCcampus

The landscape of British Columbia’s post-secondary education sector is evolving, shaped by innovative approaches and a commitment to student success. As a leader in navigating these changes, BCcampus advances teaching and learning practices through our understanding of the wider context of post-secondary education and through collaboration with post-secondary institutions and partners in the province.

In advance of a strategic planning retreat at the beginning of the year, I researched emerging trends shaping the future of post-secondary education in B.C. and in the country overall to provide context and frame our thinking. The resulting environmental scan reveals a focus not only on educational structures and practices but also on wider issues of the climate crisis and student wellness. Some trends, like uncertainty around international students and the proliferation of generative artificial intelligence in higher education, are already top of mind for people in the post-secondary sector. This blog post looks at other emerging trends informing the post-secondary experience.

Enrolment and Education Levels

Canada performs better than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average in graduation numbers when measuring enrolment and education levels. In 2021, the share of adults in Canada with at least a high school education was around 94 per cent. Canada also led the world in 2022 in percentage of the adult population with a tertiary education (a bachelor’s degree or higher), at almost 63 per cent. In 2021, around 66 per cent of Canadians aged 25–34 had a tertiary education. At the provincial and territorial level, B.C. scored the highest on percentage of the population with at least a secondary education in 2021.

Tuition Fees

The rise in tuition fees along with cost-of-living increases are significant concerns for students. The average annual tuition for an undergraduate program nationwide was C$6,834 for the 2022/23 school year. According to Alex Usher, president of strategic policy and research firm Higher Education Strategy Associates, undergraduate tuition fees in B.C. are below the national average (Usher & Balfour, 2023). Despite the rising cost of post-secondary education, it remains a valuable investment for Canadians. The unemployment rate for adults with only a high school diploma was 9.8 per cent in 2021, compared with 5.1 per cent among those with a university education.

Climate Crisis

The climate crisis presents an imminent and escalating threat to the planet, demanding urgent action. On campuses around the province, students are clearly voicing their demands for transformational societal change to address the climate crisis. In response, B.C. institutions, like others around the world, are grappling with ways to incorporate and give prominence to these serious issues.

Some post-secondary institutions are considering making it a requirement for students to take an introductory course on climate change. Others are increasing their course offerings examining the relationship between social and natural causes of climate change. The B.C. institutions with the highest number of related programs on climate change and sustainability include the British Columbia Institute of Technology, Vancouver Island University, Coast Mountain College, and North Island College.

“Everyone is going to need to understand [climate change] the same way you’d assume everyone in business needs to have some fluency in social media today, or that everyone would be able to use a computer 20 years ago.”

— Andrew S. Winston, The Big Pivot: Radically Practical Strategies for a Hotter, Scarcer, and More Open World

New Forms of Learning and Student Needs

Institutions are innovating and diversifying the teaching and learning methods they use to provide high-quality instruction to students. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, online learning had been increasing in prevalence in Canadian institutions for many years, with most Canadian institutions offering at least some form of online learning and enrolment in online courses growing annually.

Post-secondary Digitization

Post-secondary institutions in Canada are also pursuing ways to digitize their administrative responsibilities toward prospective students and alumni. This includes the initial intake of prospective students’ academic documents in the admission process, and the issuing of official transcripts and degree certificates to their own alumni and other organizations requesting the documents.

Credentialing Alternatives

Work-integrated or experiential learning — where students participate in a range of different types of work placements (e.g., co-ops, practicums, applied research projects) as part of their program — is supported by provinces and territories because it has demonstrated improved learning and labour market outcomes, and is already prevalent at institutions across Canada. Lifelong learning has become vital; with the rate of change, workers will require ongoing education.

“Twenty years from now, lines between people’s learning and working lives will be increasingly joined. Learning will not be something you graduate from to transition to a job but will be a lifelong journey of upskilling and micro-credentialing to keep up with exponential advances in technology and changes in the workplace that will build a better economy and society.”

— KPMG, 20 Predictions for the Next 20 Years

Access and Affordability

Access and affordability have been a major focus for post-secondary institutions. Several provinces and territories have supported institutions in increasing post-secondary participation of under-represented groups, such as low-income students, students whose parents did not attend post-secondary education, students with disabilities, and Indigenous students.

To do this, provinces and territories have introduced both financial supports (e.g., scholarships, bursaries, grants) and non-financial supports (e.g., academic upgrading, bridging programs). In recent years, many provinces and territories have been experimenting with providing targeted free tuition in the form of student financial aid for lower-income students that matches, or exceeds, the cost of average tuition. BCcampus helps students save money through open textbooks, which are in the open domain and available to anyone. This program has saved students over $36,143,421 since 2012.

Student Mental Health and Well-being

People aged 15–24 are more likely to experience mental health issues than any other age group and comprise a significant portion of the post-secondary student body. At the pan-Canadian level, in 2020 the Mental Health Commission of Canada released the National Standard of Canada for Mental Health and Well-Being for Post-Secondary Students. Institutional initiatives such as on-campus counselling, peer support groups, academic preparation sessions, and other services are meant to ensure mentally healthy and fulfilling environments for all students.

Continue the Conversation

As we contemplate the future of post-secondary education in B.C., BCcampus is a catalyst for positive change. Through collaborative efforts and innovative programs, BCcampus is helping to support a dynamic and inclusive educational landscape. Students can look forward to a future that not only is relevant and flexible but also prioritizes their well-being and gives them the skills and experience to succeed.

To contribute to the ongoing conversation, join me for a discussion with Dr. Nicole Johnson, executive director at the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association. Together, we will dive into the details of An Increasing Demand for Technology Use in Teaching and Learning, the 2023 Pan-Canadian report on digital learning trends in Canadian post-secondary education. This comprehensive report explores many of the topics revealed by the environmental scan, including online and hybrid learning, technologies used in teaching, student attitudes, and professional development.

We hope that by joining us, you will gain valuable insights and participate in an engaging discussion that will help shape the future of learning in British Columbia.