Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

Expansion and Ascription: Trends in Educational Opportunity in Canada, 1920-1994

Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

Expansion and Ascription: Trends in Educational Opportunity in Canada, 1920-1994

Article excerpt

The twentieth century has witnessed momentous change in the economies and systems of inequality of the more developed countries, and Canada is no exception. Since the turn of the century this country has experienced a steep decline in the proportion of the labour force involved in agriculture, followed by a decline in manufacturing employment, and the rise of a postindustrial service economy. Indeed, by 1991 fully 73% of Canada's labour force was involved in service industries (McVey and Kalbach, 1995). Accompanying these shifts in the locus of employment has been an enormous shift in the occupational composition of the labour force, with a decline in manual occupations and increases in clerical, sales and service, managerial and professional occupations. More recently, we have seen rising unemployment rates, increasing part-time work and self-employment, stagnant wages, and a decline of Canada's middle class (Economic Council of Canada, 1991).

All of these changes in industry and occupational composition of the labour force have meant that the demand for educated workers has increased. However, compared to other industrial societies, most notably the United States, Canada maintained a greater degree of educational inequality during the first half of the 20th century (Wanner, 1986). This particularly took the form of a lower rate of participation in post-secondary education. As of 1961, just 8.5% of the labour force had attained any form of post-secondary education, and the government of Canada was using its immigration policies to import qualified professionals and skilled manual workers, primarily from the United Kingdom and the United States (Porter, 1965). However, beginning in the 1950s, driven in part by the surging baby-boom population reaching school age, Canada began a massive expansion of its system of education, with provinces across the country investing heavily in the construction of new primary and secondary schools. In the 1960s this expansion spread to the post-secondary level with the growth of existing colleges and universities and the establishment of a substantial number of new institutions (Forcese, 1986).

In the face of such rapid educational expansion, accompanied by an extensive student loan program, many Canadian commentators assumed that the link between social origins and educational attainment would weaken (Forcese, 1986; Harp, 1980). They were in good company, with theorists such as Boudon (1974) arguing, with the aid of simple mathematical models, that increasing rates of school attendance would produce higher rates of educational opportunity, since persons from lower-status backgrounds can increase their attendance rates more than persons from upper-status backgrounds who are already attending at a high level. Nevertheless recent research on the question in several more developed countries has undermined severely the assumption that expansion of the educational system would result in declining levels of ascription over time (Shavit and Blossfeld, 1993). Since the expansion of the Canadian system of post-secondary education did not take place until the 1960s, the existing Canadian research using data collected in the early 1970s could not detect the effects of that expansion. This paper examines trends in the effects of socio-economic background, gender and language first spoken on educational attainment for birth cohorts completing their schooling between roughly 1920 and 1994 to provide the first real test of the assumption that Canada's investment in educational expansion reduced the amount of ascription in educational attainment. By using methods comparable to those applied in research in other countries, I am able to add yet one more test of the prevailing theories in the field and situate the Canadian trends in a cross-national context.

Theory and Prior Research

The two competing theoretical frameworks that have long informed research on social inequality - the functionalist, or human capital, and the conflict, or cultural reproduction, perspectives - have provided the main source for explanations of trends in educational opportunity. …

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