Redefining Access to Postsecondary Education

This report was published by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Ontario is best served — economically and socially — by a post-secondary education system that focuses on increasing opportunities for students who need it the most, and that measures the outcomes of the policies and programs that seek to do this. The government of Ontario is in a position to implement an outcomes-based funding model that can expand opportunities for Ontario youth to move successfully into and through the post-secondary sector and into the labour market, particularly those who may have been most disadvantaged in the past.

Access to post-secondary education has always been a dominant public policy goal in Ontario, and rightfully so. There are two ways that access has been defined: first, by how many spaces there are in the system to accommodate everyone who wants to attend, and second, by who gets in. The first definition is essentially a growth model; it focuses on increasing the capacity of the system to accommodate an increasing number of students who want to go. The second is an equity-of-access model that focuses on which students are — and which are not — going. It asks whether all Ontario youth have an equal opportunity to access and succeed in the post-secondary system.

Decades of research has shown that certain youth are underrepresented in PSE. First-generation students (those whose parents didn’t complete postsecondary), low-income students, Indigenous students, and students with disabilities are less likely to enrol in post-secondary education, and less likely to attain a PSE credential than their peers.

In Ontario, provincial governments have historically committed to a post-secondary access policy that drives enrolment growth. The current funding formula rewards institutions that enrol an increasing number of students. Government attempts to address equity of access have focused on expanding student financial assistance, capping tuition fees and targeting incremental funding to institutions to enable them to recruit and support students from historically underrepresented groups.

These policies have resulted in a dramatic increase in overall enrolment at Ontario’s colleges and universities over the last two decades. Ontario is now a world leader in adult post-secondary attainment. The assumption inherent in these policies was that growth would also improve the equity of access. However, the evidence suggests that it has done little to achieve equitable access for those students who have been traditionally excluded from post-secondary and labour market opportunities.

The analysis presented in this paper suggests that it is time to declare victory on growth and focus more intently on ensuring that all Ontarians have an equal opportunity to access and succeed in Ontario’s post-secondary system.



Deller, F., Kaufman, A., & Tamburri, R. (2019). Redefining Access to Postsecondary Education. Toronto, ON: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. Retrieved from

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