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Census questions on education: Some important changes

Census questions relating to education changed substantially between 2001 and 2006, principally to reflect developments in Canada's education system.

These changes improved the quality of data and provided more precise information on the level of educational attainment as well as fields of study. For the first time, census information is available on the province, territory or country in which Canadians attained their highest level of education.

However, users should be aware that changes to the education portion of the 2006 Census questionnaire have affected the comparability of 2006 Census data with data from previous censuses.

Highest certificate, diploma or degree

The overall quality of data for the 'highest certificate, diploma or degree' variable in the 2006 Census is acceptable.

Unlike previous censuses, the 2006 Census questionnaire provided a separate question for each level of educational attainment, rather than including all levels as part of a single list. One reason for this change was to address suspected underreporting of high school completions. 

While most of the levels of educational attainment are deemed to be comparable historically, changes to the questionnaire have influenced changes over time for some individual levels.

At the time that 2006 Census information on education was made public (March 4, 2008), preliminary analysis indicated that historical comparisons for this variable could be made only for individuals with a university degree as their highest level of educational attainment. Further analysis completed following the public release yielded the following conclusions:

  • Underreporting of high school completions in censuses prior to 2006 had contributed to elevated results for the ‘less than high school’ category, and had also affected data on high school graduation.
  • With regard to trades, the 2006 Census questionnaire included, for the first time, a type of educational institution found only in Quebec, the ‘centres de formation professionnelle,’ and this may have influenced data on trades certifications in Quebec. Data on trades certifications in other regions are comparable with previous censuses.
  • The 'university certificate or diploma below bachelor level' category showed unexpected growth compared with 2001. According to the 2001 Census, 2.5% of respondents aged 15 years and over declared such a diploma. This proportion nearly doubled to 4.4% in 2006. This phenomenon was not found in other sources, such as the Labour Force Survey. As a result, the 2006 Census results for this category should be treated with caution.
  • The ‘college’ category and university categories at the bachelor’s level and above are comparable with previous censuses.

For more information on data quality and historical comparability, please refer to the 2006 Education Reference Guide.

Attendance at school: Interpret data with caution

Users of census data should treat data on attendance at school from the 2006 Census with caution.

This is because the census question on attendance at school changed in 2006 to focus on the type of educational institution attended.

Preliminary analysis pointed to important discrepancies between 2006 data and data from previous censuses in this area, as well as to important variations with the Labour Force Survey. Users were initially cautioned that the 2006 Census data could have overestimated attendance at school for the population aged 20 and over. As a result, data on attendance at school were not included in any of the various standard or specialized data products, nor in the Educational Portrait of Canada released on March 4, 2008.

Further analysis, released in the 2006 Education Reference Guide in April 2009, concluded that although attendance at school has historically been higher in the census than in the Labour Force Survey, the trends over time have been consistent between the two surveys.

The analysis also confirmed the presence of elevated levels of school attendance in the 2006 Census for individuals aged 45 years of age and over. The unexpected increase from 2001 was not measured in the Labour Force Survey and is not in line with trends from either source. As a result, it is recommended that the 2006 Census data on school attendance for those aged 45 and over be interpreted with caution and not compared with previous censuses.

Data tables for a summary variable of attendance at school were released on October 28, 2008.

For more information on this subject, please refer to the 2006 Education Reference Guide.

Major field of study: New classification system

For the first time with the 2006 Census, data on major field of study were coded using the Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP), Canada 2000 system.

Previous censuses used the Major Field of Study Classification (MFS).

Statistics Canada recommends that users not make historical comparisons between these two systems on the basis of field-of-study labels. Even in cases where entries in the two classification systems are similar, the underlying definitions of each classification will generally not be identical. Therefore, direct comparisons would be inappropriate.

At the time that education data from the 2006 Census were made public, a theoretical concordance table was provided to allow users to see the relationship between the CIP and MFS systems, based on definitional aspects of each system. This table is available in the 2006 Census Dictionary (Appendix N). However, users are cautioned that this type of concordance cannot be used to convert data from one system to the other.

Major field of study data for the 2006 Census coded according to the MFS classification were released on June 12, 2009. To receive data tables on major field of study that use the MFS classification system, please contact Statistics Canada's National Contact Centre.

In addition, MFS-CIP empirical concordance tables based on 2006 Census results have been produced. These tables do allow conversion of counts from one field of study classification system to the other. They are available in the 2006 Census Dictionary (Appendix S and Appendix T).