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College Quarterly
Winter 1995 - Volume 3 Number 2
Should the CAATS Grant Degrees?
by Michael L. Skolnik

Recently, the question of degree granting for the CAATs has been receiving a lot of attention, and many academic leaders in the colleges have been urging that the CAATs be empowered to award certain types of degrees. The purpose of this paper is to examine the case for giving the CAATs the authority to award certain types of degree granting in Ontario. Then it describes the types of degrees which have been proposed for the CAATs and their status in some of the jurisdictions where they are awarded. Lastly, it analyzes the arguments which have been advanced in support of the proposal in the context of the present relationship between the CAATs and the provincial universities and offers some conclusions.

The Control of Degree Granting in Ontario

In most jurisdictions governments have taken it upon themselves to regulate, at least to some extent, the awarding of degrees. One of the jurisdictions in which regulation of degree granting is most stringent is Ontario, where the Degree Granting Act (1983) restricts the authority to award degrees to only those institutions which have been empowered to do so by an act of the provincial legislature. The act of the legislature which established the CAATs does not give them the authority to grant a degree of any kind. In order for the CAATs to be enabled to award degrees, this act would have to be amended by the legislature. And to obtain such an amendment it would be necessary to overcome some strongly ingrained habits and attitudes which have served to severely limit the extension of degree granting authority in Ontario.

One who has not studied the practice of degree granting might assume that the main determinant of whether a postsecondary education institution obtains from government the authority to grant degrees is the content of its instructional programs. That is to say, if an institution is offering programs which seem like degree programs, then it should be given the authority to award degrees for them. This, however, has not generally been the case. For one thing, it has been very difficult if not impossible to obtain consensus on what a degree signifies or what a degree program should consist of. Typically, a degree is defined as it is in the Ontario Transfer Guide, as “a document of recognition awarded upon completion of a university program” (Ontario Ministry of Education and Training, 1994, p.118). Since one of the defining characteristics of a university is its authority to grant a degree, the standard definition of a degree is circularly unhelpful. Essentially, a degree is what those who have the legal authority to award one say that it is (Skolnik, 1987).

Rather than try to define in legislation what constitutes a degree, governments have concentrated upon specifying which organizations have the legal authority to award degrees. Then it is left to those organizations to determine the content, criteria, and conditions for the degree. Whatever party has been in power, Ontario governments have held to the view that the province should maintain high standards for degrees, and that the best way to do so is to restrict degree granting to a limited number of provincially chartered universities. When other organizations have sought approval to award degrees, the government has advised them to try to enter into an affiliation agreement with a provincial university under which the university would set the criteria for the award of a degree, oversee the conduct of the program, and award the degree in its name.

While this affiliation approach has been quite useful as a device for helping some new public universities get started, it has not proved workable for other types of institutions which were seeking to offer degree programs. The provincial universities have tended to reject the overtures of such institutions out of an alleged concern about standards. However, those who have had their offers rejected have sometimes felt that what was at issue was not the quality of their programs but that what they were proposing to offer was different in kind from the more conventional programs of the universities. While both sides in this historic and ongoing controversy have their stronger and weaker arguments, the important things to keep in mind are that in the name of maintaining standards:

the provincial government has, in the first instance at least, given the universities the gate-keeping responsibility in regard to new or additional institutions which seek to conduct degree programs; and
2. in exercising this responsibility, the universities have shown considerable caution and conservatism. In this context, it should be appreciated that standing between the CAATs and any kind of degree granting are traditions and practices which mitigate against allowing any Ontario based institutions other than the publicly chartered universities to award degrees1.

Associate and Applied Degrees

On March 30 and 31,1995 the Association of Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology of Ontario (ACAATO) sponsored two one-day workshops, the objective being to “identify what the majority of the academic leaders of Ontario's Colleges perceive to be the degree completion options for Ontario” (ACAATO, 1995, p. 1). Participants included presidents, academic vice-presidents, deans, department chairs, and chairs of college councils. In ACAATO's report of these meetings, it is noted that the majority of attendees “supported the introduction of associate degrees and applied degrees by the colleges” (ACAATO, 1995, p. 2).

The associate degree is an American concept. Originally developed at the turn of the century, the associated degree was intended as “a credential to be offered to university students who completed two years of a four-year university degree, and for some reason, were not able to continue towards the full baccalaureate” (Marshall, 1995, p. 13). Later it came to be awarded by U.S. junior and community colleges upon completion of a two year program for which the student would get credit toward a four year degree at most universities. Now a minority of those who obtain the associate degree go on to university, and the degree is often promoted as a terminal educational credential.

The value of the associate degree both for university transfer and for entry into the labour market has been questioned. The doyen of community college scholars in the United States, Arthur Cohen and Florence Brawer have noted that the associate degree is not necessarily for transfer from community college to university, and it “has little value in the marketplace” (Cohen and Brawer, 1984, p. 326). Data from a recent nationwide study of transfer in the United States reveal that the proportion of U.S. community college students who follow the path from associate degree to university degree is negligible, as shown in the following figures:

Of 100 Incoming Community College Students in the United States,the Numbers Who Transfer to a University and Earn Degrees

complete an academic associate degree 5.7
transfer to a university 2.8
earn a full degree 0.3
complete a vocational associate degree 11.4
transfer to a university 2.6
earn a full degree 0.5

Source: Grubb (1991) derived from tables on pp.219-221.

Recently, the Associate in Arts and the Associate in Science degrees have been adopted in British Columbia colleges (Dennison, 1995, p. 8). The rationale for adopting the associate degree in British Columbia was

  1. to provide students a credential for two years of postsecondary study which would have province-wide recognition, and
  2. to bring about some standardization of curriculum ensuring comparable knowledge and competencies for all students who complete two years of study in the same program (Dennison, p. 8).

While the associate degree originated in the United States, the applied degree is a European concept. It has been awarded in several European countries, notably the United Kingdom and Germany, by non-university postsecondary education institutions for courses of study which are described as applied, or “hands-on”, in contrast to the more academic nature of degree programs in universities. The distinction between applied and academic degrees has been difficult both to explicate and to maintain. In the United Kingdom, applied degree programs were provided by the polytechnic institutes, but great concern has been expressed about the process of “academic drift” in which the programs of the polytechnic were alleged to emulate and come to resemble those of the universities. Similar allegations were made by the Ontario Association of Certified Engineering Technicians and Technologists about the applied technology programs at Ryerson Polytechnic (then) Institute during the Vision 2000 review of the CAATs (cited in Skolnik, 1989, p. 14). With the removal of many former restrictions on the polytechnic and the move toward a more unified postsecondary system in the U.K., it is not clear that the distinction between the applied and academic degrees will survive.

One of the questions that arises in conjunction with applied degree programs is faculty involvement in research. For many it is difficult to imagine a degree program without the faculty involved in it being engaged in research. In the United Kingdom, it was reported that in the 1970s, research normally accounted for 10-20 per cent of faculty time in the polytechnic, in contrast to about 50 per cent in the universities (Matterson, 1981, p. 34). To my knowledge, those who have urged that the CAATs award applied degrees have yet to take a position on the proportion, if any, of faculty time that should be devoted to research, let alone how to achieve such a diversion of faculty time from teaching. Perhaps the bottom line question is if an applied program is intended to be so different from an academic program, then what is the justification for calling both credentials by the same name, a degree?

Thus far, the only province to have adopted the applied degree is Alberta which has announced plans to allow public colleges to mount applied degree programs on an experimental basis. The first four program areas are: applied forest resources management, applied petroleum engineering technology, applied communications, and applied small business and entrepreneurship.

Degree Granting for Ontario CAATs?

I have not been able to find a great deal of documentation of the arguments in favour of degree granting for the CAATs. Some is contained in the “key comments” sections of the ACAATO report referred to earlier, and a very useful source is a paper by D.G. Marshall, containing notes for a speech presented to a provincial meeting of university and college advisors in May, 1995. Dr. Marshall is President and Vice-Chancellor of Nippissing University which is a member of a consortium of Ontario universities and CAATs who are working together to improve articulation between member institutions in the two sectors.

Based upon these documents and consultation with academic leaders from the CAATs, I would conclude that there is a desire among some in the CAATs to see the applied degree replace the diploma for three year programs - or a least those which are thought to be “degree-ready” - and for two year programs to be recognized by the awarding of an associate degree particularly an applied associate degree.

In general, the primary motivation for these proposals seems to be that of enhancing - or recognizing - the stature of the CAATs. There is concern as to whether the meaning of the present diplomas and certificates is clear to employers and other interested parties. This concern about recognition applies not only to the situation of graduates seeking employment outside Ontario, but also to Ontario employers whose ideas of the significance of various credentials may be influenced by practices in other jurisdictions, especially in the context of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). There may also be a desire to see CAAT credentials differentiated from those of private vocational institutions, both Ontario based ones and those based in the United States but with satellite premises in Ontario or having a purely electronic presence here. It seems probable that the conjunction of NAFTA, increased financial pressures, a more competitive market for postsecondary education in Ontario, and the introduction of new degrees for peer institutions in British Columbia and Alberta have worked together to stimulate the current interest in degree granting for the CAATs.

While this desire for a more internationally recognized credential for CAAT programs is understandable, it is not clear that the proposed degrees are necessary or consistent with the role which the CAATs perform in Ontario Education at the present time.

As to the associate degree, I have already noted Cohen and Brawer's observation that in the United States it has little value in the marketplace, and it is not needed for transfer to universities. Whether or not its recipients go on to a university, the associate degree draws its stature from the implication that it represents partial completion of a university degree and would be widely accepted for full credit toward a university degree. This implication is appropriate in jurisdictions like the United States and British Columbia, which have systemic articulation arrangements for degree completion between community colleges and universities. Although there has been a considerable increase in the number of bilateral transfer agreements between individual CAATs and universities in the past half dozen years, there are still no provincial infrastructure, policy, nor arrangements governing transfer and degree completion in Ontario which are remotely comparable to what exists in say, British Columbia or Alberta (Skolnik, 1995). In fact, the numbers of students who move from a university to a CAAT (“reverse transfer”) exceeds the number transferring from a CAAT to a university2.

Insofar as the introduction of an associate degree might be taken as an indication that system-wide recognition would be given by universities for work that students have done in the CAATs, introducing the associate degree in Ontario could be grossly misleading. At the present stage in articulation between the sectors in Ontario, introducing an associate degree would be like erecting a road sign to some destination before the road has been constructed. On the positive side, the sign might spur on the road builders, but on the negative side, it could cause serious problems for travellers. Were Ontario to follow the United States or British Columbia in developing comprehensive and effective articulation/transfer arrangements between sectors, topping off these arrangements with the associate degree could make a lot of sense. But the first priority should be on developing the articulation policy and mechanisms rather than introducing the degree.

Before leaving the issue of the associate degree, one additional argument needs to be addressed explicitly. This is the view that Ontario CAATs should award the associate degree because of the recognition of that credential by universities in other jurisdictions, particularly the United States. In this connection it is of interest that inventories of degree completion agreements which the CAATs presently have with universities reveal that a substantial number of these agreements are with American universities (Ontario Ministry of Education and Training, 1994). American universities tend to give much more generous credit for CAAT studies than do Ontario universities: for example, some American universities give a graduate of a three year program in a CAAT three years credit toward a four year degree. The fact that many universities in the United States already give full credit for work done in a CAAT leads one to wonder it the associate degree designation is necessary for the CAAT student who wishes to continue toward a degree in the United States - or helpful, insofar as a CAAT diploma might be considered better than an associate degree by some American universities. This argument also raises the question of the extent to which educational policy in Ontario should be influenced by the practices of American universities, but perhaps that decision has already been pre-empted by the decision to enter into NAFTA.

There is a precedent for applied degrees in Ontario, in programs that were offered by Ryerson Polytechnic Institute, now Ryerson Polytechnic University. In view of the fact that the province of Alberta has just authorized its public colleges to offer applied degree programs, it is noteworthy that Alberta has no institution comparable to Ryerson which was already offering applied degree programs. In deciding whether additional institutions in Ontario should be offering applied degree programs, it would be useful to first determine how great the need is for such programs and if it can be met by Ryerson. If, as some allege, Ryerson has vacated its original role of providing predominantly applied education, in its desire to become more like the other provincial universities, this might be an argument for having the CAATs move in to fill the vacancy. On the other hand, one might as easily conclude that the so-called applied degree niche is inherently unstable, and having them offer applied degrees would ultimately result in the CAATs following Ryerson also in trying to become universities.

There is another form of applied degree programs besides those of Ryerson which already exists in Ontario. These are concurrent programs in which students study both in a CAAT and in a university and earn both a diploma and a degree. Examples of such program areas are geographical information systems, museum management and curatorship, integrated resources management, rehabilitation services, and fine arts. These programs enable students to combine - and ideally, integrate - more theoretically and more applied orientated education focused in a specific career area. Launching concurrent programs is a real challenge to the bureaucratic structures in both sectors - for example, how does a student who is part-time in two different institutions, but yet is a full-time student, qualify for financial assistance or parking?3 These programs show postsecondary education at its best: diverse institutions cooperating to enable students to make the best use of the combined resources of the whole system. This is the direction for the further development of applied degree programs which was recommended by both Vision 2000 (Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities, 1990) and the subsequent Task Force on Advanced Training chaired by Walter Pitman (Ontario Ministry of Education and Training, 1993).

In spite of its alleged fuzziness, the concept of an applied degree is probably a sound and valuable one. That is, after all, why it has been pursued in so many jurisdictions. An alternative to asking whether the CAATs should award applied degrees is to ask how Ontario can best provide applied degree education. Any reasonable answer to that question should recognize the substantial contribution which the CAATs have to offer to applied degree education.

However, this does not necessarily mean that the CAATs themselves should be awarding applied degrees. To extend the authority to grant degrees to 25 additional institutions would be a major departure from past practice. It would mean giving the authority to decide what constitutes a degree to institutions for which degree programs would be but a small side line to their main business, rather than, as in the case of the universities, their predominant activity.

As noted earlier, the government's concern is not so much over which institution actually delivers degree programs, but over which institution defines the standards for a degree and oversees their attainment. In appreciation of this concern, a politically viable alternative to having each CAAT award degrees would be an approach that was recommended by both Vision 2000 and the Task Force on Advanced Training. This is to establish a provincial institute, called by the Task Force, the Ontario Institute for Advanced Training (OIAT), which would promote and coordinate the development of new degree programs that would combine the expertise of both CAATs and universities. The emphasis of the OIAT would be on “negotiation and partnership” with the expectation that the participating universities would award the degrees for these programs.

However, recognizing that this may not be a high priority area for development for most universities, both Vision 2000 and the Task Force recommended also that a provincial body like the OIAT be given the authority itself to grant degrees4. While these applied degrees would normally include content from both CAATs and universities, there may be cases where content from a CAAT alone would be deemed sufficient. At any rate, limiting the authority over these degrees to a single provincial body, rather than twenty-five additional authorities, would seem good protection against injudicious proliferation of degrees.

Besides facilitating the growth of applied collaborative programs, the establishment of the OIAT could be a significant step toward realization of a vision that in recent years has been the subject of much talk but little action: that of making the postsecondary education system of Ontario a seamless web of opportunities for lifelong learning in which learners are able to make the most effective use of the total educational resources of the province. Such an institute could also, as recommended by Vision 2000, provide leadership and coordination, in the advancement toward more effective arrangements for transfer and degree completion. It is time to get on with establishing the Ontario Institute for Advanced Training.

  1. A quite informative description of Ontario policy on degree granting, which presents the arguments on both sides and reaffirms the historical position outlined in this paper, is found in the 1990 advisory memorandum of the Ontario Council on University Affairs on the subject of freestanding degree granting institutions in Ontario (OCUA, 1990).
  2. According to data compiled by ACAATO (1993, p. 3.1.6), of full-time postsecondary students attending a CAAT in 1991, over 7000 had attended a university prior to the CAAT, over 2200 of whom had a degree. In the same year about 1500 new university registrants indicated that they had attended a CAAT. It would seem that more students are attending a CAAT after a university than the other way round, but most of the attention is on how to accommodate the latter group.
  3. I am indebted to Dr. Stephen Bell of York University for acquainting me with these problems, and how they can be solved.
  4. Just so the reader will appreciate my biases, I recommended the establishment of such an institution and described how it might work in the background paper that I wrote for Vision 2000 (Skolnik, 1989).

ACAATO. (1993, December). Environmental Scan. Toronto: Association of Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology of Ontario.

ACAATO. (1995). Degree Completion of Ontario's Colleges Workshops: Report. Toronto: Association of Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology of Ontario.

Cohen, A. M. and Brawer, F. B. (1994). The American Community College. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Dennison, J. D. (1995 January). The Associate Degree: Options for Ontario. A Paper prepared for the ACAATO Workshop, Hamilton, Ontario, March 30 and 31, 1995.

Grubb, W. N. (1991, March/April). “The Decline of Community College Transfer Rates: Evidence from National Longitudinal Surveys,” The Journal of Higher Education, 62(2), 194-222.

Marshall, D.G. (1995, May 10). Speech Notes: Trends in University - College Relationships in Ontario in the 90s. A paper presented to the Provincial Meeting of University and College Advisors.

Matterson, A. (1981) Polytechnic and Colleges. New York: Longman.

OCUA. (1990). A Policy Recommendation on Freestanding Secular Degree-Granting Institutions in Ontario. Advisory Memorandum 90-VI. Toronto: Ontario Council on University Affairs.

Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities. (1990). Vision 2000: Quality and Opportunity. Toronto: Ontario Council of Regents.

Ontario Ministry of Education and Training. (1993). No Dead Ends: Report of the Task Force on Advanced Training (Walter Pitman, Chair). Toronto.

Ontario Ministry of Education and Training. (1994). Ontario Transfer Guide. A Guide to Transfer Agreements Among Ontario's Colleges and Universities. Toronto: Queen's Printer.

Skolnik, M. L. (1987). “State Control of Degree Granting: the Establishment of a Public Monopoly in Canada,” in C. Watson (ed.). Governments and Higher Education: The Legitimacy of Intervention. Toronto: OISE Press, 56-83.

Skolnik, M. L. (1989). How Ontario's College System Might Respond to Pressures for the Provision of More Advanced Training. A report prepared for the Ontario Council of Regents Vision 2000 Review of the Role and Mandate of the CAATs. Toronto: Ontario Council of Regents for the Colleges of Applied Arts and Technologies.

Skolnik, M. L. (1995, September-October). “The Evolution of Relations between Community Colleges and Universities in Ontario”, The Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 19(5), 437-452.

Michael L. Skolnik teaches in the Higher Education Group at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto.