This paper identifies and examines major issues and implications of the proposal to substantially increase the number of applied baccalaureate degrees offered by Ontario’s Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology, including increasing four-year applied degree offerings and introducing three-year applied degrees. Currently, provincial legislation limits the number of degree programs colleges may offer, along with the degree type and length. I argue that although substantially increasing degree offerings would meet important economic, labour market, and access needs, there are a number of issues and implications related to quality and recognition, differentiation and mandate, and access and demand that need to be explored and addressed in greater detail. These issues and implications will be identified and examined in light of the legislated function of colleges within Ontario’s postsecondary system, recent college and student participation in these degree programs, and the demand for applied baccalaureate degrees in Ontario.
Colleges Ontario, the advocacy organization for Ontario’s 24 Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology (CAATs), argues that there is a need to expand undergraduate education at Ontario’s public colleges. Their recent report Reaching New Heights: Differentiation and Transformation in Higher Education (2013b), argues that the provincial government should support colleges by substantially expanding the role they have in granting applied baccalaureate degrees.
What role colleges should have in providing undergraduate education in Ontario has been a subject of debate. Major proposals and efforts have included the development of transfer agreements and institutional pathways between Ontario’s colleges and universities (Colleges Ontario, 2013b, pp. 10-11; Hicks, Weingarten, Jonker, & Liu, 2013, p. 17; Trick, 2013; Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities [MTCU], 2014), designating select Ontario colleges to be undergraduate-focused institutions (Jones & Skolnik, 2009, pp. 29-31; Brown, 2012; Atkinson, 2013, para. 3), and offering different degree types and lengths, including three-year baccalaureate degrees (Colleges Ontario, 2013b, pp. 6-8; Paths to Prosperity: Higher Learning for Better Jobs, 2013, pp. 8-11; Skolnik, 2012b), associate degrees (Skolnik, 2012b), honours degrees (Colleges Ontario, 2012a, pp. 9-10), and vocationally-oriented bachelor of arts, bachelor of science, and bachelor of business administration programs (Jones & Skolnik, 2009, p. 29). The purpose of this paper is to identify and critically examine major issues and implications of substantially increasing applied baccalaureate degrees in Ontario’s colleges, including increasing four-year applied degrees and introducing three-year applied degrees. The focus will be on issues and implications related to quality and recognition, differentiation and mandate, and access and demand. The proposal to introduce three-year applied degrees is included in this discussion because if approved this development has the potential to convert up to approximately 629 three-year college diplomas into three-year degrees (Skolnik, 2012b; Mitchell, Feltham, & Trotter, 2013; Colleges Ontario, 2012a, pp. 8-9).
I will begin by situating this discussion in the history and role of college degrees within Ontario’s postsecondary system, the forces that led to the authorization of college degrees in 2000, and recent college and student participation in these programs. Following this, issues and implications surrounding substantially increasing degrees as they relate to quality and recognition, differentiation and mandate, and access and demand will be identified and examined. I will argue that although substantially increasing degree offerings would meet important economic, labour market, and access needs, there are a number of issues and implications that need to be explored and addressed in greater detail.
The initial mandate of the 24 CAATs was to provide vocationally-oriented non-degree programs. 22 CAATs were established between 1965 and1967 and the other two, La Cité collégiale and Collège Boréal, were created in 1990 and 1995, respectively. Their emergence often evolved through the integration of independent specialized vocational institutes (Jones & Skolnik, 2009, p. 7).
The initial legislated function of CAATs to provide vocationally-oriented non-degree programs differentiated college programs from the academically-focused degree programs of Ontario’s universities. This initially resulted in no college and university transfer function. While some partnerships between Ontario’s colleges and universities would later form, their different functions and history resulted in different programs and relatively few university transfer agreements and collaboration efforts. Even today, “there continue[s] to be quite serious concerns that systemic issues are preventing students from moving freely between the sectors” (Jones, 2009, p. 380).
In 2000 a significant system-wide development was made when the MTCU authorized Ontario’s colleges to offer applied baccalaureate degrees under the Postsecondary Education Choice and Excellence Act, 2000 (PECEA). This Act, along with the Ontario Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology Act, 2002 (OCAATA) stipulates the main requirements college degrees must meet to receive approval from the MTCU.
First, the degree must be in an applied area of study (Postsecondary Education Choice and Excellence Act [PECEA], 2000, 4. (5) (a)). The Postsecondary Education Quality Assessment Board (PEQAB), the arms-length advisory agency responsible for assessing the quality of degree program proposals from Ontario’s colleges, evaluates whether the proposed degree program meets degree level expectations and is applied in nature. The degree is considered applied if it culminates in the “mastery of the knowledge and skills necessary to be an effective practitioner upon graduation and to remain professionally current thereafter” (Postsecondary Education Quality Assessment Board [PEQAB], 2010, p. 11). This requirement aligns with the legislated function of colleges, as expressed in the OCAATA.It states that colleges must offer “career-oriented, post-secondary education and training to assist individuals in finding and keeping employment, to meet the needs of employers and the changing work environment and to support the economic and social development of their local and diverse communities” (Ontario Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology Act, 2002 [OCAATA], 2. (2)). Since college degrees must be in applied areas of study, colleges were at first required to include the word “applied” in the name of their degree. However, this requirement changed in 2009. Although it is no longer required, of the 69 approved college degrees listed on the MTCU website, 48 (70%) include “applied” in the degree name (MTCU, “Degree Programs Offered under Ministerial Consent”, n.d.).
Second, while applied college degrees are different from the academic degrees offered by Ontario’s universities, this does not preclude the learning of theoretical knowledge and analytical skills. College degrees are required to prepare students with the theoretical and analytical skills required of practitioners. PEQAB states that “a degree in applied area of study is normally designed to require a level of conceptual sophistication, specialized knowledge and intellectual autonomy similar to that in an honours or specialist degree program but with the disciplinary content oriented to an occupational field of practice” (PEQAB, 2010, p. 17). Colleges must demonstrate that a degree is necessary for providing the knowledge, training, and qualifications required for career-preparation. A degree must not only meet employment and economic needs (OCAATA, 2. (2)), it must also be demonstrated that a degree, rather than an existing or a new college diploma, is necessary to provide the required training and education (MTCU, 2000, pp. 4, 7). An applied degree cannot interfere with the college’s mandate of providing diploma and certificate programs that are one to three years in duration (MTCU, 2000, p. 7). Moreover, they must not duplicate the academic degrees offered at Ontario’s universities (MTCU, 2000, p. 4).
Third, colleges must demonstrate that the proposed program meets degree level standards (PECEA, 5. (2); 7.). After the college submits an application to the MTCU, the Ministry refers the application to PEQAB. A Quality Assessment Panel, which consists of professional and academic experts who are often senior professors from Ontario’s universities (Skolnik, 2012a, p. 4), conducts a quality assessment of the proposed program to determine if it meets degree level standards. In addition to examining the quality of the curriculum, PEQAB assesses the ability of the college to provide the program in light of its human, financial, and physical resources (PEQAB, 2010, p. 27). The assessment includes a site visit by a panel of three experts selected by the PEQAB. On the basis of their assessment and recommendation, as well as other factors including the protection of the students’ financial interests and public interest (MTCU, 2000, p. 3), the MTCU decides whether to approve the program. If colleges want to continue offering a degree program after five to seven years, an application for renewal must be submitted to PEQAB (PEQAB, 2010, p. 27).
The first college degree programs were approved in 2002, when nine colleges were authorized to offer 12 applied baccalaureate degrees. These programs focused primarily on information technology, financial services, and e-business management. There were also programs in automotive management, manufacturing technologies, animation, paralegal studies, and environmental site remediation (MTCU, 2002). A total of 35 degree programs were approved in 2002.
In 2003, the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) designated Humber, Sheridan, and Conestoga as Institutes of Technology and Advanced Learning (ITALs, as well as Seneca and George Brown though the latter two chose not to adopt the ITAL name. These five ITALs are authorized to offer up to 15% of their programming at level of a baccalaureate degree in applied studies. This also meant that they were to have “greater involvement in applied research and more emphasis on industry support for new programs” (Skolnik, 2005a, p. 62).
There were two major forces that led the MTCU to allow colleges to grant degrees. First, there were economic and labour market forces. It was observed that though the employment qualification requirements in the industries served by colleges were increasing due to the new knowledge-based economy, colleges were “not allowed to grant degrees even in areas where a degree instead of a diploma would be of real benefit to graduates” (MTCU, 2000, p. 1). This was considered a problem because “some professions are increasing their entry-to-practice qualifications and requiring a degree-level education for new entrants” (MTCU, 2000, p. 1). Thus, a disconnect emerged between employment needs in the industries served by colleges and the provision of education provided by Ontario’s postsecondary system in general and Ontario’s college system in particular. It was also observed that “Ontario relies solely on publicly funded universities to provide all but a tiny number of degree opportunities” (MTCU, 2000, p. 1). The MTCU concluded that “colleges are well-positioned to provide the requisite combination of advanced training and education to meet this demand [for a more highly skilled and knowledgeable workforce]” and that “this type of advanced career training and education would go beyond what is normally provided in a college diploma program and should be appropriately recognized through the applied degree credential” (MTCU, 2000, p. 6). It was determined that colleges could provide the required training in the occupationally-focused disciplines underserved by the diploma program and not served by Ontario’s universities. The move to allow colleges to grant degrees would not only enable degrees in broader fields of study, it would further build a postsecondary system that would meet the demands of a rapidly changing economy and a highly skilled job market.
Second, there was the need for increased access to postsecondary education in Ontario. The MTCU stated that a new approach was necessary because “more Ontarians than ever before are seeking access to a wider range of degree programs. Changing expectations from employers and increasing demand from students for more choices requires the government to expand access to degree programs” (MTCU, 2000, p. 2). Skolnik (2012a) notes that expanding the role of colleges was considered necessary to support “a higher proportion of older, lower income, minority, and recent immigrant students, and students who have not performed up to their potential in previous studies” (p. 2). Authorizing colleges to offer degrees also supported access by increasing degree study locations.
These two forces led the MTCU to allow Ontario’s colleges to grant degrees. Authorizing colleges to grant degrees was approved with the ultimate purpose of “creating opportunities and expanding choice, assuring quality, and protecting students from the risk of financial loss” (MTCU, 2000, p. 1).
In 2012-2013 approximately 74 degree programs were offered by 12 Ontario colleges (PEQAB, 2013, p. 5). That same year 21 colleges submitted 48 degree applications, 22 of which were for new degrees (PEQAB, 2013, p. 6). Currently, Ontario government policy limits the number of degrees that a college may offer. The legislated percentage of approved programs that the ITALs (Humber, Sheridan, and Conestoga along with George Brown and Seneca) may offer at the degree level is 15%. All other colleges are limited to 5% (Hicks et al., 2013, p. 13).
System-wide growth in college degree enrollment and degree graduation has been relatively minimal. In 2010-2011, of the 72,066 college graduates, 921 students graduated with a non-collaborative1 degree. Thus, approximately 1.2% of college graduates earned a degree. Table 1 shows that growth in the percentage of college degree graduates has remained relatively minimal. In terms of degree enrolments in 2010-2011, 6,213 of the 187,430 FT FTE (funding eligible) college students were enrolled in a non-collaborative degree program. Thus, approximately 3.3% were enrolled in a degree program. Table 2 shows that like college degree graduates, college degree enrolments have remained relatively minimal.
Adapted from “College Graduates by Credential,” Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, n.d., Retrieved January 28, 2014, from http://www.heqco.ca/en-CA/Research/quickstats/Pages/qs_4_1.aspx
in a Degree
Adapted from “Enrolment in Ontario Colleges by Credential,” Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, n.d., Retrieved January 28, 2014, from http://www.heqco.ca/en-CA/Research/quickstats/Pages/qs_2_7.aspx
At the institutional level, the distribution and growth of college degree students varies considerably among the 12 colleges currently offering degrees. In 2011, the percentage of college students enrolled at the degree level ranged from approximately 12% at Sheridan to 1% at Centennial (Hicks et al., 2013, p. 9). Table 3 shows degree enrolment participation and enrollment growth for the top five colleges in 2011. It indicates that approximately 84% of college degree students were attending these five colleges (Hicks et al., 2013, p. 14). In 2013, these five colleges offered 85% of college degree programs (Colleges Ontario, 2013b, p. 3).
|Growth in Degree Enrolment
|Illustrative Estimate of Degree Enrolment
|Number of Degrees Offered (as of June 21, 2013)|
Adapted from Hicks et al., 2013, pp. 13-14.
Similarly, system-wide growth in degree program offerings has remained relatively minimal. In 2002, the first year that the colleges began offering degrees, 35 programs were approved. By 2012 the net increase in college degree programs was 36 (Skolnik, 2012a, p. 21). On a system-wide level 99% of programs offered by colleges remain at the certificates and diploma level (Hicks et al., 2013, p. 24). Given levels of growth in degree offerings and participation, Colleges Ontario’s goal to provide places for tens of thousands of students in baccalaureate programs over the coming decade and beyond would require a substantial development at both the system-wide and institutional levels (Colleges Ontario, 2009b, p. 1).
The request for provincial support to substantially increase four-year college degree programs in general, and to introduce three-year college degrees in particular, has received mix reaction. Those supporting an increase in college degrees include Colleges Ontario (2013b), the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario (2013), and Skolnik (2012a). Opposition to substantially increasing college degrees has not been made in a formal or direct way as it has been by those arguing for increased offerings. While there have been scholarly articles that argue Ontario’s colleges should substantially offer more degrees, I have not been able to find scholarly articles that argue that Ontario’s colleges should not substantially offer more degrees. In addressing the question of whether colleges should substantially increase degree offerings, the implications and issues related to quality and recognition, differentiation and mandate, and access and demand will be examined and critiqued.
While colleges were authorized to offer applied baccalaureate degrees in the year 2000, colleges must follow the legislated degree approval process for each degree program that they want to offer. This process includes demonstrating that the program will meet degree quality standards. PEQAB assesses the proposed degree and makes a recommendation to the MTCU. A substantial increase in college degree programs, whether new four-year applied degrees or the conversion of three-year college diplomas into three-year degrees, would require the development of a process to accommodate the evaluation for the increased volume of programs (Skolnik, 2012b, pp. 25-26; Hicks et al., 2013, pp. 18-19).
An important factor to consider when discussing quality is how the general public, students, employers, and Ontario’s universities perceive the quality of college degrees. If college degrees are not also perceived as meeting degree quality standards by these groups it will be necessary to address these issues before a substantial system-wide change is planned and implemented. Increasing college degree offerings will require more student participation, and widespread student choice to pursue a college degree could be negatively impacted if there is not also widespread recognition of these degrees.
In a 2012 survey of Ontario university students, 80% said that they consider college degrees less valuable than university degrees (Higher Education Strategy Associates [HESA], 2012, pp. 23-24). The main reason for this judgement was the belief that there are more long-term career options with a university degree than with a college degree. The three other main factors that led to the conclusion that college degrees are less valuable than university degrees were “the quality of instructors, institutional prestige, and (harder) acceptance into graduate programs” (HESA, 2012, p. 25). The perception that college degrees are generally not as valuable as university degrees was also reflected in 2012 in the Gazette, the student newspaper at the University of Western Ontario, with its statement that “college ‘degrees’ are less valuable than university degrees” (Editorial Board, 2012). As a result of this perception some prospective students are discouraged by their parents from going to college because it is considered to be “a lesser choice” (“Colleges Rise Up,” 2012). A 2010 survey found university undergraduate degrees are often valued higher than a college degree even among college degree students and graduates. 45% of college degree students and graduates surveyed said that a college degree was not their first choice (R.A. Malatest, 2010, p. vi).
While there have been many statements that express the opinion that college degrees are less valuable than university degrees in Ontario, I have not been able to find a comprehensive quantitative or qualitative study on perceptions of college degrees in Ontario. This needs further exploration in the consideration of expanding college degrees.
One factor that has led to the perception that college degrees are less valuable than university degrees is a lack of understanding of the nature and function of college degrees. Marshall has observed that the “expansion of degree types and degree-granting institutions continues to generate confusion (particularly among parents and students) about the meaning and value of new undergraduate degrees delivered by non-university institutions (Skolnik 2006)” (Marshall, 2008, p. 2). Similarly, R.A. Malatest & Associates Ltd. found that while Ontario college degrees are meeting employer and labour market needs, there is the need for the MTCU, colleges, and Colleges Ontario to address “erroneous perceptions of the value of the degrees or the quality of college degree programming” and “to provide evidence on the value and quality of college degree programs” (R.A. Malatest, 2010, p. vi).
Colleges Ontario argues that there is a credential gap in the labour market and that this gap demonstrates that there is a need for more college degrees (Colleges Ontario, 2012a, pp. 8-9), including the introduction of three-year degrees (Colleges Ontario, 2013b, p. 7). It is maintained that increasing four-year degree offerings and introducing three-year degrees would increase recognition of college programs by enabling colleges to provide the required training to be employable in the vocationally-focused disciplines underserved by the diploma and not served by the university. This development is considered essential for building a postsecondary system that gives students the opportunities they need to succeed in a highly skilled job market.
Moreover, it is argued that offering more degrees would better enable college students to achieve their career goals because an increasing number of professions served by Ontario’s colleges are now requiring a degree as an entry-level requirement (Colleges Ontario, 2012a, p. 8). Thus, more college degrees would provide a solution “to the skills mismatch that is crippling the economy,” a mismatch that comes with a loss of as much as $24.3 billion a year in economic activity in Ontario and $3.7 billion annually in lost tax revenues (Colleges Ontario, 2013a, para. 5-6).
The argument that increasing college degree offerings is essential for the sustained recognition of college credentials by employers should also involve an examination of current perceptions of college degrees by employers. This need is highlighted in a recent study by Doyle (2013) of employer perceptions of college degrees in Ontario. Doyle concludes that:
there is still much to be learned about employer perceptions and expectations as these relate to [college] baccalaureate programs and their graduates, ranging from the specific skills expected of graduates, to a general lack of understanding about college degree programs and expectations as they pertain to program work opportunities. (pp. 22-32)
If degree offerings are substantially increased in colleges, it will be crucial to increase awareness among employers and the relevant industries of the nature, scope, and purpose of college degrees. Unless college degrees are understood by employers the desired recognition may not result. Greater understanding of college degrees is required before greater recognition could occur. Employer acceptance of college degrees could impact student views on the quality of a college degree, as well as the decision to pursue a college degree.
The perceptions that Ontario’s universities have of the quality of college degrees and their acceptance or non-acceptance of Ontario’s college degrees for admission into university graduate programs could impact student and public perceptions of quality. Initially, some of Ontario’s universities were opposed to Ontario’s colleges offering degrees. Skolnik (2005b) observes that “Ontario’s university leaders have tried to thwart the academic enhancement of the colleges” because they “have regarded the offering of applied baccalaureate programs by the colleges as an encroachment into what should be the exclusive territory of the universities” (p. 10). Initial university opposition is also highlighted by Rea (2005, p. 15). One example of early opposition is expressed in a 2004 letter to Rea from Clark, who was at the time the president of the Council of Ontario Universities (COU). Clark argued that the desire of colleges to offer degrees was driven by a motivation to become like universities in order to gain “money and status.” By offering degrees, Clark maintained that colleges were moving away from their mandate (Urquhart, 2004, p. 4). I have not been able to find recent statements from the COU that indicate whether they still hold this position or not. However, the question of the relationship between degrees and the college mandate was recently expressed by the president of the COU when asked whether colleges should offer three-year degree programs. Patterson asked, “Does it take away from their mandate, which often boils down to open access in terms of the qualifications of students coming into the degree program” (Lawrence, 2012)? While not commenting on four-year college degrees, the question of the relationship between degrees and the college mandate is raised.
The graduate admission practices of Ontario’s universities may reflect the perceptions universities have of the quality of Ontario’s college degrees. R.A. Malatest & Associates Ltd. found that college graduates faced barriers when applying to graduate programs because of existing perceptions among Ontario’s universities of the quality of college degrees. Most universities that participated in the survey shared the concern that “there was evidence that their college transfer students have difficulties adapting to university” (R.A. Malatest, 2010, p. 61).
Unfortunately, no evidence is provided. The study also found that there continues to be a general lack of understanding of Ontario’s college degrees by universities and that “the relative newness of the degrees means that they may not be perceived to have the same value as university degrees.” This is of particular concern because “one-fifth of the students enrolled at the time of the survey indicated that they intended to pursue a university program, the majority (85%) of whom indicated that they planned to enroll in a Master’s program at a university” (R.A. Malatest, 2010, pp. v-vi).
Widespread practices of Ontario’s universities that could impact student and public perceptions of the quality of college degrees include not accepting college degrees for meeting the undergraduate degree admission requirements for a related graduate program, considering college degrees on a case-by-case basis, or having additional requirements for those entering with college degrees that do not apply to those with a university degree. A university may not accept a college degree for admission purposes—not because it thinks the program lacks quality—but because colleges do not offer a program related to the graduate program. However, negative perceptions of quality could result when college degrees are not considered equivalent to university degrees when graduate programs require a four-year undergraduate degree in any field or when an applicant has a college degree in a field that is directly related to the graduate program.
One example where the undergraduate degree admission requirement for a graduate program is generally not required to be in a specific field and for which a college has a related four-year baccalaureate degree is the Master of Business Administration (MBA) program. Many Ontario universities state that an undergraduate degree from a recognized university is required to enter their MBA programs, including the University of Toronto (Rotman School of Management, n.d.), York University (Schulich School of Business, n.d.), and Ryerson University (Ted Rogers School of Management, n.d.). The message to those preparing for entry into an MBA program is they must go to a university to obtain an undergraduate degree. This stated requirement could convey the idea that an Ontario college degree is considered by universities to be of lesser quality than an Ontario university degree.
Whether these university admission practices for those with a college degree reflect the initial opposition some Ontario universities had to the introduction of college degrees, or concern over whether college degrees adequately prepare students for graduate programs is not clear. Marshall (2008) notes that the increase in degrees offered by non-university institutions in Ontario and across Canada has created uncertainties among universities, including whether college degrees have the depth and breadth of study required to be successful in a graduate program (p. 6).
The automatic rejection, case-by-case consideration, or additional requirements for Ontario college degree graduates applying for graduate programs could not only impact perceptions of the quality of college degrees, but raises the question of whether it is first necessary to address these issues before substantially increasing college degree offerings. Current university graduate admission requirements may indicate that there is a disparity between what is espoused by the senior university professors from Ontario’s universities who evaluate the quality of college degree proposals for PEQAB and what is practiced in the general admission decisions of universities. It will be necessary for PEQAB to further clarify not only what is meant by “degree level,” but if and how the college degree level classification differs from “university level” degrees and whether an applied college degree can also be at the “university level.” This is necessary to determine in order to both create accurate expectations among prospective and current college degree students and to ensure that college degrees that do meet university admission requirements receive the recognition they merit.
On the national level, university acceptance of Ontario college degrees is facing similar issues. These issues were discussed in Toronto at a conference in 2006 organized by the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Higher Education Research and Development and the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education. It was noted that some students were not being admitted into university graduate programs because the colleges are not members (and currently cannot be members) of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) (Tamburri, 2006, para. 4-5). For this reason, Marshall calls for “a national framework that will help students, employers, and parents understand the meaning, value, and purpose of all degrees offered in Canada” (Marshall, 2008, p. 17).
If college degrees are not generally perceived as meeting degree quality standards by the general public, students, universities, and employers it is necessary to address these issues before a substantial system-wide change is implemented. Moreover, if the Ontario government supports colleges in substantially increasing degree offerings, it will be important for the provincial government to also protect the investment of students by ensuring that college degrees that do meet graduate admission requirements are recognized. Whether this is accomplished through provincial legislation or by college and university associations working together on their own to foster transparency and cooperation on a system-wide level, it is important for this issue to be addressed before any substantial increase in college degrees is planned and implemented. Marshall notes that “baccalaureate degrees are increasingly viewed as way stations on the path to further study and any baccalaureate credential that limits this educational mobility will either be ignored by the consumer, or ultimately seen as somehow fraudulent” (Marshall, 2008, p. 16). The current lack of pathways between college degree programs and university graduate programs that are related has been identified as a major gap in Ontario’s postsecondary education system (Jones & Skolnik, 2009, p. 1). It cannot be assumed that this gap will close on its own just because colleges begin to offer more degree programs.
Dialogue between Ontario’s colleges and universities would enhance the postsecondary system of Ontario, protect the interest of students, and support access to graduate education. Dialogue could enable colleges, as well as prospective and current college degree students, to understand the graduate degree admission expectations of Ontario’s universities. Moreover, dialogue would promote a better understanding of college degrees by universities, and a better understanding by the colleges of the related concerns and issues of the universities.
An issue that arises with the proposal to substantially increase college degree offerings in general, and introducing three-year college degrees in particular, concerns whether this proposal fits within, or moves away from, the legislated mandate of Ontario’s colleges. When colleges were authorized to grant degrees it was stipulated that the degrees could not interfere with the colleges mandate of offering diploma and certificate programs that are one to three years’ in duration (MTCU, 2000, p. 7). However, with the introduction of college degrees it could appear that some colleges are ultimately interested in becoming universities or like universities, or that increasing degree offerings may inevitably result in this transformation for some colleges. This concern was raised by some university leaders because they thought that colleges offering degrees would eventually blur the line between the function of colleges and universities in Ontario (Skolnik, 2005b, pp. 10-11; Rea, 2005, p. 15; Urquhart, 2004, p. 4). This transformation occurred when some colleges in British Columbia and Alberta, which have a longer history of granting undergraduate degrees than Ontario, became like universities as they increased their degree program offerings. If some of Ontario’s colleges become universities or like universities, and one (Sheridan) has already requested to become a university (Brown, 2012; Atkinson, 2013, para. 3), it could be argued that this will hinder differentiation by creating program duplication between Ontario’s colleges and universities. It could be argued that this would lead to an inefficient postsecondary system that is both costly and undifferentiated.
This type of argument was made in the Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services (Drummond Report). It argues that with the approval of college degree programs colleges have moved away from their legislated mandate. It is maintained that this has resulted in “blurring the original rationale for the college system as discrete from universities” (Drummond, 2012, p. 246). The report recommends that no new college degree programs be approved, and that existing degree programs be grandfathered (Drummond, 2012, p. 247). This is considered a major step towards postsecondary efficiency and differentiation in Ontario.
However, while colleges and universities both offer baccalaureate degree programs, they offer different types of baccalaureate degrees. Unlike universities, colleges offer vocationally-oriented applied degrees. Therefore, there is little overlap between college and university degrees. Moreover, the degrees that colleges offer fit within their legislated mandate of providing applied vocationally-oriented education, as opposed to the academic degrees of Ontario’s universities. One reason the MTCU authorized colleges to grant degrees was related to the changing qualification and workforce requirements in the many industries served by colleges. The move to authorize colleges to grant degrees came with the stipulation that their degrees could not duplicate the academic degrees offered by Ontario’s universities (MTCU, 2000, p. 4). One purpose of allowing colleges to grant degrees was not to eventually transform colleges into universities, but because “some professions are increasing their entry-to-practice qualifications and requiring a degree-level education for new entrants” (MTCU, 2000, p. 1). Thus, it must be demonstrated that a degree level education, rather than an existing or new college diploma, is necessary to provide the required training and education (MTCU, 2000, pp. 4, 7). In today’s context, increasing college degree offerings is considered necessary to produce a more productive and qualified workforce in light of labour market developments (Skolnik, 2012a, pp. 17-18).
Skolnik (2012a) maintains that substantially increasing degree programs in Ontario’s colleges would meet two other important differentiation-related needs. First, providing more degree options in vocationally-related areas needed in the workforce would add a “significant element of choice to the postsecondary system” (p. 17). Second, increasing college degree programs would allow colleges to develop and realize their potential. The track record of colleges in offering degree programs has been strong and colleges have shown that they are capable of delivering high quality programs. Supporting them in substantially increasing their degree programs would allow them to develop and realize their potential in serving the vocations that they have been effectively serving for many years and to further address emerging areas of need (Skolnik, 2012a, p. 19). Skolnik maintains that “utilizing the expertise of the college to offer baccalaureate programs in these fields is a logical and natural extension of its previous work at the diploma level, and thus is fully consistent with the historic mission of the colleges” (Skolnik, 2012a, p. 20).
The Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario proposed in a 2013 Caucus White Paper that Ontario college degree programs should be differentiated by their length. Unlike Colleges Ontario, which argues that there is a need to substantially increase four-year college degree offerings and introduce three-year degrees (Colleges Ontario, 2013b, pp. 6-8), the Ontario PC Party argued that four-year college degree programs should be limited and that colleges should primarily deliver three-year degree programs. The report stated that “while we maintain that colleges should stick to their mandate of delivering applied learning and continue to offer the quality diplomas, we should also encourage them to offer three-year degrees in the areas where demand for those skills exist” (Paths to Prosperity,2013, p. 10). This development is considered necessary for promoting differentiation because it will “allow colleges to cater to a student market looking for strong credentials without creeping into the degree market best served by universities” (p. 11). In the process of increasing college degree programs in the form of three-year degree programs, colleges would be required to “limit the proliferation of four-year degrees” (p. 11). However, eliminating or substantially limiting four-year degrees in colleges could prevent progress in developing relationships between related college degrees and university graduate programs. Moreover, in some disciplines a three-year degree may not adequately prepare students with the necessary knowledge and skills to be successful in the workforce.
Lastly, given the high start-up and maintenance costs of programs, careful analysis must be done to determine if a particular area of study will be best served with a degree program, that there will be a sustained labour-market demand for the degree, and that there will not be over-duplication of degrees among Ontario’s colleges. It will be necessary to prevent inefficiencies by exploring “whether to focus degree granting in selected colleges and perhaps differentiate them formally within the system, or whether to introduce degree granting universally as a layer of significant activity at all colleges” (Hicks et al., 2013, pp. 19-20). Moreover, unless adequate resources are received for the development of new degrees, it is possible that diploma programs might suffer and decline “as resources [are] shifted to develop and shore up the ABD [Applied Baccalaureate Degree] programs” (Laden, 2005, p. 163).
It has been observed that the number of college degrees offered, as well as college degree enrolments and graduates, has been relatively minimal. At the system-wide level, in 2010-2011 approximately 3.3% of college students were enrolled in degree programs and 1.2% graduated with a degree. In 2011 approximately 84% of college degree students were attending one of the five ITALs, Humber, Sheridan, Seneca, Conestoga, and George Brown (Hicks et al., 2013, p. 14). At the institutional level the percentage of college students enrolled at the degree level in 2011 ranged from approximately 1% at Centennial to 12% at Sheridan to 1% at Centennial (Hicks et al., 2013, p. 9).
Colleges Ontario argues that colleges should receive support from the provincial government to substantially increase the number of career-focused baccalaureate degree programs they offer in order to meet economic and labour-market demands (Colleges Ontario, 2013b, pp. 6-8). They observe that the Conference Board of Canada estimates that “Ontario will face a shortage of more than 360,000 skilled employees by 2025, and a shortage of more than 560,000 employees by 2030” (Colleges Ontario, 2009a, p. 12). It is maintained that labour market demands and requirements in the new knowledge-based economy have increased the need for greater access to career-oriented postsecondary education in general, and applied college degrees in particular. They argue that with provincial support the number of first-year of four-year degree places could reach more than 7,000 by fall 2018, in comparison to the 3,500 first-year places in 2013 (Colleges Ontario, 2013b, pp. 7-8). Moreover, they argue that with provincial support, over the coming decade and beyond, Ontario’s colleges could provide places for tens of thousands of students in baccalaureate programs (Colleges Ontario, 2009b p. 1).
When arguing for substantially increasing college degree offerings, Colleges Ontario focuses on the economic and labour market demands and requirements in the career-related fields traditionally served by colleges. However, an important question that needs to be explored in more detail is whether an increase in college degrees will be met with an increase in student enrolment, widespread recognition by employers, and acceptance by university graduate schools for applicable graduate programs. As noted, perceptions of the value of college degrees by these stakeholders could impact whether prospective students will choose to pursue a college degree. If college degree offerings are substantially increased it will be necessary to determine whether the required number of students will enrol in these programs. In the past several college degree programs that were approved were not able to start immediately as planned because of a lack of interest or demand (Skolnik, 2009, p. 140; Laden, 2005, p. 167).
Given the growing demand in Ontario for baccalaureate degrees, substantially increasing degree offerings in Ontario’s colleges also has important implications for expanding access. The MTCU anticipates that 53,000 to 86,000 more degree spaces will be required by 2021 (Colleges Ontario, 2009a, p. 4). The general demand for baccalaureate degrees was seen in 2012 with the 2.4% increase in secondary student applications over the previous year and the 2.3% increase in non-high school applicants to Ontario’s universities. This reflects a 56.3% increase from secondary school applicants since 2000 (Council of Ontario Universities, 2013). The Greater Toronto Area (GTA) is also experiencing considerable pressure to meet the general demand for baccalaureate degrees and remains underserviced in terms of degree spots to student population (Hicks et al., 2013, p. 16). In response to the growing demand for baccalaureate degrees, the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario proposes a “College First” approach, an approach that attempts to not only prepare for “the hundreds of thousands of jobs in the skilled trades and applied learning at risk of going unfilled” but to also “help alleviate pressure on our universities” (Paths to Prosperity,2013, p. iii).
Colleges Ontario maintains that Ontario’s universities will not be able to meet the demand for degree programs, specifically in the career-related disciplines not served by universities, but traditionally served by colleges (Colleges Ontario, 2009a, p. 4). Colleges Ontario argues that colleges could provide space for tens of thousands of students in career-oriented programs in the coming decade and beyond (Colleges Ontario, 2009b, p. 1). Colleges are considered necessary for meeting the growing degree requirements of the many industries not served by Ontario’s universities. For this reason, Bramwell (2009) argues that “it is possible that colleges may make an even greater contribution than universities in some creative class occupations because they produce highly educated graduates with four-year bachelor’s degrees who have both theoretical and applied knowledge of new, industry-specific technologies” (p. 17).
In addition to meeting the growing degree requirements of the many industries not served by universities, it is argued that substantially increasing college degrees could expand access by further supporting and attracting underrepresented groups. It may “help to make access to the baccalaureate more equitable” (Jones & Skolnik, 2009, p. 30). Allowing colleges to substantially increase degree offerings could also increase access by expanding geographic accessibility to degrees in underserviced regions (Jones, 2009, p. 375).
However, increasing degree offerings in colleges may have the effect of decreasing access to the underrepresented groups that the colleges were also intended to serve. For example, the proposal to introduce three-year degrees is often connected to the proposal to convert three-year diploma programs into three-year degree programs (Skolnik, 2012b; Colleges Ontario, 2012a, pp. 8-9; Mitchell, Feltham, & Trotter, 2013; Hicks et al., 2013, p. 18). If some or most three-year diplomas are converted into three-year degrees, many students who previously met the admission requirements of the diploma would not meet the admission requirements of the degree, since the baccalaureate degree admission requirement, whether at an Ontario college or university, is a minimum overall average of 70% in six Grade 12 U/M courses for Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD) holders. The question that colleges and the MTCU must explore is not only how many degree spaces will be made available, but what could be done to ensure that substantially increasing degree offerings does not have the effect of decreasing access to the underrepresented groups that the colleges are intended to serve.
If colleges substantially increase degree offerings or convert their three-year diplomas into three-year degrees, it will be necessary to analyze the effect this development could have on those who do not meet the minimum degree admission requirements, are not prepared for degree level work, or who are attracted to diploma programs.
This paper examined issues and implications related to substantially increasing applied baccalaureate degrees offered by Ontario’s public colleges. I began by situating this discussion in the history and role of college degrees within Ontario’s postsecondary system, the forces that led to the authorization of college degrees in 2000, and recent college and student participation in these programs. I focused on implications and issues related to quality and recognition, differentiation and mandate, and access and demand.
In the area of quality and recognition it was noted that while all college degrees are deemed by PEQAB to meet degree level standards, an important factor related to quality that needs to be addressed is how the general public, students, Ontario’s universities, and employers perceive the quality of college degrees. This is important because widespread student choice to pursue a college degree could be negatively impacted if there is also not widespread recognition of college degrees. I argued that there is a need to increase awareness of the nature, scope, and purpose of college degrees and that the general lack of acceptance of Ontario’s college degrees by Ontario’s universities could negatively impact perceptions of quality. Dialogue could enable colleges, as well as prospective and current college degree students, to understand better the graduate degree admission expectations of Ontario’s universities. It could also promote a better understanding of college degrees by universities. However, I noted that legislation may be required to protect the interest of students and to support access to graduate education. In addition, I argued that the general non-acceptance of college degrees by universities even when colleges offer related baccalaureate programs reveals that there may be a disparity between what is espoused by the senior university professors from Ontario’s universities who evaluate college degree program proposals for PEQAB and what is practiced in the general admission decisions of universities. Thus, it will be necessary for PEQAB to further clarify not only what is meant by “degree level,” but if and how the college degree level classification differs from “university level” degrees and whether a college degree can also be at the “university level.”
In the area of differentiation and mandate, I argued that substantially increasing four-year degree programs and introducing three-year college degrees fits within, rather than moves away from, the legislated mandate of Ontario’s colleges. However, I also argued that if colleges are authorized to substantially increase degree offerings it will be necessary to determine if a particular field is best served with a degree, that there will be sustained labour-market demand for the degree, and that there will not be over-duplication of degrees among Ontario’s colleges.
Lastly, in the area of access and demand, I argued that if colleges are authorized to substantially increase their degree program offerings it will be necessary for colleges and the MTCU to explore not only how many degree spots will be made available, but what could be done to ensure that this development does not have the effect of decreasing access to the underrepresented groups that the colleges were also intended to serve.
- Collaborative programs are those which are offered jointly by one Ontario university and one or more colleges, such as the collaborative nursing programs in Ontario.
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Adam G. Panacci is pursuing the Certificate in Leadership in Higher Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. He can be reached at email@example.com