Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: universities of applied sciences

March 08

Canada’s Universities of Applied Sciences

We tend to think of institutions as being either “universities” or “colleges.” The former are thought of as primarily granting four-year degrees that cover a breadth of traditional options (and in larger institutions graduate degrees as well), focussing on more theoretical programs and advanced research. The latter, by contrast, are institutions that specialize in shorter-length certificates and diplomas that have a much more applied focus, tied very closely to specific skills and careers.

Increasingly, though, Canada is seeing the development of hybrid institutions which deliver both college credentials and Bachelor’s degrees. In Alberta and British Columbia we have seen instances of colleges with sufficiently developed degree programming actually changing their status and becoming universities. But even after the switch, these institutions are still distinct from other universities as they continue to provide students with an education which is more professionally-oriented than that of older institutions. They also engage in research activities, though to a lesser extent than older universities and usually with a more applied bent. So there is no sharp distinction in practice once institutions cross the university-college divide.

Neither is there a sharp distinction in size and shape. Some very large colleges which are still primarily in the business of awarding college-level credentials (for example, Humber College in Toronto) have enrolments in degree-level programs that are approaching those of small universities like Acadia or Mount Allison. Some universities (for example, Kwantlen) have proportions of students in degree-level programs that are barely higher than some colleges and technical institutes.

Number of Degree-level Enrolments by Institution, 2010-11

*indicates AUCC membership

There simply isn’t a sharp dividing line between colleges and universities anymore. Instead, there is a very innovative limnal zone which is not recognized as a cohesive set of institutions because the use of the words “university” and “college” get in the way. A subset of these have banded together politically in a lobbying group known as “Polytechnics Canada.” But the polytechnics name doesn’t necessarily work for the very similar institutions that have chosen to gain university status.

Degree-level Enrolments as Proportion of Total Enrolments, by Institution, 2010-11

*indicates AUCC membership

To the institutions listed above, we could certainly add the rest of Polytechnics Canada’s membership plus NAIT. But defining who is “in” and “out” is less important than it is to recognize the ways in which this group forms an integral whole.

Other countries have a name for large institutions that grew out of the vocational education stream, but now grant degrees while retaining a professional orientation. They’re called Universities of Applied Sciences. Canada, it seems, has them too but we’re just too confused to see it.

Let’s end the squeamishness. Let’s embrace this new institutional type and give it the space to develop that it deserves. Viva our Universities of Applied Sciences.