Minor buzz earlier this week about a credit-transfer agreement between seven universities in Ontario. According to the press release, Queen’s, McMaster, Western and the Universities of Toronto, Ottawa, Waterloo and Guelph have agreed to full recognition of each others’ first-year university credit.
While credit mobility generally is a Good Thing, this specific announcement puzzled me a bit. How is this actually new? Back in 1995, the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada introduced the “Pan-Canadian protocol on the Transferability of University Credits,” which essentially said that ALL first- and second-year course credits across Canada should be transferable. The Council of Ontario Universities (COU), to which all seven of these institutions belong, endorsed the protocol with a couple of riders to the effect that the right of credit transfer didn’t imply a right to transfer, and that institutions could still accept or reject whichever students they wanted. At least one of the seven universities actually passed this agreement through its senate; all seven of them endorsed it – 16 years ago – through COU.
The easiest interpretation here is that most or all of the seven have in fact been ignoring their own endorsements for the past decade and a half and so the agreement is genuinely new in practice if not in theory. And it’s easy to see why: credit or degree recognition, at the end of the day, is about trust. You have to trust another institution’s academics in order to recognize them as equivalent (or better) than their own. And until now that wasn’t happening.
This trust factor is in fact a major rationale behind quality assurance regimes the world over; institutions gain one another’s trust by setting explicit standards and meeting them. But that’s not very Canadian. We don’t like explicit standards and, as a result, we have no trust. And for some reason, whenever a government (or CMEC) wants to break the deadlock, they run from the obvious (but difficult) trust-based solutions preferring instead to blunder around shouting “thou shalt recognize each others credits,” to little effect.
Clearly, these seven institutions trust each other and are prepared to treat each others’ teaching as their own. It’s not surprising: six of them are U-15 members and so view one another as equals anyway (then there’s Guelph, which we said was basically U-15 quality a few weeks ago – apparently others agree).
That’s great, but there’s a more interesting question: why don’t they trust anyone else? I’d love to just ask the seven presidents: “what would, say, Laurentian have to do to join this agreement?” The answer, I think, would illuminate much about how institutions understand the term “quality” and the dog-eat-dog nature of the fight for institutional prestige.