Higher Education Strategy Associates

Four Ways to Three

The Ontario Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, Glen Murray, has a bee in his bonnet about three-year undergraduate degrees. Basically, he’s been told there’s some fiscal consolidation coming, and he thinks three-year degrees are the way that institutions can deal with the coming troubles without – allegedly – affecting quality.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with three-year degrees. All over Europe they are now standard (although in many countries, 80-90% of bachelor’s graduates go on to do a two-year Master’s degrees, so this might not be as felicitous an example as you’d think). And, of course, it’s not much more than a decade ago that three-year degrees were here in Ontario, too. It can be done.

The issue is – how?

It’s not simply a matter of rolling back time and going back to the 1990s. Back then, one of the rationales for having three year degrees was the existence of a fifth year of high-school. Ontario then – like Quebec today – was still on a continent-wide K-16 standard; the difference was just that the transition points within were slightly out of whack. What the Minister is proposing now is something different: K-15 vs. K-16. That really would put Ontario out of sync with the rest of the continent, with possibly some adverse consequences for student mobility in and out of the province.

There are basically four strategies for reducing undergraduate degrees to three years. The simplest – and most foolish – is simply to lop a year off the degree. Make 90 credits the standard instead of 120. It could be done overnight. I’m not sure what it would actually accomplish, but it could be done overnight.

The next simplest would be to punch up a lot of prior learning. Get more secondary students in Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses in high school, and you can start handing out more course exemptions and move students through undergraduate education a lot faster. At the extreme, of course, you could always bring back grade 13. If cost-per-student-per-year is really the issue, getting first-year students out of research-intensive institutions and into secondary schools is about as cost-effective as you’re going to get.

That leaves two other strategies. The first is to allow – or maybe “encourage” is a better word – students to go through the existing system faster. Get them to take a sixth course each term, or more summer courses – anything to get to 120 faster. This is what might be called a “compression” system. The other is to actually re-design degrees from the ground up, mapping desired learning outcomes and working out how to get students to display desired competencies in a three-year period. We’ll look at these over the next couple of posts.

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3 Responses to Four Ways to Three

  1. Thomas Carey says:

    Good summary, Alex. Options 3 and 4 are not mutually exclusive: how about a redesigned degree where one of the key outcomes was proficiency with improving quality and productivity, developed and demonstrated through increasing the quality and productivity of the learning process?

    Don’t start off with a greater course load, and don’t mistake that for a greater workload. Improve productivity gradually over time: a 10% improvement per term plus an online learning community during the work terms – did I mention this was a co-op program? – gets to 120 credits in 6 academic terms.

  2. Alex Usher says:

    Thanks, Thomas. You’re quite right that three and four are not mutually exclusive – however, most attempts at shortening degrees tend to use compression without any kind of re-design, so for purposes of discussion I treat them separately.

  3. Glen Murray, as the former Mayor of Winnipeg, is probably aware that the University of Manitoba has 3 year Bachelor of Science (General) degrees and 3 year Bachelor of Arts degrees and has had for the 30 years I have worked here.

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