When trying to make big-picture comparisons between Europe and North America, one big difference always shows up: the existence in Europe of large, Bachelors’-degree-delivering institutions, which are nevertheless not universities.
These go under various names in various places – ammattikorkeakoulu in Finland (which the government translates as “polytechnics”, but which institutions themselves choose to translate as “universities of applied sciences”), Hogescholen voor Hoger Beroepsonderwijs (or HBOs) in the Netherlands, or Fachhocschule in Germany and Austria. Because they are all “not-universities”, and because they all describe themselves as being in the business of providing a more “applied” type of education than traditional universities, the easy temptation is to compare them to our own “not-universities” – i.e. community colleges. But this is simply wrong.
The first way it’s wrong is that these European Non-University Higher Education Providers (or NUHEPs, to steal a phrase from my Australian colleague, Andrew Norton) deliver all of their programming at the Bachelor’s level, or higher. They do not, for the most part, get involved in trades training via apprenticeships. And – in some countries at least – they also dominate the “continuing education” market for short-course professional post-baccalaureate training.
But while we don’t have Fachhochschule sectors, per se, it is nonetheless true that North America is gradually developing institutions that look a great deal like Fachhochschule. The most obvious examples are in the United States, where community colleges are starting to deliver 4-year Bachelor’s degrees. (e.g. Florida). In Canada, some of our newer universities (e.g. Mount Royal and MacEwan) look somewhat like Fachhochschule, though it’s not a comparison either would likely accept. More eager to claim that mantle would be the colleges that actively refer to themselves as “polytechnics”, which, like their European counterparts, engage in a fair bit of applied research (this is not unknown at American community colleges, but it’s rarer).
What’s interesting about the way this phenomenon is emerging in North America is that it’s piecemeal in nature. It’s not happening because governments are saying “hey, we need some more professionally-oriented Bachelor’s level programming – let’s create some new institutional forms to deliver it”. That was always unlikely to happen over here because our universities are considerably less sniffy than European ones about delivering professionally-oriented programming – after all, most of the new programs universities have added in the last fifty years, such as nursing, business, journalism, etc., have been in professional areas. Instead, what’s happened is that community colleges have taken advantage of universities’ inherent disciplinary conservatism by trying to pick-off new fields of work that are being professionalized (e.g. construction management) and offer degree programs in these, before the universities can get to them. And by and large, they’ve been pretty successful at that, though in no case are these institutions’ Bachelor programs anything like the dominant credential they deliver – for the most part, they remain providers of sub-baccalaureate education.
Will we ever reach the point where any of our non-university institutions, like European Fachhochschule, are fully engaged in Bachelor’s level education? My guess is no. Once institutions reach a certain level of intensity in terms of Bachelor’s degree provision our governments’ instinct will be to “promote” them to universities, as happened in Alberta and British Columbia over the last ten years. And indeed, that may still happen in Europe – even the Finnish Polytechnics are agitating for legal recognition as universities.
The prestige pull of the word “university” is mighty hard to resist.