Higher Education Strategy Associates

The Road to Three

Glenn Murray is a man in a hurry. He talks – it’s never clear how seriously – about shortening degrees to three years within the lifetime of this government. Let’s be generous and grant that the McGuinty government will actually last a full four years – what are the odds of getting to achieving this?

Honestly? Zero. Zip. Bupkis. Here’s why:

There are only two feasible routes to three-year degrees – the compression model and the re-design model. The former is superficially a lot more palatable, in the sense that it doesn’t force profs to re-design curricula and can be implemented more quickly. But in practice, it’s not clear if this is actually the more workable path. The main barrier to this approach is that it still requires a major change in student behavior. And that isn’t going to happen without incentives.

Incentives could be made direct to students by improving student assistance. That sounds simple, if potentially expensive (this is possibly a deal-breaker, given that saving money is job one for Murray). But since only 50% of students use OSAP, half the student body would be unaffected. The only truly effective way to introduce incentives across the entire student body is to change the fee structure, giving students rebates for finishing early or charging penalties for finishing late. But that requires institutions to play ball. So maybe it’s less a matter of incentivizing students than of incentivizing institutions; tweak the funding formula to favour institutions that gets students out in three years, and let institutions themselves work out how best to get students to achieve it. But since most of the economic gains come from larger class sizes and increased student aid costs offset much of the purported gains – can anyone really see the premier sticking his neck out to annoy the universities that way?

The alternative is re-design. This approach has the potential at least to save money and make the system more effective – but even assuming everyone buys into it, drastic curriculum re-design isn’t quick and requires extensive pilot testing. The best analogy here is Ontario’s reducing secondary school from five years to four. This became mandatory in 2002, but was preceded by a fourteen-year period in which four-year graduation was optional. This in turn was preceded by a multi-year period of curricular adjustment; in total, it was almost twenty-five years from the time people began re-designing the curriculum for optional four-year graduation to the time it became compulsory.

I can imagine it being faster for universities; for all their alleged slowness, where curriculum is concerned they change more quickly than secondary schools. But we’re still talking decades rather than years.

Someone needs to tell the Minister.

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One Response to The Road to Three

  1. Thomas Carey says:

    Good point, Alex, about the decades likely involved in change across the whole system. That doesn’t rule out small but significant wins along the way. For example, a new institution – or three – could feature redesigned programs as part of its raison d’etre, giving a proof of concept at startup (4 years?) and data at first graduation (7 years). Appropriate incentives to existing institutions could engage a second round of redesign, with a timeframe of 8 years to startup and 11 years to first graduates. By the third round, a majority of institutions could be involved – although as you note it is at least three elections away before the substantial benefits roll in.

    And it’s not just about saving money: the real gain comes from cultural change to shared responsibility for productivity and quality. The recent National Research Council panel in the U.S. on Measuring Higher Education Productivity hints at what this could mean. Easy? No. Quick? No again. Necessary and worthwhile? Absolutely.

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