There’s likely to be a lot of noise about the relative value of three- and four-year Bachelor’s degree programs over the next few weeks, if this leaked government position paper and this Globe and Mail op-ed are anything to go by. Before everyone gets dug in, though, it would be useful to acknowledge a few basic points.
If you’re awarding degrees based on time spent in class, then what makes one given length of time intrinsically “better” than another? Degree lengths in different parts of the world are just historical accidents. England and all her post-1800 possessions (bar Canada) adopted a three-year model. Continental Europe mostly avoided Bachelor’s degrees until about a decade ago and adopted a five- to six-year meister model instead. North America just happened to choose something different. It almost didn’t; Harvard University seriously considered moving to a three-year degree model in the 1890s, but eventually decided it couldn’t afford give up the extra tuition revenue. Given Harvard’s influence, it’s a fair bet that had they adopted the measure, three-year degrees would be considered standard here, too.
Australia is an interesting comparative model here. Its system has six years of primary and six years of secondary education, just like Ontario’s. Its students resemble ours in terms of cognitive development, if PISA is anything to go by. And yet, its Bachelor’s degrees are three years in length. Does that make them inferior to ours? Have these “weaker” degrees made their graduates less employable? Is their economy less dynamic?
But though there may be no intrinsic advantage of four years over three, that doesn’t mean one can simply switch from one to the other. There are issues of collective agreements, impacts on research and student assistance, and even whether current physical infrastructure is actually up to operating year-round. More importantly, for better or worse, English North America is one big four-year degree zone and opting-out risks making Ontario degrees second-class in the eyes of the rest of the continent. That’s not a risk to take lightly.
Surely, though, the issue isn’t three years vs. four, but “what competencies should Bachelor’s graduates have”? Ontario already has a serviceable definition in its Qualifications’ Framework but a revisit might be in order. Once we decide on outcomes, we can work backwards and figure out how long it takes to supply students with these competencies. My guess is that it’s quite possible to be more efficient if we think holistically about student outcomes in curriculum planning. But that would take a lot of work, as well as a whole new orientation to how we think about degrees.
Three vs. four is a side show. Outcomes are the main event.