Higher Education Strategy Associates

Three Years? Four Years?

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.

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7 Responses to Three Years? Four Years?

  1. Heather Grierson says:

    I think it’s important to acknowledge here that Europe has opted for a 3-2-3 (bachelor-master-phd) model in most cases as a result of the Bologna Process. This shift to a 3-year degree is significant. The shift follows a focus on competencies students gain during the degree program not time spent in class. Although the total amount of student time dedicated to the program is considered, it includes class time as well as time for homework, research, projects and group work.

    Also, I think it’s important to remember that until recently Ontario universities offered 3-year degrees. With ending high school at grade 12 instead of 13 there was the transition to a 4-year degree. I agree that there could be an issue with how a 3-year degree would be perceived by the US, but it seems to me that the US is lagging in picking up the 3-year degree worldwide trend. With much of Latin America and some African countries adopting Tuning strategies I think we can expect more countries to adopt 3-year degree programs, with a focus on competencies gained.

    I’ve noticed some US universities are offering a 3-year fast-track program, but it essentially is a 4-year degree squished into 3 years. Personally I’d rather know what competencies a student has gained than how many credit hours they received.

    Interesting post Alex!

  2. Carrie Hunter says:

    Indeed, thought provoking post and one that should stimulate some needed thinking. I agree with Heather that because of the European Area of Higher Education/Bologna Process, Ontario would have little trouble with its reputation with respect to its degrees. Ontario Institutions are still very well respected, and that will carry weight.
    I would like to inject one aspect into the conversation. We talk often of the skills/competencies/knowledge Bachelor graduates will need to get a job. That’s fair enough, but it’s only part of the conversation. Increasingly, the competencies/knowledge to advance into graduate school are an important aspect of Bachelor education that need to be developed. Those skills that will grant you a BA and get you a job are not necessarily the skills you need to be successful in graduate school. And I think we need to consider how and when student have opportunity to gain those as well.

  3. Alex Usher says:

    Thanks for your comments, Carrie and Heather.

    Re: 3-year degrees. Calling it a “trend” might be a stretch. Those European countries which have newly adopted a 3-year degree aren’t switching from a previous 4 – they’re introducing an entirely new degree from scratch (the first degree used to be a 6-year Master’s…and it;s still the case that 80-90% of students who get a Bachelor’s go on to do a Master’s). So it;s not so much shortening a degree as creating a whole new non-terminal credential.

    I take the point about Ontario degrees possibly being globally recognized because of 3-year degrees. I’m just not convinced that American institutions – which is where most Ontarians go if they leave the country to study – would be as accommodating. At least not unless the province and its universities displayed Bologna-like levels of commitment to documenting processes, demonstrating outcomes, etc.

  4. Heather Grierson says:

    Good point Alex. It’s definitely not been an easy transition for Europe…I think there are 46 countries now that have agreed to make the transition to 3-year bachelor degrees. I think the intent is that over time it will be acknowledged as a terminal degree. I did some research a few months ago that showed US graduate schools were willing to accept the 3-year European bachelor degrees but that was on a school-by-school and sometime student-by-student basis.

    Carrie – I agree. We do need a focus on what undergraduate students need to succeed in graduate school. Especially as a graduate degree is increasingly desired by employers. Sadly, I think Canada will just keep an eye to the south to see what the North American trend will be.

    I’m Canadian but currently studying education in Europe at the university that hosts Tuning. It’s been fascinating.

    I really enjoy your posts. They always give me lots to think about.

  5. Jean Kim says:

    Interesting discussion; has anyone commented on problems of immigrating to the US with a 3 year degree? USCIS has regularly denied that 3 year degrees are equivalent to US Bachelor’s degrees (but maybe only from India, and they’re fine with 3 year degrees from other countries?). They didn’t care even if you did a breakdown of hours of instruction spent to earn the degree, showing US 4 year degrees were earned with fewer hours…USCIS also loves to use the AACRAO EDGE database for equivalence, which lists EU 3 year degrees as equivalent only to “3 years of coursework” in the US. It’s a ridiculous state of affairs; those who suffer most from this are the Bachelor of Commerce degree holders from India. Similarly, Eastern European 5 year degrees are regularly deemed to NOT be Master’s equivalent…

  6. Pingback: Effective Bachelor’s Degrees | On Higher Education

  7. Tracy says:

    What about the discrimination of 4 years at a Community College and having to say you have a 2 year associates degree when filling out applications! As a Registered Nurse you have 2 years gen ed. then 1 year LPN then 1 year for RN so at least 4 years!
    On applications you can only put you have an Associates degree!

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