Why turning diplomas into degrees is a bad idea

October 10, 2014
Bonnie Patterson
Posted with permission from QP Briefing

The following is an op-ed column from Bonnie Patterson, president and chief executive of the 21-member Council of Ontario Universities, about the push to have expanded degree programs at the province’s 24 colleges of applied arts and technology. The colleges have asked the government to consider allowing them to grant three-year degrees instead of diplomas.

I’d like to tell you what I love about Ontario’s colleges and what I love about Ontario’s universities – and why I think we should revel in their differences, not try to make them the same.

Ontario’s colleges were created in the 1960s by then education minister Bill Davis to provide opportunities for students interested in skills and trades. It was recognized that university wasn’t for everyone, and Ontario’s 24 community colleges provided a valuable, more hands-on alternative while at the same time providing a welcome and necessary pool of talented people for the job market.

Over the years, colleges have greatly expanded their programs and in some cases now offer some four-year degrees – degrees with a difference that meet degree-level standards.

Ontario’s universities, many of which are celebrating 150 years of higher education this year, have been making available a wide range of programs that may or may not be job specific – but which teach anyone who wants to learn how to think, reason and communicate. These skills set graduates up for careers and give them the means to move from field to field as an increasingly complex job market changes.

Now, you may have picked up on a push by Ontario’s colleges to have the provincial government allow them to grant graduates of their three-year programs degrees instead of diplomas. They argue that replacing diplomas with degrees equal to those granted by universities would make college grads more work-force competitive. Not to do so, one official said, shows a prejudice against college students and the trades.

Bonnie Patterson

Both colleges and universities feed the job market, produce graduates who can provide a service, and keep the economy bubbling.

But I would argue that suggesting university degrees and existing college diplomas are interchangeable is to lose sight of the distinct role of each institution and would be doing students from each stream a disservice. A very big risk is the marginalization of those students for whom the college system was created.There is substantive and meaningful difference between the learning outcomes of an advanced diploma program and a degree program, and this is reflected in the government’s current credential framework. To protect the value of credentials for students, the programs that colleges are currently offering as diplomas should not be renamed degrees. Simply put, three-year degree programs need to meet degree-level expectations.

This isn’t to denigrate in any way the real value that colleges offer. Both colleges and universities feed the job market, produce graduates who can provide a service, and keep the economy bubbling.

But to re-label diplomas as degrees could be misleading for students, parents and employers.

The Don Drummond commission examining the role of government programs recommended that the government should establish and implement a strategic division of roles between the college and university systems. Indeed, the commission recommended that colleges should not be granted any new degree programs at all.

In some parts of Canada, the labour market is demanding more skilled trades. But a recent CIBC study found that the most in-demand occupations in Canada today require a university degree.

For this reason, I say let each type of institution contribute in its own way.

 Recent surveys  of post-secondary graduates show that 87.4 per cent of university graduates find work within six months.  For college graduates, that figure is 84 per cent. Both figures are admirable.  There are jobs available for college and university graduates, even in this difficult economy.

Hundreds of pathways between colleges and universities already exist, and more are in the making. We should allow that kind of co-operation to continue to flourish for the benefit of students who want to tailor their education to meet their own needs and not undermine the value of differentiation. After all, after assessing the strategic direction for post-secondary education in public policy terms, the government chose a differentiated framework.

Tackling Canada’s skills challenges will require a united front. If we are to compete globally, we will need workers with all sorts of skills. That means turning out more college graduates, more skilled tradespeople and more university graduates.

Turning diplomas into degrees is to lose sight of the long game.

Bonnie Patterson has been president and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities since 2009 after 11 years as president of Trent University in Peterborough. She also was the Dean of Business at Ryerson University when the school was known as Ryerson Polytechnic Institute. She also was  appointed to the Order of Ontario and as a Member of the Order of Canada for her contributions as a leader in post-secondary education. Patterson holds a BA and MLS from the University of Western Ontario.