Ontario universities should offer three-year degrees, classes year-round and more online learning, says provincial report
TheStar.com – news/canada
Published On Wed Feb 22 2012. Kristin Rushowy, Education Reporter
Ontario universities need to cut undergraduate degrees from four to three years, offer classes year-round and allow students to earn more than half their credits online, says a government paper obtained by the Star.
The proposals would get students through university or college cheaper and faster — the report says college diplomas should be two years at most — while still offering a quality post-secondary education.
“The ultimate goal of this strategy is to improve student choice, maintain the quality of the system and to refocus the system on a flexible and forward-looking set of teaching and learning options,” says the paper, which is to be sent out for discussion in March. “(It) will improve the existing productivity of publicly funded resources.”
But critics have their doubts, saying three-year degrees won’t be recognized in other provinces or the U.S., online learning is no replacement for on campus, and that students need summers off to be able to afford tuition.
Besides, online courses aren’t always less expensive, said James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.
“That it’s a cheaper way to provide education is an illusion if you think you are going to maintain the same quality,” said Turk, who had not seen the report.
As well, “the experience of going to school sitting in your home bedroom is different than being on campus interacting with other students and faculty.”
Colleges and Universities Minister Glen Murray said the report is a look at trends around the world and presents possible areas for change.
“All three (proposals) that are considered in the report are things that are happening in other parts of the world,” he said in a phone interview.
He said the report was prepared by his staff, who were asked to compile options that will then go out for public consultation. “There’s still a lot more work to do,” he stressed.
The report — tentatively entitled 3 Cubed: PSE institutions as centres of creativity, competency and citizenship equipped for the 21st century — says post-secondary education needs to be relevant and flexible given the increased demand for college and university.
While Ontario universities have largely moved away from three-year bachelor degrees, the reports says that’s the trend in Europe and Australia.
Some 49 European countries have agreed to the same standard of three-year bachelor degrees, two-year master’s degrees and three-year PhDs. The three-year undergraduate degree would not apply to programs that require professional accreditation, such as engineering.
It says that by making degree completion times shorter, students are able to get into the labour market faster and reduce the cost of their post-secondary studies to both themselves and taxpayers.
Upon graduation, students would receive a government-issued degree or diploma, as well as credentials from the school.
It’s unclear how a two-year limit to college diplomas could affect a push by Ontario colleges to offer more bachelor degrees.
The report says with online learning, professors could have more time to meet and mentor students.
“Technology is driving changes worldwide in education and it is important that Ontario recognize and respond to these changes in order that credentials from Ontario PSE institutions hold their value,” it says.
But Sandy Hudson of the Canadian Federation of Students said the province’s four-year degrees are already recognized nationally and internationally, and warns that three-year degrees might not be — especially in the U.S.
She also said students could be disadvantaged when applying for jobs if they have a lesser degree than graduates from other provinces.
Some university buildings are used in the summer for research work, courses and conferences, she said, so offering a summer semester with full course offerings might not be easy.
Hudson also said that summer months are the best — and best-paying — time for university students to work.
The report says students should be able to take three of every five credits online, and that those courses should be recognized by all Ontario universities. It also calls for an easier system of transferring students’ credits if they switch institutions.
Hudson said online courses should be available to students who can’t find a course they’d like to take at their institution, but they should not make up the bulk of their learning.
“If students are taking three of five online, if that’s the norm in Ontario, employers are going to know that students are not getting real class time, real lab time, real teaching assistance and research assistance to help them actually develop skills. There’s so much left out of learning if it just happens online.”
The report says pilot programs for the new three-year degrees should begin in September 2013, with rollout by 2015.
It is in part a way to fulfill a promise to add 60,000 new student spaces in Ontario’s post-secondary sector at a time when the province is in dire financial circumstances.
Some of the recommendations were also contained in last week’s report to the government by economist Don Drummond, which urged universities to compress four-year degrees into three.
However, in a recent survey of Ontario students, just 41 per cent found the shorter degree appealing; 59 per cent said they were not interested, citing a heavier workload.
Currently, 45 per cent of university students complete a degree in four years. After six years, 80 per cent have completed their degree.
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