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Ontario blurs the line by expanding degree-granting options for colleges

The move is targeted at ‘key sectors’ to address labour-market gaps, but what does it mean for universities?


This April, the Ontario government made, with relatively little fanfare, one of the most substantial changes in a generation to the province’s postsecondary sector. Following on an intention first signalled the previous fall, it raised the cap on degree-program offerings at public colleges from five per cent of programs to 10 per cent.

It was the first expansion of degree-granting to colleges since 2000, when Mike Harris’ Progressive Conservative government first introduced the Post-secondary Education Choice and Excellence Act (PECEA).

The idea behind both PECEA and this spring’s change is to offer new degrees targeted at “key sectors,” to address labour-market gaps – in fields including the auto sector, health care, cybersecurity and artificial intelligence.

But there is still little concrete sense of what the most recent changes will mean for institutions – particularly for universities, which have been wary about moves to extend degree-granting to colleges. One thing is for certain: the move further complicates the once-sharp, now muddied distinction between the two types of institutions.

“There is a danger, in my view, when you start having universities operate like colleges and colleges operate like universities, with the goal to make them all more in service of the labour market,” said Marc Spooner, a professor in the faculty of education at the University of Regina. “They provide different skills, different habits of mind, different focuses for society. They’re both critical, and I think that that’s really important.”

College administrators, on the other hand, tend to see these concerns as overblown. “There was this fear when colleges first began offering degrees, that the colleges wanted to be universities, or they’d be scrambling to turn everything into a degree,” said Maggie Cusson, dean of academic development at Algonquin College. “It didn’t happen; barely any college even got close to their degree cap.”

And if university administrators are concerned about competing against colleges for students, PECEA’s impact is an encouraging precedent. In the 20 years since that legislation was introduced, enrolment in college-degree programs has grown to only about 24,000 students. University degree programs, meanwhile, have grown from 290,000 to 532,000 students. In other words, if the past is any indication, universities may have little to fear when it comes to colleges encroaching on their turf.

A ‘symbolic’ contribution

In fact, the opposite may end up being true – the purported labour-market benefits of the expanded college-degree options are overblown.

In 2017, researchers at the U of T’s Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education surveyed college faculty and administration for a report on the outcomes of the expanded PECEA degree offerings. Some of those surveyed felt they didn’t go far enough. “One policy leader argued that college baccalaureates had very small numbers of students and graduates,” the authors wrote, “and that their contribution was more symbolic than real.”

Though those caps have now been expanded, Dr. Cusson still suggested it’s unlikely that many degrees developed by colleges such as Algonquin will undermine university enrolment. “We only go down the path of developing programs where the labour market is telling us they need it,” she said. “We’re very unlikely to develop any other degrees that would step on universities’ toes.”

Dr. Cusson also pointed out that the blurring lines between the two types of institutions has worked both ways, with universities offering more applied programs and workforce-oriented programming. “Absolutely, as colleges have expanded degree granting, universities have become more labour-market focused,” said Julia Colyar, vice-president of research and policy with the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO). “So those lines are less clear from both sides. That’s a trend that’s been going on for a long time.”

Last year, Dr. Colyar co-authored a report for HEQCO which looked at the background of the evolving credential landscape in Ontario. It refrained from making judgments on the likely impact of expanded college degrees.

But she noted a number of positives and negatives. On one hand, expanded degree offerings could expand postsecondary offerings for students in smaller communities that don’t have a university nearby. “Barrie is a good example,” she said. “It has an excellent college but no university, and that constrains options for local students.” (However, Dr. Colyar said this access issue has changed since PECEA came into effect, given the greater prevalence of remote learning).

On the negative side, the HEQCO report she co-authored noted that PECEA created a disincentive for collaborative programs of study, in which students begin in college-diploma programs before transferring to a university to complete a degree. Theoretically, that disincentive may only grow as college degree-granting expands.

Market-driven approach

But again, colleges are taking a cautious approach. Hamilton’s Mohawk College partners with McMaster University on many degree programs, and President Ron McKerlie doesn’t see that model changing anytime soon. “We had the chance already to develop our own programs in nursing, which colleges can offer independent of a university,” he said. “But we didn’t pursue that, because we quite value the relationship with McMaster, their faculty and resources. I don’t see us moving away from that. What this might allow us to do instead is develop new degree programs in areas really targeted to labour markets, where a university would likely have no interest.”

Dr. Spooner isn’t so sure. He’s also been a vocal critic of the Ford government’s move to performance-based funding for postsecondary institutions, tying institutional funding to student job-market and economic outcomes. He sees in this most recent change a similarly troubling market-driven approach to evaluating the value of higher education in general.

“I think what this really does is just put more pressure on universities to be more focused on the labour market, to compete for students and programs,” he said.

That pressure could become more acute if the provincial government permits colleges to offer applied master’s degrees, as it indicated last October that it was considering. “Then you’d really have a blurring,” said Dr. Spooner. Colleges Ontario has advocated for such a move for several years, and British Columbia allowed colleges to offer applied master’s degrees as long ago as 2003.

For now, the long-term impacts remain a source of speculation. But there’s no doubt that the once clear distinctions between colleges and universities are a thing of the past.

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