One of the big ideas working its way through the higher education section right now is that of compressing four-year degree programs into three years. My understanding of the inspiration behind this new proposal for Ontario post-secondary institutions is based on the global Bologna process, which is working quite effectively in Europe.
Despite this success across the Atlantic, there are many options to consider before implementing three-year degrees here in Ontario.
At first glance, one of the more positive aspects of introducing three-year degree programs across Ontario seems like tuition would be lower for students. Instead of paying four years’ worth of tuition, students would only have to pay for three years. This alone is a huge advantage for students because it would ease a lot of stress for those who worry about their finances. But I have to wonder about how these three-year degrees will be structured. What makes them different from the existing three-year general degrees that many universities have? If the four-year programs are simply compressed into three years by moving to a trimester system, with the same amount of credits required, then there wouldn’t really be lower tuition for students. Instead, students would lose out on the opportunities to work full-time jobs throughout the summer, to earn enough money for the year’s tuition. Or, like m y colleague Chris Walker mentioned, students would not get the much-needed reset from having a few months away from academia.
Additionally, should the three-year degree be initiated in Ontario, our post-graduate programs would have to be re-structured; they are currently structured to only accept students who completed a four-year honours degree. According to stats in Germany and the Netherlands, “80 per cent of graduates from bachelor’s degree programs go on to further pursue further education” (read more about it in Educated Reform). If this becomes the case in Ontario, then graduate programs would have to be adjusted to accommodate the mass amounts of students wishing to enter programs from three-year degrees. As it stands already, most graduate programs are highly competitive, accepting only a small percentage of the students who apply.
Would this be worth the cost associated with restructuring undergraduate and graduate programs? Especially since according to the 2009 Canada University Survey Consortium, only five percent of students thought that a three-year degree would be valuable, and when asked about compressing four years into three years, “nearly 60 percent of students indicated that they would not be interested in this option” (also from Educated Reform). With this lack of interest it seems that it would be detrimental to restructure the undergraduate degree.
Another upside to implementing three-year degree programs is that there would be a faster turnover for students graduating and entering the workforce, which would be beneficial to the economy. However, by dropping a year off of the undergraduate degree program students would be entering the workforce at a very young age. Students who entered university directly out of high school would be 21 upon graduation, only 20 if they have a late birthday. While the extra year may not seem like a lot, the sentiment among students I’ve talked to is that many students feel that they might not be mature enough or feel ready enough to make such significant decisions about their careers.
The debate surrounding this proposal seems to be never ending, each positive comes with its own set of potential drawbacks. Overall I question whether Ontario is in a position to take on such a dramatic shift in the sector structure.
Steering Committee Member 2012-2013, Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance
President, Trent Oshawa Student Association (TOSA)