As with many things in public policy, the devil is in the details. Right now, many universities offer a three year option to their undergraduate students. Demand for these programs is low, and some institutions have decided to phase them out.
Three year degrees – not as an option, but as the new norm – are a key proposal of a leaked Liberal government document on higher education reform. The problem is that three year degrees are being proposed with little sense of the problem they are supposed to solve, and a poor analysis of the results it might produce.
So why three year degrees? The government thinks they will move more students through the system faster. This is true, but the leaked document provides no clues as to why this is important. Students want more flexibility in completing their degrees, not less time. Ontario has already axed the OAC year in high school; by eliminating a year of university education, our students will simply not get the preparation they need to succeed.
The Liberals also think three year degrees are a good idea, because Europe and Australia are moving in that direction. Fine, but is a European solution right for Ontario? Three year degrees are arguably more suited to Europe due to the streaming in their K-12 education system. Ontarian parents would likely be uncomfortable telling their nine-year-olds that they can – or can’t – go to university. More to the point, European countries have a higher unemployment rate than Ontario and Germany, Italy and France all have lower returns for postsecondary education. Three year degrees are hardly a silver bullet for the labour market.
The leaked paper does make one correct prediction: three year degrees will limit the ability of Ontario’s students to pursue further study in Canada and the United States. Given the globalized nature of the modern economy, one wonders why the Liberal government is keen to limit the mobility of our students. Our current four-year degrees allow our students to go anywhere, including Europe and Australia.
With all that in mind, what is the government trying to achieve with three year degrees? If they’re after quality education and student success, the evidence would suggest they’re on the wrong track.