The post-secondary education landscape in Canada, and in Ontario in particular, has changed considerably over the past two decades. Ontario colleges began offering four-year bachelor’s degrees in 2002 after a deliberate decision by the government of the day to improve access to education and to fill a need for career-oriented, professional degrees.
Today, Humber College and Seneca College, in the Toronto area, offer more than 47 bachelor’s degrees — also called honours degrees — between them, in addition to programs that grant diplomas and certificates. Humber’s and Seneca’s designations as Institutes of Technology and Advanced Learning (ITAL) allow them to offer up to 15 percent of their programs at the degree level, compared with only 5 percent for non-ITAL colleges.
When degree programs began, it took time to dispel myths and misunderstandings about what a degree offered by a college is and what it means for graduates and industry. Prospective students and their families needed to know that a four-year honours degree from Humber or Seneca reflected the same academic rigour expected from an honours degree from any Ontario university. What colleges provide that is significantly different than the universities’ offerings is the combination of career-focused theory with the opportunity for work-integrated learning, applied research and connections to industry. These features are what we consider the hallmarks of polytechnic education. Employers needed to know that the graduates they would hire from these programs were career-ready, with the knowledge, skills and experience to succeed.
The average annual earnings of college bachelor’s degree holders two years after graduation are $55,187, according to a Statistics Canada study released in September. That is 12 percent higher than the earnings of university bachelor’s degree holders at the same point ($49,281). This study confirms that a great deal has changed since 2002. Industry recognizes the value of a college bachelor’s degree, which means that graduates will have more opportunities for strong starting salaries in their chosen careers.
As governments and industries grapple with the challenges of preparing people for an evolving world of work characterized by disruption, we need to look at how college degree programming can be expanded and made more accessible to those looking to upskill or reskill.
Degree programs constitute a small percentage of the activity at Ontario colleges, according to Michael L. Skolnik’s paper Ontario Colleges as Polytechnic Institutions: An International Perspective (2017). But in several European countries, the delivery of degree programs is the predominant function of polytechnics.
Polytechnics in Germany, for example, account for one-third of bachelor’s degrees earned in the country, and more than half of the programs at these institutions lead to degrees. The German model is often referenced by policy-makers and elected officials in discussions about skilled trades and connections between education and industry. The role of German polytechnic institutions in offering degrees is a key contributor to Germany’s low unemployment rate, among the lowest in Europe.
Canada exceeds all other OECD countries in the proportion of the population whose highest academic credential is a diploma, but it ranks lower than many of those countries in degree attainment. Institutions offering a polytechnic education, particularly Humber and Seneca, are uniquely positioned to help increase the rate of degree attainment through career-focused bachelor’s degrees. Moreover, they are able to offer degree completion opportunities to college diploma holders in a manner that universities cannot.
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Less than 5 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in Ontario are awarded by colleges, according to Skolnik. So there is significant opportunity to expand professional, career-oriented degrees in Ontario, to increase access for students and to help address the skills gap affecting our economy.
That, in part, is why we recently launched the Humber-Seneca Polytechnic Partnership. We need new approaches to meeting the needs of students, employers and society. By combining our strengths, we can increase access to unique academic pathways and programs for learners from across Ontario.
Is the task of myth-dispelling over? No. College degrees are still relatively new in Ontario, and there is sometimes a societal bias toward university education. At this point, what we can say is that our degrees are in demand by students. Degrees, and Ontario graduate certificates for those who have already earned an undergraduate credential, are our fastest-growing credentials.
Over the past five decades there have been two significant evolutions in post-secondary education that have benefited students. The first was the establishment of the college system; the second was giving colleges the ability to grant degrees. The time and setting are right for the next evolution: recognition of the emergence of polytechnics, which are connected with colleges and universities through transfer agreements and student pathways yet should be acknowledged as a distinct category of post-secondary institution.
And even in the face of that overdue recognition of polytechnic status, the one thing that endures is the need to provide students with choice, flexibility and an education that prepares them for the careers of today and tomorrow.
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