University of Guelph considers three-year degrees

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A working group at the university investigates possibility

Lee Richardson
CUP Ontario Bureau Chief

TORONTO (CUP) –– Accelerated three-year degrees could eventually be seen at the University of Guelph, as a working group is currently in the early stages of studying their feasibility.

The potential three-year bachelor degrees would be equivalent to the current four-year degree, with an added possibility of adding another year to gain a master’s degree in four years. The research group looking into the idea, made up of members of faculty, students, and administration, will study into the practicality of bringing three-year degrees to U of G.

“It’s really exploratory at this stage,” said U of G provost and vice-president of academics Maureen Mancuso. “But there’s a lot of interest with what’s happening in Europe, the United States, and Australia with respect to the possibility of three-year degrees or accelerated degrees.”

As well as considering the shortened degrees, the group will study the provincial transfer credit system, with a goal of streamlining the process for incoming students who have graduated from college.

“It’s not very easy for a student to move between institutions, either way, from college to university or university to college, or even between jurisdictions,” Mancuso said. “There’s a lot of difficulties in making those transitions or those moves, so I think we need to help the students in trying to make it as easy for them as we can.”

Over the past couple of years, there has been discussion in regards to reforming both the transfer credit process in Ontario – which has led to colleges forming their own four-year degree programs – and whether bachelor degrees should have to be four years long. While the Ontario government set up the Pathways Initiative in 2009 to streamline elements of the transfer credit process, there are still students who find that they have to repeat similar courses to ones they have already taken, or have to take more than the usual number of electives to fill out a program.

“It should be tied to your status. I think mature students shouldn’t be forced to take a number of electives,” said Colin Mitchell, who transferred into McMaster University with six credits, or three classes, after his graduation from Mohawk College in Hamilton. “They could totally give you more transfer credits and let you bypass that stage.”

In terms of the research being carried out at U of G, which has already been involved with the Pathways Initiative, there is no set date for research findings being announced.

“There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes operational stuff that needs to be worked out if we’re going to make this work,” said Mancuso. “I would like to see some significant progress by the end of this semester.”

Three-year degrees are widely accepted in many other countries, including the United States, where universities like Georgia Southwestern State University, Arcadia University, and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro all have established three-year degrees, and a growing number of universities are introducing the accelerated programs. They are also common in European countries, which agreed to harmonize their education policies under the Bologna Process. In the United Kingdom, there has been discussion by Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, in regard to switching to a two-year bachelor degree system in order to save the state money. In Canada, though, outside of select universities like Athabasca, those shortened three-year degrees are virtually unknown.

“It's an interesting idea. I certainly think there [are] people who believe that we could be better off if we get down to three [years],” said University of Toronto economics professor Philip Oreopoulos. “I’m not aware of any evidence that says one way or the other that it matters. If it doesn’t make any difference to labour market outcomes and knowledge and lifetime socioeconomic outcomes, that’s great – let’s all go down to three.”

But there is debate over what effect cutting a year from a bachelor’s degree would have.

“One thing to consider is that a lot of graduate programs expect the bachelor degree to be a four-year degree,” said Barrie Bennett, associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). “At [OISE], our graduate applicants must have a four-year degree or have something that really sets them apart, so if the undergrad expects to do graduate work, they may put themselves into difficult spot.

“That said, if that three-year program is going to be an incredible program, then three years of incredible beats four years of mediocre,” Bennett added. “Of course, as a parent, I would rather have four years of incredible.”

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