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If degrees, not diplomas, are in Ontario colleges’ future, other provinces may follow suitRyan McVay/Getty Images

"How do we move forward in an environment where having an applied education is becoming more and more important to getting a good job?" asks Linda Franklin, President and CEO of Colleges Ontario.

Ms. Franklin and her colleagues set out to answer this question and found that the best answer for both students and future employers is to implement three-year degrees into the province's colleges – something she says is common practice in other educational institutions around the globe.

"In virtually all other jurisdictions in the world, if you study something for three years at the post-secondary level, it's called a degree," says Ms. Franklin.

Colleges Ontario has put together a report that outlines why future students should be able to graduate from the province's colleges with three-year degrees, not diplomas, and the organization is asking the government for the right to grant these designations. There is some opposition to this request, but if it does go through, other provinces say they will follow Ontario's lead.

It's not just about keeping up with the times, says Ms. Franklin. This is about meeting the demands for workers in the current labour market squeeze and giving the employers the credentials they want to see on a résumé.

"It's making sure our students have global recognition for their credentials and that we are appropriately titling and valuing the study that they've taken," says Ms. Franklin, adding that this does not mean that three-year diplomas would automatically be changed to a three-year degree. It would be a more involved process, according to the Colleges Ontario 26-page report, and the conversion from diploma to degree would only happen in programs that already meet the standards for baccalaureate education.

"A number of the colleges are also looking at new three-year degrees because they feel that in a number of cases there are opportunities to give students a really clear education for specific careers that could be done in three years," says Ms. Franklin.

The timeline to get this motion approved was estimated at about six to eight months, according to Colleges Ontario. But the recent resignation of Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has put a hold on it, she says.

"We don't know what's going to happen now," she adds.

Universities in the province are undecided about this lobbying effort by Colleges Ontario and say they need more information about the specific degrees before they can form an opinion.

"In terms of giving out degrees, the colleges already give out four-year degrees that have an applied nature to them," says Bonnie Patterson, president of the Council of Ontario Universities. Indeed, George Brown, Sheridan, Seneca, and Humber are just a few of the province's colleges that have given out four-year applied degrees in the past.

But it might be more of a stretch to switch over to three years, explains Ms. Patterson. The council president adds that it comes down to a question of quality control and whether or not the colleges would meet the same standards as their university counterparts.

"There's a standard of admission, there's a quality of content, there's a rigour of program and then there's the learning outcome," she says.

Ms. Patterson says that for an "apples to apples" comparison, colleges need to consider the traditional difference in mandate between colleges and universities, and whether colleges can continue to deliver on that mandate while also offering three-year degrees on par with universities.

"Does it take away from their mandate, which often boils down to open access in terms of the qualifications of students coming into the degree program?" she asks.

Ultimately, it's the students and future employers who need to understand the similarities and differences in these three-year degrees, says Ms. Patterson. A prospective student flipping through the college and university brochures and catalogues at the kitchen table needs to know why a three-year college degree might be better for them than the university equivalent and vice versa.

If Colleges Ontario does win the right to grant three-year degrees, it could start a domino effect with other colleges throughout the country asking their provinces for the same privilege.

In British Columbia alone, the government estimates there will be more than one million job openings in the province between now and 2020 due to high retirement, with 43 per cent of these in trades and technical training occupations. Some companies are travelling as far as Northern Ireland to recruit skilled labourers.

Jim Reed, president of BC Colleges says that bold strategies are needed to even attempt to meet the massive demand that's only a few short years away. "There's a huge gap between what we are producing now and what businesses and industry are going to need," he says.

"What we're hearing is that industry is looking for avenues in which they can get people in quicker from their education and training and into the workplace," says Mr. Reed.

He explains that, in response to this demand, BC Colleges has been looking at how to get students through the education system faster with the skills to hit the ground running so employers don't have to take on the burden of heavy on-the-job training.

"So a three-year degree, from my point of view, would make a lot of sense."