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A three-year degree will shortchange students

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First the Drummond report and now a discussion paper tabled by the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities recommend that Ontario compress the traditional four-year university degree to three years. The discussion paper proposes year-round university courses, more than half of them online. This, the paper claims, "will improve the productivity of publicly funded resources." The irony is that productivity would be one of the first casualties of three-year degrees.

As Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson wrote in his Feb. 22 column, "Canada has one of the worst productivity records in the industrialized world." Declining productivity is the cause of our stagnating standard of living, particularly in Ontario. Canada's aging population will make improving productivity a challenge, but one of the keys to better performance is increased investment in education. The country in our hemisphere that has most improved its global economic standing in the past decade is Brazil, which has poured money into education, building new public universities and, recently, creating a fund to give scholarships for overseas study to 100,000 Brazilian university graduates.

Even without three-year programs, Ontario already has serious problems with the shrinking content of a university degree. The part-time jobs that today's students take on to fend off debt don't leave them enough time to study. Professors, in most cases, assign less reading than their predecessors did a generation ago. Cutbacks to university budgets mean that science students spend less time in the lab than they used to. Today's university students graduate into the knowledge economy with less knowledge than their parents had.

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Three-year degrees would place Canada's most populous province at a competitive disadvantage by making Ontarians the least educated professionals in the industrialized world. Supporters of the proposals point to the Bologna accord, in which more than 45 European countries agreed to implement three-year undergraduate degrees. Yet, nobody knows how this will work. Since 1945, Europe's economic success has depended on long undergraduate programs that produced engineers who understood the historical context in which they worked, and managers who could recite the philosophical underpinnings of the decisions they made. Europe's financial crisis aside, it's uncertain whether young Europeans with three-year degrees will be able to maintain the society built by their better educated parents and grandparents.

With the elimination of Grade 13, Ontario also has one less year of high school than Europe. And European high schools are often more rigorous than ours. European students enter university ahead of Canadians; their three-year degrees build on more ample foundations. In Quebec, where university degrees also last three years, students complete a two-year junior college diploma before starting university. The rest of North America has four years of high school and four years of university. Three-year degrees would make Ontarians stand out as intellectually malnourished.

The proposals are impractical in other ways. The year-round courses floated by the Ontario working paper would require rewriting the arduously negotiated collective agreements that define faculty teaching responsibilities on nearly every Ontario campus. This is a minefield for university administrations, which would face intractable opposition if they tried to implement year-round teaching, and a potential decline in faculty research productivity if they succeeded.

The most unrealistic recommendation in the Ontario report is that students take more than half of their courses online. This would radically curtail the shared study that builds lifelong friendships – and the web of personal contacts that supports a successful career. Ontario universities are already experimenting with online courses; the results are sobering. Not even the most sophisticated software can replicate human interaction or foster the depth of learning generated by the classroom experience. I recently sat on a committee that interviewed undergraduate applicants for a semester abroad. When we reached the practical part of the interview, the students who had taken the online version of the prerequisite courses all underperformed. Three of them said to us: "I'm sorry, I took the online course. I know that was a mistake, I won't do it again."

The Ontario report also forgets that students are people who mature at their own rate. This process can be encouraged, but it can't be forced. Most students enter university with an untested idea of their interests, instilled in them by high-school fashion or parental pressure. Once they reach university, they try courses in other areas, discover unsuspected aptitudes or intellectual passions and often change programs. Such experimentation spins out many students' degrees to 4½ or five years. This may exasperate bureaucrats, economists and parents, but it's an indispensable step in becoming a mature adult who's not only productive but also human. That's something few people can achieve in three years.

Stephen Henighan is a professor of Hispanic studies at the University of Guelph. His essay collection When Words Deny the World: The Reshaping of Canadian Writing was shortlisted for the 2002 Governor-General's Literary Award.

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