Seismic Shifts in the Learning Landscape
The provision of post secondary education has undergone substantial changes in the last decade: what was once a clearly delineated landscape, colleges on one side of a mountain and universities on the other, with few roadmaps and thus little travel between them, has shifted enormously.
Originally colleges were
designed and constructed by many provinces to provide post secondary education
in the form of 1-2 year certificates or diplomas for students who did not have
the academic skills, the interest, the money, or a career in mind for which a
university degree was a realistic choice. Modeled in some ways on the CGEPS of
Quebec, which provided post secondary education to a far larger percentage of
its high school population, as either a destination or a transition to
university, they were seen in Ontario as a less expensive and more flexible
investment in the province’s economic future—which they certainly have been.
Smaller and scattered widely across
The other generator for colleges was that many workplaces stopped providing training for new employees by the early 1990’s, according to the Conference Board of Canada: this equaled a drop in on-the-job training of over 40% in less than a decade. This was done both to cut their own costs and/or because they felt the government could or should provide courses which were more effective, longer, more specialized, or that required teachers or facilities many companies/factories didn’t have—so increasingly colleges had to offer more specialized, often shorter 6 month- 1 year certificate programs in these pre-employment areas.
And as many jobs began to require a specific skill set which a broad based university degree would not provide—for example training in using multiple computer platforms and programs, which was not usually part of a computer sciences degree spent on learning and creating programming—the colleges found university graduates applying for college programs to acquire the practical skills employers wanted to augment their theoretical knowledge. This did two things—first, it crowded out the non-university bound students for whom colleges had been designed, who didn’t have the same kinds of prior knowledge nor entrance marks as high as university grads did; second, it meant that a first year college computer course might have students with 1-2 high school courses as a background, and students with a computer degree—which meant a lot of fiddling with the content of these courses and the risk that half the kids would be clueless about “today’s topic” and the other half bored silly! This in turn led to trying to steer university grads to post degree college programs—ones for which an undergrad degree was a requirement, usually only a year in length: Arts Administration was an early offering of this kind, gathering students who had majored in arts and tried working professionally and found they couldn’t support themselves, but who were dedicated to working in an arts environment, and turning them into the administrators arts companies, institutions, and organizations needed—people with knowledge and experience as artists with an overlay of knowledge about “the business of the arts.” For many other areas this was not such a practically and professionally sound solution.
So the smartest way to
attack the problem, many colleges felt, was to reverse the process-- get
students into college programs first—and then after a year or two of practical,
hands on training, transfer them into nearby university programs in the same
areas. And that is in fact a very
popular model in all of Ontario’s colleges and many in other provinces as
well. So in the Toronto area, for
example, Humber feeds into York and Guelph; Centennial into the U of T
Scarborough; Seneca into York; Sheridan into the U of T Mississauga; Durham
into UOIT. Generally if there is an
Ontario college and a university not enormously far apart, they will have
related, transferable programs. But it didn’t completely solve the
problem….some kids who did well at college found themselves lost in the far
larger university settings, with less faculty/student services support; some
just didn’t want to change schools, housing
and friends after 2 or sometimes 3 years. Outside
More recently it seemed
reasonable to colleges and to the
And many Ontario
universities have also paired themselves with colleges for an easy transition:
for instance, Fleming College in
Peterborough offers some 1-2 year programs which provide a technical background
for related degree programs at Trent University, also in Peterborough; Trent
offers an education program which transitions students into Queens for their
final year of education studies at the Faculty of Education. Seneca College has its own building at York
University for a range of “Seneca at York” 1-2 year programs –many of them
music or broadcast based--which encourage students to move into York’s related
degree programs, and Durham College, located on the same campus as UOIT,
provides an exceptionally easy transition for tech and science focused students
from college through graduate school.
So although this may seem like an earthquake to those who went through, or taught in, the college or university system “as it was” a decade or so ago, it is one which has shifted expectations and possibilities, creating a far more linked, transitional, useful spectrum of educational possibilities in Ontario. Unfortunately, public understanding of this new learning landscape has not kept pace with the opportunities offered: far too many kids (and sadly their parents, and sadder even, sometimes their high school teachers!) still see colleges as somehow ‘second rate’ choices behind universities. The reality is that far more college grads are employed within a year after graduation in areas which are a match for their diplomas and skills—partly because there are smaller classes, more focused curricula, and more co-op and intern possibilities--and partly because they have more concrete skills and fewer abstract theories about the working world. It is perhaps the only sane and truly helpful place for a graduating high school student who has identified special needs to begin post secondary education because there is a more clearly defined curriculum, far more individual help from teachers, more supportive fellow students --as they tend to know each other far better, and excellent student support services.
College is also the ideal starting place for someone who doesn’t want to end up with mega thousands in student debt to pursue a degree they are not yet sure they want; they can get a diploma, work for a few years, and then decide whether going back and moving into a related degree program, either at that college or at a university with which it has a connection, would be a better fit for their developing career goals. Or not. Or they can take the theory courses they are interested in online at Athabaska or Royal Roads University for credit--or just for interest. Within a few years they will undoubtedly be able to take courses in the far wider eLearning landscape developing in the US, where students of any age can take non-credit courses—often in video format online—from very good professors at very famous schools, like Harvard and Stanford. College is also a far better place for many arts-related students who are eager to move into working in the arts while still young and willing to lead a Value Village kind of lifestyle J for the 5-10 years it tends to take to get established as a self supporting artist—and they can always go back later if they feel the need or desire for more theoretical/historical/academic information. If one’s desire is to pursue graduate work in any of these areas and teach in a university, the undergraduate BFA or more likely BAH is obviously essential groundwork, but I’m not the only experienced arts teacher who is not sure that spending more than $100,000 to get a degree in performance or production in theatre, dance, music, visual arts or media/film studies is viable, or necessary, for most kids—or even that it is the best, most functional, preparation for working in the arts.
So the mountain between university and college has crumbled and shifted, not from seismic activity but from the increasing traffic across the landscape between them—it has become at best a foothill with many individual paths back and forth, plus some well paved and carefully marked highways, and the occasional twelve lane toll road!