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 Ontario, the travel and residence costs which help to make a university degree so very expensive can be kept far lower, and most students in the province can attend a college less than 100km from home.  They have been an essential building block for creating a more variably educated population for the 21st century jobs which loomed in Canada’s future.  And they are a functional as well as idealistic addition to the educational landscape—one that few other countries are undertaking in such an organized, comprehensive fashion.


 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 Toronto, it meant some kids had to spend more money to transfer to a more distant university which offered what they needed. Some universities found the incoming college kids not as advanced after two years as their “own” students were, requiring a lot of fiddling with ‘equivalent’ courses and ending up costing kids more time/money/hassles than they had expected. 


More recently it seemed reasonable to colleges and to the Ontario government to increase the program types at colleges and to start providing some 3 or 4 year degree programs in them as well—especially in colleges distant from universities with those courses.  Colleges are smaller and far cheaper to build, run and hire teachers for than are universities….even if it meant many colleges had to add residences.  This was not  an original idea:  across the country, especially in less populated provinces, or those with scattered populations and geographical travel challenges, colleges were morphing into universities while not losing their college and short term occupational training options either.  Very good examples of this are Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta—which as Grant MacEwan College had myriad campuses and multi thousands of students across the province; it still offers many of its certificate training programs, and college diploma programs, along with degrees—but loses far fewer students after two years to the already overcrowded universities in Alberta. Vancouver Island University was a college in Nanaimo which has also kept what it had and added university courses, making life a lot easier for those who can’t get into the University of Victoria and can’t move to Vancouver!  The most completely designed makeover is probably Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC–it was formerly Caribou College, which offered certificates in courses like driving heavy construction vehicles, or diplomas in wilderness recreation management;  now c. 14,000 students are on campus and another 6,000 in distance ed ; they study for anywhere from 6 weeks to 6 years and can take a wide range of certificate, diploma and degree programs—in a gorgeous place! 


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.  Sheridan College and U of T Mississauga have a joint 5 year program where kids study on both campuses simultaneously and get a diploma in Musical Theatre and a BA degree in English/Theatre.


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!