By Lee Richardson
For students who have wondered why they cannot simply work straight through the summer vacation and finish their degree faster, the answer is in the farming industry.
“The only reason we have summer vacation is because in the old days of agriculture we needed students to help with the harvest,” University of Toronto economics professor David Foot said. “Obviously that is no real reason for most people now.”
Some universities in the United States, like the University of Massachusetts Amherst, are realizing that point and increasingly considering and implementing three-year undergraduate degrees. The shorter degree is created by increasing the student workload by compressing courses into a shorter timeline, so students have to work through the summer months in order to finish earlier.
Ontario does offer three-year undergraduate degrees in the form of a ‘pass’ degree, which is intended as an introduction to the liberal arts. But these programs are different to the typical four year ‘honours’ degree as they are not intended to lead into masters programs.
“To some extent it’s kind of a terminal arts degree,” Ontario Institute for Studies in Education professor, Glen Jones said. “But the internal logic of it was to create a more accessible degree for those who might not be moving into professional fields, or might not be moving on into a masters program.”
Such programs, while still available universities like Waterloo, are becoming increasingly rare due to educational reform introduced by the Mike Harris government in 1995.
“Universities coincided with the curriculum double cohort, which was the notion of reducing the number of years in secondary school,” Jones said. “That was believed as a rational reason for not having as many three year degrees.”
The standard North American undergraduate degree is longer because of liberal courses added onto a professional major, which differs from other countries concepts of undergraduate education.
“If you go to the U.K your undergraduate degree will be very focused,” Jones said. “The notion there is that by focusing in one area you’re really developing a strong knowledge.”
However, some industries require a certain amount of schooling.
“A lot of our programs are accredited, and the length of time is therefore established by a professional body, for example engineering or nursing,” Ryerson president Sheldon Levy said.
While a shift to shorter degrees could easily save money for students, there is also a potential financial benefit for universities.
“You obviously wouldn’t have to spend as much money on teaching,” said Jones.
However, three-year programs are unlikely to be seen at Ryerson.
“There’s been no Ryerson discussion at all about this,” Levy said. “Even at four years you look at the debate of whether we should go from 13 weeks to 12 for reading week and the big debate is always how do you handle the amount of content necessary.”
Photo: Marta Iwanek