The case for three-year bachelor degrees

Students and taxpayers could benefit from a fork in the road


Photo by vancouverfilmschool on Flickr

University presidents, student federations and faculty associations rarely agree about much.

But they joined forces last week to bash an Ontario government proposal for three-year bachelor degrees.

The opponents argue that graduates of three-year programs won’t develop the critical thinking and research skills that those with four-year degrees have mastered. That seems obvious.

They also argue that the government is motivated by financial savings. That’s probably true. It costs provincial taxpayers $8,500 per student per year. Ontario’s deficit is forcing the government to rein in costs.

But the argument that students don’t want three-year degrees is insulting to their intelligence.

Max Blouw, president of Wilfrid Laurier University told The Waterloo Record that only 17 per cent of students at his school choose three-year degrees. That, he says, is students “voting with their feet.”

Others have cited a survey by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario that shows that 64 per cent of 850 students surveyed see four-year degrees as “having the most value.” Well, duh.

But would students feel the same way about three-year degrees if they were available at every school? Would students feel the same way about three-year degrees if they allowed them to better prepare for the job market while spending the same amount of (or less) time and money? What if three-year degrees meant more access to master’s programs for the academically inclined?

Most Ontario universities have quietly gotten rid of three-year degrees. The eight that kept them do little to promote them. If you’re a president of a university who faces a perpetual funding crisis, you’d rather bring in $80,000 per student recruited than the $60,000 a three-year student brings in.

Blouw is correct that students are voting with their feet. After four-year degrees that seem like the only option in high school, many graduate, struggle to find work and then enroll in college programs.

That’s because most new jobs—the good ones anyway—demand a combination of what universities teach (critical thinking, research, writing) and industry-specific skills that colleges specialize in.

The way things are set up now, graduates find that they often need both to succeed. The problem is that they don’t discover that fact until after four or five years of collecting debt at university.

It’s true that three-year degrees, even if accelerated, would likely never be academically equivalent to four years. But three-year degrees would offer students a much-needed fork in the road.

Those who are thriving in academia after three years could go on to traditional two-year master’s programs. This group would have plenty of time to cement their critical thinking and research skills.

Those who aren’t so in love with academia by year three could move on to applied programs like college post-grads, apprenticeships or applied master’s degrees with better chances at jobs.

There may be big financial benefits to such a fork in the road. If more students moved to a college after year three, more would be working within four years of high school graduation. They would save a year of tuition and start paying their loans back—not to mention taxes—a year sooner.

There would be even bigger savings for taxpayers ($8,500+ per year) which could be used to pay down the deficit or to create spaces in master’s programs, where there isn’t enough room.

That, of course, would be a radical change.

But a 3+2 system is already in place in Europe, where it took years debate to settle on the system.

We would be wise to not dismiss the idea so quickly—even if some of our leaders already have.


The case for three-year bachelor degrees

  1. There are many different countries in Europe, all with very different types of secondary and post-secondary education.

    In Germany, for instance, students are placed in different streams, based upon their academics, in around grade 5. Basically, they are placed in a more practical, technical, or academic schooling stream. Only those in the academic stream will go on to university. It *is* possible to change streams, but only if you are among the best in your class.

    Just about every job in Germany requires some sort of “paper” or qualification. Even the salespeople in stores need to have the appropriate qualification. It is just that different jobs require different types and levels of education.

    So I’m not sure where you get the notion that the 3+2 system is in place in Europe. It may be in place in some European countries, but certainly not all of them.

  2. I don’t understand this dispute. Most Ontario universities already allow, or until recently allowed (U of T, for example), three year degrees.

  3. Few issues:
    1) Students graduating with 3-year degrees are generally not eligible for entrance into an academic masters or graduate program. These invariably require a 4-year “honours” degree. Indeed, in some schools (certainly Acadia where I went and where there are no 3-year degrees), more academically-inclined students typically complete a 4-year honours degree, where “honours” implies research/thesis in the fourth year.
    2) 3-year degrees existed in Ontario more than anywhere else because of Grade 13/OAC. Since this is now gone, so are most 3-year degrees.
    3) My understanding of German undergraduate degrees is that they have traditionally been even longer and terminate with a more Masters-level qualification (traditionally there were only two degree levels there, though my understanding is that this might be changing).
    4) Rather than trying to make universities into job-training centres by adding in “apprenticeships” and the like, initiating more co-op work (like at Waterloo) would be more reasonable.

    And isn’t the premise of this argument that students are not learning enough “skills” in university because they are not choosing “technical” fields? What kind of apprenticeship or “applied Masters” would someone with a 3-year degree in History go into?

  4. We must learn from UK’s education system. They offer three-year bachelor degree for very long time. Why can’t we? Moreover, UK existed long ago before there was a country called CANADA.

  5. Pingback: Three-year degrees or four? What’s more? | 5P52 Higher Education

  6. Graduates from 3-year degree bachelor programs are less intelligent or lack the research and critical thinking skills compared to 4-year graduates?? seriously? I could spend 2 (or more) months doing a philosophy and critical thinking course in a 3-yr program and STILL be as intelligent as a graduate from a 4-year course. It’s not about how long the program is. It’s about how focused you are and how the course is taught. In a 4-year course, you spend more time in one course and things are not as accelerated. 3-yr is more accelerated. That’s the biggest difference. The speed of a program shouldn’t be an excuse to a person’s intelligence level. I want to see a research study on how graduates respond to critical thinking questions and we can compare….3-yr vs 4-yr.

  7. Europe consists of many countries not all of them have good 3year BC programs. Also in Europe some countries have longer high school than Canada. In Canada, in general has only 3year but in Europe it could be up to 5years after grade 9 depending on the country(not IB). I think 4years program can be good if those programs can include internship for one semester. Instead of having 40 courses, they can reduce to 35 and + internship or anything dealing with practical experience of the students. This will help students to find better job after they graduate. Nowadays many graduates do have difficulties finding a job due to lack of work experience in their area of expertise.

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