Provinces push new degree guidelines
Standards seen as a 'first step' to a Canada-wide system to ensure the quality of degrees and degree providers
This past spring, provincial ministers responsible for higher education took a step towards a common policy for ensuring the quality of degree education in Canada. The proposals endorsed by the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, aim "to provide assurance ... at home and abroad that new programs and new institutions of higher learning meet appropriate standards." However, the proposals are not binding and there is no guarantee the provinces will follow them.
Canada is one of the few countries among the 30 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development with no standardized national quality-assurance policy for higher education and no formal system of accreditation for degree-granting institutions.
Without this kind of system, it can be difficult for students, employers and postsecondary institutions to compare the quality of different degree programs, said Hans Schuetze, director of the Centre for Policy Studies in Higher Education and Training at the University of British Columbia.
The growing number of baccalaureate degree programs offered in some provinces by non-university providers, mainly colleges, magnifies the problem. Provincial governments have approved new institutions providing degrees to increase undergraduate access and choice, but some observers question whether these programs equal the quality of traditional university-based programs.
The lack of clear policies can also put Canadian institutions at a disadvantage when they try to attract foreign students. "Students that might be interested in coming here from abroad are confused by the great variety of [quality assurance] mechanisms in place," said Dr. Schuetze. "In other countries, there are clear rules. We don't have that in Canada."
A recent report commissioned by the B.C. government, Campus 2020, made the same point: "Canada's patchwork of quality assurance mechanisms is not only confusing, it is ultimately self-defeating."
A number of recent scams involving private schools offering illegal degrees has brought scrutiny to Canada's postsecondary sector. Just this year in British Columbia alone, Vancouver University Worldwide was told to stop offering degrees, Lansbridge University was ordered closed for violations of the Degree Authorization Act, and Rutherford College is under investigation.
The Chinese government last year warned its citizens to be careful when applying to Canadian private schools. As well, the Times of India reported this spring on the scam involving Lansbridge, calling it "a grim reminder for students to be cautious when applying to an institution overseas."
What the provincial education ministers approved in April was a "degree qualifications framework" that describes in some detail the kinds of learning outcomes and competencies one can expect from graduates of degree programs. Similar frameworks have been adopted by many countries, particularly the member nations of the European Union as they attempt to standardize their degree programs. The provincial ministers also endorsed a set of procedures and standards for assessing new degree programs and new degree-granting institutions.
The Council of Ministers of Education, Canada statement is a "first step to a pan-Canadian approach" to quality assurance and "demonstrates clearly that quality is a preoccupation here," said Marilyn Patton, director of the Campus Alberta Quality Council and chairperson of the group of provincial representatives that drafted the quality assurance proposals. The working group was set up by CMEC three years ago, in part because of the growing variety of degree providers.
Colleges in Ontario and Alberta have offered "applied degrees" for some years and Alberta colleges can now offer university-level degrees. In British Columbia, there are approximately 30 baccalaureate degrees delivered by colleges. Some provinces now allow private institutions to offer degrees. "Students, parents and employers were basically seeking assurances that degrees from these new providers were going to be of comparable quality," said Ms. Patton.
David Marshall, president of Mount Royal College in Calgary, has studied this issue closely. He said "examples are starting to pile up" of graduates of these new programs having their degree rejected when they apply for further study at Canadian universities.
But the new CMEC guidelines may not solve that issue. "I'm not sure that it allows you to say that a degree is a degree is a degree," said Claire Morris, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. She noted that approving a particular degree program "is not the same as saying an institution meets certain criteria expected of a university-level degree provider."
As a condition of membership in AUCC, member institutions are required to adhere to a number of quality assurance principles, including the continuous assessment of programs. Members must also have in place governance and administrative structures that the association considers vital to a university; these include an independent board of governors and the authority for academic programs vested in the academic staff.
As for degrees provided by institutions other than universities, Ms. Morris said her position is "that it's the responsibility of that degree provider to inform the students of what the pathways are coming out of that degree and, where appropriate, to go and negotiate articulation agreements with other institutions."
Another question about the new CMEC guidelines is whether the provinces will even adhere to them, since there is no mechanism to force them to do so. UBC's Dr. Schuetze said it would be "in their best interests" to do so, particularly from the perspective of international student recruitment. The provinces "all have a vested interest that Canada be seen from the outside to have a system that is high quality."
Meanwhile in British Columbia, the recent Campus 2020 report on the future of postsecondary education in that province recommended that the B.C. government establish a system of accreditation for public and private postsecondary institutions, with the goal of eventually establishing an interprovincial accreditation system that is recognized internationally.
This issue of accreditation resurfaces regularly, said Ms. Morris. Some people have suggested that AUCC should take the lead role, but she said the association "does not see itself becoming an accrediting agency." However, she said an important role for AUCC has been to develop a set of quality assurance principles to which all of its member institutions subscribe. These, as well as universities' own QA policies, are available on the AUCC website and are being updated.
Dr. Schuetze speculated that a CMEC-sponsored accrediting body is possible, but that would be "very, very far down the road." He suggested the federal government should also be involved in discussions, at least regarding international education, "because they are the ones who determine who's being let in on a student visa into Canada."