Meeting the Challenge of Global Postsecondary Education
The transformation that Ontario’s postsecondary education system is undergoing is historically significant. Even more important, though, is the wealth of new options these changes will soon provide for the province’s students.

By Douglas Auld

Until last year, higher education in Ontario was marked by a university system that granted degrees and a community college system that granted diplomas. The one exception was Ryerson Polytechnic Institute, which granted applied degrees and, in the mid-90s, became a university.

Unlike their counterparts in the United States, where the associate degree is the common credential for a two-year community college program, Ontario colleges were not permitted to grant degrees.

While there was little change in the structure of the Ontario postsecondary system, rapid change was taking place elsewhere in Canada and around the world. Alberta community colleges were granted the right to offer applied degrees under certain conditions. In British Columbia, five community colleges became university colleges, with the right to offer undergraduate degrees. New Zealand developed a system of polytechnic degree granting institutions and in Britain, many of the polytechnics became universities.


Even though Ontario’s postsecondary structure remained the same, college programs across the province were already evolving to meet new demands.

The changes began in the early 1990s when many programs became linked to degree programs at universities in Ontario, other provinces, the U.S. and other countries. Degree granting institutions recognized that a significant portion of the college curricula was sufficiently similar to that of universities. It made sense to formally recognize college credits towards degrees.

The formal change to college programs arrived over the last two years as the provincial government was convinced that the specialized and unique strengths of the colleges could provide the foundation for baccalaureate degrees in applied education unlike those in the university sector.


Throughout the 1990s and continuing today, universities in Canada and elsewhere have and are recognizing that postsecondary community college education in many instances is an excellent foundation for degree level study.

A number of Ontario universities offer up to 100 per cent credit for certain college programs provided graduates from such programs achieve a specified academic performance. One example is the Loyalist College-University of Guelph articulation in Early Childhood Education-Child Studies.

Loyalist College graduates who achieve at least a B+ average during their two years of college study may enter the third year of the four-year Child Studies program at Guelph. This arrangement provides an excellent alternative to the traditional university-only route. The combination of the intense applied nature of college education and the more theoretical foundations from the university side is unbeatable.


Applied degrees are offered at several non-university institutions in Canada such as Mount Royal College in Calgary, the University College of Cape Breton and British Columbia Institute of Technology. They are widespread throughout the U.S., Europe, Australia and New Zealand. For several years, Ontario colleges and many employers have been arguing in favour of college-based applied degrees.

How does a four-year applied baccalaureate differ from a university degree? A review of the programs at the granting institutions reveals a strong core of advanced level vocational skills, often combined with management courses, both general and related to the particular nature of the program.

Almost all such programs are four years in length. In some cases, the core of advanced vocational skills is offered in the first two years, allowing a student to graduate with a diploma instead of continuing for the four years and the degree.

The need for such programs has arisen largely because of the increasingly complex nature of work in many industries and business. Environmental management, robotics, computer animation, industrial design systems and computer engineering are all areas that lend themselves to a four-year program with a strong base of vocational skills. These degrees are attractive to students graduating from high school with an interest in the hands-on part of learning and skills development.


In addition to extending degree-granting powers, the provincial government has introduced in the legislature a new Act to govern the operation of Ontario’s community colleges. The Act Respecting the Establishment and Governance of Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology received first reading on December 4, 2001.

The Act contains a clause suggesting that colleges could become something different in the future and there is now a debate about the transformation of a college into a polytechnic institute. For decades, Ryerson was the one polytechnic institute in Ontario and for a while, perhaps the only one in Canada.

In other parts of the world, polytechnics are not uncommon and in some instances involve institutions with strong research activity and graduate programs. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the U.S., founded in 1824, is one of the country’s leading degree-granting institutions. The Milan Polytechnic Institute of Italy offers degree-granting programs, some of which require five years of study. Both New Zealand and Germany offer polytechnic education.

Colleges given nod to grant degrees

On March 27 nine colleges received approval from the Ontario government to grant degrees in specific programs:

  • Algonquin College – Bachelor of Applied Business (E-Business Supply Chain Management)
  • Centennial College – Bachelor of Applied Information Science (Computer and Communication Networking)
  • Conestoga College – Bachelor of Applied Technology (Integrated Advanced Manufacturing Technologies), Bachelor of Applied Technology (Integrated Telecommunication and Computer Technologies)
  • George Brown College – Bachelor of Applied Business (Financial Services)
  • Georgian College – Bachelor of Applied Business (Automotive Management)
  • Humber College – Bachelor of Applied Business (E-Business), Bachelor of Applied Arts (Paralegal Studies)
  • Mohawk College – Bachelor of Applied Technology (Process Automation)
  • Seneca College – Bachelor of Applied Business (Financial Services Management), Bachelor of Applied Technology (Environmental Site Remediation)
  • Sheridan College – Bachelor of Applied Arts (Animation).

A review of polytechnic education offers no single definition of a polytechnic institution. In Europe, the U.S. and New Zealand it would be seen as advanced, postsecondary technical education even though many polytechnics today offer degree programs in business and the social sciences. It has been suggested in one European study that one could view universities and polytechnics as the separation between the study of knowledge and the study of knowledge for work.

Polytechnic institutions would offer high school graduates an additional choice for postsecondary education. Currently, Ontario high school graduates who are interested in this option must travel to British Columbia, Alberta, Nova Scotia or the United States.

For the high school graduate who is focused on a vocational profession such as environmental management, building sciences, advanced manufacturing design or human services management, a four-year polytechnic education is the ideal choice. Even now, a significant number – 15 to 20 per cent – of high school graduates who graduate with sufficient credits to attend university choose a community college program. For these students a polytechnic education would be an ideal choice.


Currently, four colleges in Ontario – Loyalist, Conestoga, Humber and Sheridan – have publicly stated their desire to evolve and become polytechnic institutes. Would there be any difference between such institutes and existing colleges in Ontario that might offer one or two applied degrees?

After all, the philosophy of the new applied degrees is rooted in the concept of "knowledge for work."

Part of the answer may be found by examining, briefly, the philosophy underlying three well-established polytechnic institutes in three countries. Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in the U.S. is small, with 2,700 undergraduates and 1,000 full and part time graduate students. The mission of Worcester is to "... provide ... students with a thorough conceptual foundation in science, engineering, management, the humanities and social sciences." Every student at WPI must complete a major qualifying project and

".... demonstrate the application of skills, methods and knowledge of the discipline to solving a problem representative of the type to be encountered at the professional level."

The curriculum is unique in that there are few structured one-hour classes or three-hour labs. Much of the curriculum is project-based, the work being done individually and in teams.

The Waikato Polytechnic in Hamilton, New Zealand provides undergraduate programs at the certificate, diploma and degree level. The degree programs are built on the foundation that "...provide(s) high quality vocational, skills based professional education and training." Almost all programs have a core set of management skills training with emphasis on how the vocational and management skills are linked.

The British Columbia Institute of Technology in Vancouver is one of Canada’s largest polytechnics. The degree programs were developed through the institute’s involvement with employers in British Columbia to design programs at the advanced level to meet new emerging needs in the labour force. Most degree programs combine what one might call traditional university academic courses with advanced practical and skills-based training. Many courses focus on addressing real world technical challenges in the workplace.

These are different institutions with several similar characteristics: advanced vocational skills education, the application of knowledge to the world of work, real world challenges, the involvement of employers in program design. A final characteristic is the proportion of activity in the institute devoted to the applied degree programs.

What, then, is a polytechnic institute? While not being completely prescriptive, a polytechnic could be defined as a postsecondary education institution where a significant portion of academic programming provides advanced vocational and generic skills education leading to a degree that has a direct application to professional employment.

A polytechnic institute would also be identified as an institution where there was a consistent approach to the learning environment for all applied degree programs. Such programs would most likely be supported by applied research.


The development of a wide range of articulation agreements between Ontario’s colleges and universities in Ontario and elsewhere offers high school graduates a unique launching pad for those who aspire to complete a degree. Ontario, through the College University Consortium Council (CUCC), provides prospective students with an electronic, online transfer guide.

Applied baccalaureate degrees offered by Ontario’s community colleges and the development of a limited number of polytechnic institutes in Ontario will bring Ontario further into the 21st century, as far as higher education is concerned.

Applied degrees offer students the opportunity to obtain skills and knowledge in fields where the application of knowledge for work dominates the curricula.

The new economy, however defined, is one where there are emerging jobs requiring the learning outcomes associated with applied degrees.

The existence of applied degrees at colleges will also provide the opportunity for those with a two-year college education to build on this experience and study toward an applied degree as their career aspirations or work environment changes.

The emergence of polytechnic institutions – or university colleges as they are referred to in some jurisdictions – in Ontario will bring the province in line with changes in other provinces and countries around the world. Finally, degree-granting institutions with unique applied degrees and a philosophy of advanced education that closely links learning and work will attract more funds for new and unique research projects.

Douglas Auld is president of Loyalist College in Belleville. Prior to his appointment, he served as professor and chair of the economics department at the University of Guelph. He has also held teaching positions at UBC, Duke University and Trent University.

Magazine Home | Masthead | Archives

From the Chair  |   Registrar's Report  |   Remarkable Teachers  |   Blue Pages
News  |   Reviews  |   Calendar  |   Netwatch  |   FAQ  |   Letters to the Editor

Ontario College of Teachers
121 Bloor Street East, 6th Floor Toronto  ON M4W 3M5
Phone: 416-961-8800 Toll-free: 1-888-534-2222 Fax: 416-961-8822