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Introducing Three-Year Degrees Will Help Close Ontario's Skill Gap

04/30/2014 05:36 EDT | Updated 06/30/2014 05:59 EDT

Ontario's alarming youth unemployment rate has politicians and policy makers asking how we can change higher education to help more young people find meaningful work. There is no doubt that more must be done to promote career-specific post-secondary programs. In Ontario, a huge step in the right direction would be a decision to allow the public colleges to offer three-year degrees.

The existing situation in Ontario is peculiar. Currently, Ontario colleges are allowed to offer degrees in their four-year programs. However, the province stipulates that the colleges must award diplomas to graduates of the three-year programs.

It's unclear why this distinction exists for the three-year programs. In most OECD countries, graduates of three-year post-secondary programs earn degrees -- that includes graduates of career-focused three-year programs.

Ontario's colleges believe it's time to elevate post-secondary education in the province to international standards. It's time to allow Ontario's colleges to offer career-specific three-year degrees.

Allowing colleges to offer three-year degrees would recognize the sophisticated teaching and learning that is offered in the colleges' advanced diploma programs, much of which is consistent with Ontario and international baccalaureate standards.

As well, three-year degrees would help meet employers' demands for graduates who combine degree credentials with the high level of skills and education required to succeed in increasingly demanding careers, both in Ontario and beyond.

Growing numbers of parents and students are seeking access to degree programs with a career-specific focus. A move to allow colleges to offer three-year degrees will make higher education more attractive to students who aren't necessarily interested in general arts programs.

It isn't a radical suggestion. In fact, a provincial commission on post-secondary education recommended back in 1972 that colleges should be allowed to offer three-year degrees.

Furthermore, independent research that was recently done for the Ontario government found the four-year degree programs that are already in place play a key role in filling gaps in the labour market.

That sounds like exactly what we need. There is a tsunami of anecdotal evidence about young people struggling to find work. Students are demanding more, saying they want to be as competitive as possible in the marketplace after they complete their post-secondary experience.

Ontario's 24 public colleges are responding to this challenge. From more technology-enabled learning to enriched partnerships with universities, colleges are creating more pathways for students to attain career-specific learning as part of their education.

And the numbers show people like what they see. Colleges have experienced record-high enrolment this year. In the last five years, there has been an enormous 40 per cent increase in university graduates enrolled in colleges.

There are a few reasons for these impressive numbers. The most talked about reason is that colleges are seen as one of the solutions to the growing skills mismatch -- the misalignment between the qualifications sought by employers and the skills held by people seeking work. The reality is many employers can't fill job openings because they can't find qualified workers.

A look at the numbers is worrying. The Conference Board of Canada estimates the skills mismatch costs the province as much as $24.3 billion a year in lost economic activity. It also costs the province $3.7 billion in provincial tax revenues.

Ontario colleges have spent decades establishing rich and respectful relationships with industry leaders. The result is a treasure trove of information sharing. Colleges know exactly what's needed in the marketplace and college experts develop courses that meet the highest standards. For example, new programs include mobile application development, media robotics and automation and digital cinematography. It's essential that higher education stay nimble and flexible.

Expanding the range of degree programs at colleges will help colleges to attract greater numbers of students to high-quality, career-specific programs. Ontario must introduce changes to allow colleges to offer three-year degrees.

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