THE BLOG
06/02/2014 12:28 EDT | Updated 08/02/2014 05:59 EDT

Ontario's Next Government Must Strengthen Our Colleges

Regardless of which party wins the provincial election, it will be essential for Ontario's next government to bring in meaningful reforms to encourage more students to pursue the career-focused programs at Ontario's colleges.

Addressing the serious youth unemployment and underemployment problems in Ontario must be a top priority for all politicians. Significant changes are needed to ensure that greater numbers of young people enter the workforce with the qualifications and the advanced skills to find meaningful work.

Regardless of which party wins the provincial election, it will be essential for Ontario's next government to bring in meaningful reforms to encourage more students to pursue the career-focused programs at Ontario's colleges.

The province has made progress. For example, new measures are helping greater numbers of students get a combination of both college and university education. This is a significant achievement and the parties are committed to building on this success.

But there is much more that can be done to promote college education in Ontario.

An important step would be to expand the range of degree programs available at colleges.

While some colleges currently offer four-year degrees, most college programs award diplomas and certificates. It's difficult to figure out why this is the case.

In most of the world, graduates of three-year programs that are similar to the Ontario colleges' three-year programs earn degrees. Furthermore, a number of Ontario's three-year college programs are already aligned with the provincial standards and international standards for degree programs.

Students who complete these programs should earn credentials that properly recognize their achievements and allow them to compete more effectively for good careers, both in Ontario and beyond.

It's time to elevate Ontario to international standards by allowing colleges to offer three-year degrees and by expanding the range of four-year degree programs at colleges.

The province must also take steps as soon as possible to reform the apprenticeship system.

Currently, the provincial government is responsible for managing applications to the apprenticeship system. More people might find their way into apprenticeship training if the colleges -- which are responsible for about 90 per cent of the in-class training -- played a greater role in administering registration for the in-class training. Colleges could also help more people seeking to become apprentices to find willing employers.

Finally, the province must address the funding inequities in higher education. Ontario's colleges receive the lowest per-student funding (including revenues from tuition) of any province in Canada. The per-student revenues provided to colleges in Ontario are less than the amounts for universities and high schools.

This is counter-intuitive. Ontario must increase funding for the career-focused programs at colleges to help more people find meaningful work.

To recap, here are three priority areas to help young people find better jobs and to strengthen the economy:

• Allow colleges to offer three-year degrees and expand the range of four-year degree programs at colleges.

• Strengthen the role of colleges in apprenticeship training to produce more tradespeople.

• Increase funding for the career-focused programs at colleges to help more people find meaningful work.

Post-secondary education must evolve so that more students are prepared for the rapidly changing workplace. Employers, parents and students are expecting more from the post-secondary sector. With meaningful transformation, Ontario's colleges can play a pivotal role in the province's efforts to reduce youth unemployment and underemployment.

MORE ON HUFFPOST: