Sheridan University? (Part Two)

In my last post, I discussed the plans stated by Sheridan College’s President, Jeff Zabudsky, to turn his college into a university in the next seven years.

His stated reasons for pursuing this course of action had nothing to do with the prospect of obtaining money offered by the Ontario government for its election promise to create three new undergraduate campuses.  (To give an example of the potential sums involved, I note that the City of Barrie has expressed an interest in housing a campus of Laurentian University, and has requested $40 million dollars from the province to help accomplish this goal.)

No, President Zabudsky has justified the switch to university status on the grounds of increased opportunities for Sheridan graduates, claiming:

“We’re being driven by student demand for degrees, but I want every graduate to be able to carry on to grad school if they choose. Currently they confront many barriers.”

In my last post, I questioned the number of Sheridan students who might truly be suffering from reduced grad-school opportunities, and I might also question whether it’s appropriate to turn a college into a university wholesale, for the sake of the ~10% of its current student population who are enrolled in college degree programs.  But Zabudsky’s fundamental point is, in fact, quite valid: I know from my own students’ experiences that graduates holding college degrees do, in fact, face very real obstacles if they choose to pursue graduate degrees.

What confuses me, about Pres. Zabudsky’s remarks, however, is his tone of surprise and disappointment that the holders of Bachelors’ degrees from Sheridan are impeded in their pursuit of Masters degrees.  The Toronto Star reports that he is:

Frustrated by growing demand for its degree programs that Ontario graduate schools refuse to recognize — most are called “applied” degrees when offered by a college . . . .

To allay Pres. Zabudsky’s confusion over the plight of Sheridan’s ambitious degree-holding graduates, permit me humbly to point out why graduate school admissions committees might express some hesitation over the bachelors’ degrees offered by Ontario colleges like his own:

  • Ontario college faculty often lack terminal degrees in their area of instruction, and as few as 50% of their faculty teaching students in degree programs may possess terminal degrees
  • Faculty in Ontario colleges lack academic freedom
  • Ontario colleges lack Academic Senates to adjudicate educational issues, and academic decisions are instead made by managers

In addition, there are a few more factors that limit the appropriateness of a college degree for direct admission to graduate school.  I find it hard to believe, moreover, that these would come as any surprise to President Zabudsky, given that they are clearly stated in the government agencies’ own literature on the credentialing of college degree programs:

  • Ontario college degree programs are approved in part by Ontario’s Postsecondary Education Quality Assessment Board (PEQAB) on the condition that they relate to fields distinct from those offered by universities (cf. the reference to “non-duplication” in pp. 15 of this document)
  • PEQAB also clearly stated (as of July, 2011) that “Ontario colleges may offer only degrees in applied areas of study”, and not the “academically-oriented [or] professionally-oriented” degrees to which the title “Honours” could be given.
  • Said “degrees in applied areas” are clearly intended by the Ministry to prepare students “for some second-entry professional degree programs, employment in a variety of fields, or advanced entry into an honours or specialist program of study in the field.”  This is in clear contrast to Honours degrees, which are designed to prepare students for “entry into graduate study in the field, second-entry professional degree programs or, depending upon content, employment in a particular field of practice or employment in a variety of fields” (all italics mine)

If President Zabudsky truly wants “every graduate to be able to carry on to grad school if they choose”, I think that remains a laudable sentiment.  (And, in fact, this might be a compelling argument for developing programs to bridge the gap between Applied and Honours degrees.)

If, however, he maintains the opinion that the current holders of applied degrees are appropriately prepared to enter into graduate school programs — and are simply being held back because of the Ontario grad schools” snobbish bigotry towards Applied degrees — then he might do well to familiarize himself with the province’s own credentialing criteria.

But if degree-holding graduates at Sheridan — or any other Ontario college — find themselves surprised by the challenges they face getting into graduate schools (when competing against students who graduated with Honours degrees from universities), then it behooves us as an academic community to ask whether we’re representing our degree programs responsibly to prospective applicants.

Yes, President Zabudsky is correct in concluding that becoming a university is one way to enable Sheridan’s graduates to enter grad schools, but it’s worth noting three things:

1. It’s unclear that students currently enrolled in Sheridan’s degree programs would, as a whole, necessarily benefit as a consequence of the higher tuition rates, higher admission requirements, and more stringent academic demands that are associated with universities

2. Not all undergraduate university programs are equal, in the eyes of grad-school admissions committees.  Graduates with Honours degrees from several universities also find themselves impeded in their quest for graduate education.  So simply becoming a university does not automatically guarantee graduate school admission, even to your very strongest graduates.

3.  If Sheridan college does indeed to pursue university status within the next seven years, does it intend in the meantime to level with its degree programs’ applicants or incoming students, regarding the “many barriers” they currently face, when applying to graduate programs?

Upcoming, we’ll look at some reader feedback, and then consider the feasibility of Sheridan’s ambitions.   E-mail me your thoughts at ontariocollegeprof@yahoo.com

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