Three-year degrees or four? What’s more?


By Megan Poirier

A case of near extinction

Over the last decade, three-year degree programs in Ontario universities have been declining. As of 2011, only forty-four of these programs exist at eight of Ontario’s universities (HEQCO, 2012). Signs of the programs’ eventual fate arose with the elimination of grade 13 in the 1980s, followed by the eradication of OACs in 2002 (HEQCO, 2012). With one year less of secondary education, Ontario universities lacked confidence in student preparedness for higher education, which resulted in the inability to sufficiently prepare students for receiving a bachelor’s degree in three years (HEQCO, 2012). Moreover, a shift in post-secondary credentials occurred wherein there was an increased interest in students pursuing graduate studies where a four-year degree is the minimum entry requirement (HEQCO, 2012). However, just as it seemed that three-year degrees would become an entity of the past, in 2012, the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities proposed resurrecting the previously phased-out university degree programs, albeit with modifications, to be implemented between 2013 and 2015 (Rushowy, 2012a). In order to accurately make an informed decision regarding the implications arising from this provincial proposal, exploring both perspectives of the ongoing debate is a necessity.  

What’s the debate about?

Within the province, the ongoing debate regarding three-year university degrees is focused on two key issues: time and cost.

In the early 2000s, a need for more time was a key factor which supported the reduction in the number of three-year degree programs (HEQCO, 2012). However, in a post-OAC Ontario, time is of the essence, prompting the Ministry to re-evaluate the decisions made less than a decade earlier. In an era with smaller job markets and increased competition, re-vamped three-year degree programs offer the opportunity to obtain an Honours degree in three years rather than four (Rushowy, 2012a). The shorter programs would have a heavier, compressed workload with options to attend school year-round and earn more than half of credits online (Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities, 2012; Rushowy, 2012b). Ultimately, the objective is to increase educational productivity, resulting in students entering the workforce a year early (Henighan, 2012).

Opposition to the shortened degrees is profound. Firstly, it is argued that nearly half of the province’s students currently require longer than four years require a traditional Honours degree (Henighan, 2012; HEQCO, 2012; Rushowy, 2012b). In addition, numerous Ontario universities, such as the University of Guelph, currently offer a trimester system which allows students to graduate more quickly (HEQCO, 2012). However, very few students opt for compressed degree programs for fears that the heavier course load would be too academically and financially challenging (Henighan, 2012; HEQCO, 2012). Lastly, it is argued that entering the workforce a year early will not benefit individuals in Ontario’s current highly competitive employment climate (Dehaas, 2012).

One of the most prominent reasons behind the Ministry’s decision to implement shortened degree programs is the financial savings for both students and tax payers (Dehaas, 2012; Rushowy, 2012a). On average, students would reap the financial benefits of paying for one year less of tuition, allowing them to pay their student loans back sooner (Dehaas, 2012). Additionally, it has been projected that taxpayers across the province would save approximately $8,500 annually (Dehaas, 2012). However, opposition argues that the cost savings are inaccurate because there would be substantial costs associated with redesigning courses and programs (Rushowy, 2012) in addition to the expense of rewriting the collective agreements for all faculty at the universities that would confer the shortened degrees (Henighan, 2012). Furthermore, the heavier, compressed workload would make it challenging for students to maintain any employment and earn an income throughout the duration of the degree (Rushowy, 2012b).

The bigger picture

Indeed, the implications associated with the time and cost-related issues of shortened degrees are profound. However, the issue of quality transcends all realms of post-secondary education in Ontario. Despite arguments in favour of the changes, many students and stakeholders question the value of three-year degrees versus four, with both groups favouring the latter (HEQCO, 2012; Rushowy, 2012b). Moreover, it is argued that three-year degrees would make Ontarians ‘intellectually malnourished’ (Henighan, 2012) due to the insufficient time to develop analytical or critical thinking skills (Rushowy, 2012b). Consequently, in the current labour market where 21st century skills are requirements, students graduating from shortened programs would be at a ‘competitive disadvantage’ (Henighan, 2012).

Colleges to the rescue?

Many of Ontario’s colleges have been given permission to grant three-year degrees since the initial decline of the same programs at the university level (Colleges Ontario, 2012). Instead of attempting to bring these programs back to universities, should the province focus of granting colleges with the sole ability to grant three-year degrees?


Colleges Ontario (2012). Empowering Ontario: Transforming higher education in the 21st century. Toronto, ON: Colleges Ontario. Retrieved from

Dehaas, J. (2012, February 27). Students and taxpayers could benefit from a fork in the road. Macleans Online. Retrieved from

Henighan, S. (2012, March 1). A three-year degree will shortchange students. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from

Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (2012). Changing times, changing places: The global evolution of Bachelor’s degree and the implications for Ontario. Toronto, ON: Queen’s Printer for Ontario. Retrieved from

Ministry of Training, Colleges, & Universities (2012). Strengthening Ontario’s centre of creativity, innovation, and knowledge: A discussion paper on innovation to make our university and college system stronger. Toronto, ON: Government of Ontario. Retrieved from

Rushowy, K. (2012a, February 22) Ontario universities should offer three-year degrees, classes year-round and more online learning, says provincial report. The Star. Retrieved from

Rushowy, K. (2012b, February 23). Most Ontario university students prefer four-year bachelor degrees, survey finds. The Star. Retrieved from



2 thoughts on “Three-year degrees or four? What’s more?

  1. I’ve read and re-read your blog many times and I’m still not exactly sure where I stand in terms of my opinion on whether or not I am for or against a shortened degree or not. On the one hand I agree that it would be fantastic to be able to save some money, and I know that I for one was more than ready to get into the work force. However when I think about it, if they were to try and cram the 5 year program that I did into 3 years I know that I would not be prepared or even be able to bring anything worthwhile to the field of my career. If we are to try and get back to the roots of what higher education is supposed to mean, that would mean that you can’t really put a price or time limit on learning; it is more about gaining knowledge and a higher order of thinking than a race to the finish line. The point of education is to educate, and not just push people through the system and give them credentials. I think that 3 years programs don’t allow you enough time for a real transformative learning experience; you are not afforded enough time to really get too in-depth into anything.

    I think that we need to stop looking at students as a commodity and their education as a piece of paper/ticket into the work force. I very much agree with your perceptions of the bigger picture; we are doing our students and workplace a huge disservice with accelerating their education because we are reducing the amount of time they will have to develop their creative and critical thinking skills. Due to this we are then hampering innovation because with an accelerated degree, sure students are learning some knowledge, but are they learning how to create and synthesize knowledge? I’m not so sure they are.

  2. Hey Megan, I really enjoyed your blog post! You have raised some very important issues.

    I took the time to quickly read an article that was written by Kulik, J and Kulik, C (1984), that was titled “Effects of Accelerated Instruction on Students.” Although the article is dated, it raised some interesting points. It noted that accelerated learning effects one’s:

    – Attitudes Toward School (students who could handle the accelerated programs had a positive attitude towards school)
    – Attitude Towards School Subjects (studies revealed that there was a change in attitude towards accelerated programs in mathematics)
    – Vocational Plans (Employment/Job Plans)
    – Participation in School Activities (It was found that accelerated programs tended to reduce one’s participation in school activities)
    – Adjustment (It was found that there was a “significant negative effect of acceleration on adjustment” (Kulik. J & Kulik. C, 1984).

    Although there are financial and job related benefits to completing a post-secondary degree in a shortened/condensed period of time … shouldn’t we be spending more time on addressing how these fast paced programs effect students?

    There is more to education than completing/receiving a degree. Students need to have the opportunity to engage in sports, social events, volunteering, internships, etc. I could not agree with you more that shortened programs would be putting students at a “competitive disadvantage,” as they are academically unprepared and they loose the experiential aspect that is associated with post-secondary education.


    Kulik, J. A., & Kulik, C. C. (1984). Effects of Accelerated Instruction on Students. Review Of Educational Research, 54(3), 409-425.

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