In January 2015, Colleges Ontario released a proposal calling for the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) to authorize Ontario’s colleges to offer a four year stand-alone Bachelor of Science Nursing (BScN) degree. Prior to 2005, a majority of nursing education occurred in colleges. In 2005, the College of Nurses of Ontario introduced a new regulation that all Registered Nurses must hold a baccalaureate degree from a recognized university. Following this change, two types of nursing programs are now permitted: programs offered in universities and collaborative college-university programs that lead to a university degree.
Like Colleges Ontario, OPSEU, which represents more than 12,000 faculty in Ontario colleges, believes that colleges are well positioned to offer high quality nursing degrees. Our highly trained and experienced professors, our established track record in nursing education and the applied nature of the profession makes it well suited to colleges. Furthermore, colleges offer unprecedented postsecondary access to a diverse range of students who are otherwise underrepresented in traditional university contexts.
Nonetheless, it is OPSEU’s position that baccalaureate education requires an academic environment that can support degree level outcomes. The internationally accepted core criterion for such an environment is that faculty can undertake research and teaching within an institutional framework of academic freedom. And yet, to date, Ontario colleges have failed to provide such an environment.
The absence of institutional protection for academic freedom in Ontario’s community colleges has lead to significant discrimination against students who graduate with college degrees. Moreover, the failure to provide academic freedom, as well as an appropriate framework for intellectual property, has stunted the capacity of community colleges to fully maximize their potential to contribute to social and economic innovation in Ontario.
OPSEU thus calls on the government and Colleges Ontario to implement a robust guarantee of academic freedom for college faculty in both policy and collective agreement language before proceeding with further college degree approvals.
1. Degree Discrimination
Numerous reports (Marshall 2005, 2008; Jones & Skolnik, 2009; Panacci 2014) document that students who receive stand-alone degrees from colleges face various forms of degree discrimination. At stake is how college baccalaureate degrees are perceived and treated when students seek to pursue further study or have their credentials recognized internationally.
A study prepared for MTCU documented that 85 per cent of college degree graduates intended to apply to Master’s programs, but 36 per cent of those who had applied reported that the university they wished to attend would not recognize their degree. Of those universities that will consider college degree applicants, many will only do so on a case-by-case basis instead of applying the same admissions criteria they use for university graduates (R.A. Malatest and Associates Ltd., 2010).
The issue largely revolves around the fact that Ontario colleges are not members of the Association of Universities and Colleges in Canada (AUCC), and currently cannot be members, because colleges fail to meet AUCC eligibility criteria. In the absence of a national body that officially oversees institutional accreditation in Canada, universities in both Canada and abroad rely on the AUCC membership list to ascertain whether a degree is credible, and whether the institution meets the internationally recognized requirements to deliver the degree outcomes expected of a baccalaureate.
Criteria for institutional membership in AUCC include such things as1 :
Authority vested in academic staff for decisions affecting academic programs;
The provision of education of university standard with the majority of its programs at that level.
Its undergraduate degree programs are characterized by breadth and depth;
A proven record of scholarship, academic inquiry and research and the provision of appropriate time and support to do so; and
The protection of academic freedom.
So, while the Post-Secondary Education Choice and Excellence Act of 2000 allows Ontario’s colleges to offer degrees and the Postsecondary Education Quality Assurance Board (PEQAB) confirms the high quality of these degrees, the absence of AUCC membership leads to significant educational barriers for graduates with college baccalaureate degrees.
It may be unrealistic for community colleges to meet all the criteria for AUCC membership—in particular the criterion that a majority of programs should be at the baccalaureate level—largely because colleges should continue their mandate to deliver quality diploma education. However, according to Dave Marshall (2008), the former president of both Nipissing and Mount Royal University, not all the criteria for AUCC membership have to be met for college degrees to be recognized as credible going forward. Nonetheless, Marshall suggests that two key components must be achieved: scholarship capacity and academic freedom.
University-level degrees will require selected components of university-level environment. Although the specific components required for this environment are still under debate, providing both academic freedom and a supportive setting for faculty teaching baccalaureate degrees to engage in a full range of scholarship will likely be considered the most critical. (2008, p.14)
When it comes to scholarship capacity, community colleges have made great strides in recent years. Most colleges have active Centres of Applied Research, which have played a significant role in social and economic innovation in Ontario (Conference Board of Canada, 2010). Both PEQAB and the Canadian Association of Schools of Nursing (CASN) have established that there is high evidence of faculty research and scholarly activity appropriate to baccalaureate degree education in Ontario college nursing departments. Nonetheless, there is still a great distance to go. The Conference Board of Canada has recommended that the colleges’ potential for innovation can only be fully maximized if the government provides a funding structure that allows more faculty time to be allocated to research (2010, p.82).
However, the second component—academic freedom—has been largely dismissed outright or completely ignored by Ontario’s colleges at their peril. Indeed, the Colleges Ontario proposal for stand-alone nursing degrees does not even address the future barriers that BScN students may face if they graduate with degrees from institutions that fail to meet internationally recognized standards for degree granting. The failure to implement a secure academic freedom framework for college professors has devalued college degrees and placed significant obstacles on students who are often unaware of the limitations of their hard earned degrees until it is too late.
2. Academic Freedom and Academic Decision Making
R.A. Malatest & Associate Ltd.’s (2010) report for MTCU, Evaluation of Degrees in Applied Areas of Study, recommends that improved messaging and public education may rectify the negative perception of college degrees. However, this report, and the Colleges Ontario proposal, fails to address why academic freedom forms the foundation of baccalaureate education. No amount of messaging will change what is an internationally shared understanding of the nature of degree education.
Academic freedom is not an esoteric concept; it exists for a crucial reason: it protects the integrity of research and teaching.
AUCC defines academic freedom in this way:
In teaching, academic freedom is fundamental to the protection of the rights of the teacher to teach and of the student to learn. In research and scholarship, it is critical to advancing knowledge. Academic freedom includes the right to freely communicate knowledge and the results of research and scholarship.
Consider, for example, that private and corporate sponsors often fund research. While industry/postsecondary partnerships have a vital role to play in stimulating innovation, it is not difficult to foresee the quandaries that could arise without protections. The principle of academic freedom asserts that faculty will be allowed to inquire, debate, test, and communicate freely the results of their research without being unduly tied to the constraints of their sponsors. Without such protection, partners could dictate the outcomes of research without attention to the rigours and standards of inquiry, especially in cases when the results would benefit a private interest. In health care fields, in particular, this has proven to be essential for protecting public safety. Ontarians deserve a health care system based on the rigourous, bias free, and transparent research that academic freedom ensures.
In a similar vein, in teaching, academic freedom means that faculty have both the right and the responsibility to determine the most appropriate way to achieve course outcomes within the confines of “the professional standards of the relevant discipline” (AUCC, 2011). According to the Canadian Association of University Teachers “academic staff must play the predominant role in determining curriculum, assessing standards, and other academic matters” . However, these decisions do not happen in a vacuum, because faculty are bound by rigorous forms of collegial and peer review. Without such freedom, the most basic decisions about everything from course textbooks, to grade assignments, to pedagogical methods can be assigned by bureaucrats, private corporations that sell curricula, or managers who have no professional or academic knowledge of the relevant discipline. Indeed, under the current model, faculty lack the most basic ability to debate decisions that compromise quality or even student safety (MacKay, 2014). Imagine a situation where a manager can overrule a nursing professor’s grade assignment. Do you want a qualified nursing professor to assess whether a Registered Nurse is prepared to begin his or her clinical practice or a bureaucrat? This is what academic freedom protects. In this sense, academic freedom acts as a safe guard for public education and is as much of a responsibility as a right.
Academic freedom does not erode the responsibility and authority of administrators to govern. For example, the university model of academic freedom and decision-making works on what is known as a bicameral structure of governance. An administrative wing, overseen by a Board of Governors is responsible for all matters of financial and managerial governance; however, academic decisions are left to academics and collective academic governance is managed through a Senate, which ensures the quality and rigour of programs. A modified version of these principles could easily be implemented in community colleges at little to no cost, and would go a long way towards restoring the reputation of Ontario’s colleges and the portability of college degrees.
In considering Colleges Ontario’s proposal to authorize colleges to grant BScN degrees, OPSEU strongly recommends that MTCU tie degree-granting approval to the implementation of a robust academic freedom and academic decision-making framework that protects students’ investments, protects faculty rights and responsibilities, and protects the credibility of Ontario’s postsecondary education system. The implementation of such a framework can come at zero cost to the Government of Ontario and will result in positioning Ontario’s community colleges on the cutting edge of economic and social innovation.
Conference Board of Canada (2010).
Innovation Catalysts: The Impact of Ontario Colleges Applied Research. Retrieved from
Jones, G. & Skolnik, M. (2009). Degrees of Opportunity: Broadening Student Access by Increasing Institutional Differentiation in Ontario Higher Education. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. Retrieved from http://www.heqco.ca/SiteCollectionDocuments/Degrees%20of%20Opportunity.pdf
Marshall, D. (2004). Degree accreditation in Canada. The Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 34(2), 69-96. Marshall, D. (2005). Degree mobility spectrum: The tiering of Canadian degrees.
Retrieved from http://www.mtroyal.ca/cs/groups/public/documents/pdf/the_degree_mobility_spectrum.pdf
Marshall, D. (2008). Differentiation by Degrees: System Design and the Changing Undergraduate Environment in Canada”. Canadian Journal of Higher Education. (38) 3, 1-20.
Mackay, K. (2014). Report on Education in Ontario’s Colleges. Retrieved from: http://opseu.org/news/college-faculty-caatreport-education-ontario-colleges
Panacci, A. (2014). Baccalaureate Degrees at Ontario Colleges: Issues and Implications.
College Quarterly, (17)1.
R.A. Malatest & Associates Ltd. (2010). Evaluation of Degrees in Applied Areas of Study: Final Report. Version 2.2.
Toronto: Ontario. Retrieved from http://www.collegesontario.org/research/DegreeGranting/Evaluation_of_Degrees_in_Applied_Areas_of_Study.pdf