By Christine Arnold

On May 19th the University Partnership Centre at Georgian College and the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto co-hosted a symposium discussing the various dimensions of college-university partnerships. Over 100 participants gathered in the inspiring library space at Georgian College and were welcomed by President and CEO MaryLynn West-Moynes.

The symposium consisted of keynote addresses from Michael Skolnik, Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto and Sheldon Levy, Deputy Minister, Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. In addition, a number of institutional leaders from colleges and universities delivered presentations on issues that impact current and potential partnership arrangements.

Why Partner?

Picture1College-university partnerships in Ontario have developed over time from a rare occurrence to a desired approach for delivering postsecondary education. These partnerships are helping to overcome Ontario’s historically binary college and university sectors and provide world-class education with students at the center.

The curriculum and commitment of Ontario’s college sector upon establishment in the 1960s purposefully varied from that of the universities. The Ontario Government rejected the American community college model in which colleges offer technical/vocational qualifications as well as a range of arts and science programming at the associate degree level. Instead, the colleges of applied arts and technology (CAATs) established in 1965 were mandated to solely offer technical/vocational qualifications. Moreover, a transfer function was explicitly excluded from the directive of the CAATs with a concession that students with an aptitude for further study might seek recognition for their previous education.

As a result, the level of integration between qualifications in Ontario’s postsecondary education system is less than that experienced in the United States and British Columbia (modeled on the California system) where transfer from associate degrees in colleges to degrees in universities is a matter of design. In its place, Ontario colleges award two diploma level qualifications: a two-year diploma and a three-year advanced diploma, with some opportunities for transfer to a degree. The advanced diploma is unique in that other North American three-year programs of its kind are degree level qualifications, which has led some scholars to advocate for its replacement.

While the foundation and structure of Ontario’s postsecondary education system may not have always encouraged partnership, currently the complementary functions that colleges and universities serve are being considered and celebrated. The benefits of such partnerships include the opportunity to share knowledge, faculty, facilities and resources; collaborate on research; dismantle sectorial silos; and open doors for students and communities.

The Nature of Partnerships

The partnerships in place between colleges and universities in Ontario vary in their purpose and frequency of use. Michael Skolnik outlined a classification of four college-university partnerships in existence.

First, Arts and Science Transfer (AST) consists of graduates of two-year university-equivalent arts and science programs for which universities award credit. This partnership reflects a good curriculum fit and while originally rejected at the time the colleges were established in the 1960s, has experienced some demand with the emergence of General Arts and Science (GAS) programs in colleges in Ontario.

Second, Advanced Career Education Transfer (ACET) consists of graduates of two and three-year college career programs for which universities award some credit. This partnership often has issues of curriculum fit, program affinity, and geographic mobility.

Third, Joint Program Partnerships (JPP) combine academic university with technical and practical college education in a voluntary manner via highly innovative and creative program design.

Lastly, Nursing Education Partnerships (NEP) are the result of an Ontario policy decision to deliver nursing education collaboratively.

Each of these partnerships serves a different purpose and requires a certain level of creativity. Provincial policies, institutional frameworks, and governance all impact feasibility.

Creativity, Challenges and Champions

While effective, creative partnerships are sought by colleges and universities, they are the exception rather than the rule in postsecondary despite the best intentions of institutions. Ontario has a few examples of highly innovative partnerships, and the relationship between Durham College and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology is certainly one worth highlighting.

This partnership is an extremely valuable example, as the two institutions share campus facilities and selected services that many collaborations are not experienced with. Inventively, the arrangement merged college and university sectors and required the University of Ontario Institute of Technology to simultaneously build its own identity as a recently established university and a shared identity with Durham College. Market focused, the partnership provides opportunities for students to advance their college education after graduation. The potential to earn both a diploma and degree is of central concern. While there have been operational shifts over time, these institutions have formed a strong relationship and engage in collective discussion forums.

Additional creative partnerships discussed include the highly successful collaborations between Mohawk College and McMaster University, Georgian College and Lakehead University, and the University of Guelph-Humber.

The creativity necessary for the longstanding partnership between McMaster University and Mohawk College was stated to have come from starting small, building on areas of mutual strength, incrementally growing with a focus on not duplicating offerings at either institution, transparent governance, community partnerships, and adapting models of delivery to the nature of the program(s). Likewise, from the student perspective, the significance of available resources, knowledgeable academic counselors, and inclusive physical/social interactions are noteworthy.

Creative partnerships also hold various challenges caused by governance approval processes, management styles, and institutional frameworks. Partnership decisions that must pass through both college governance (board) and university bi-cameral governance (board and senate) structures can result in delayed approvals and reduce responsiveness in programming.

In addition, varying management styles at colleges and universities contribute to governance challenges and impact the quality of partnerships established. Colleges tend to embody a more industrial model of management, whereas universities possess a more collaborative model.

Lastly, senior administrator and faculty support, adequate funding to ensure continuity in offerings, professional accreditation, compatible electronic management systems, and deliberate policies must be considered. Partnerships require champions at both ends willing to work through the process even when obstacles are presented.

A planned approach, mutual goals, and regularly scheduled discussions among collaborators were described as being of critical importance to successful institutional and system-wide partnerships.

Evidenced-Based Policy

At the system level, strategic direction is important for the Ontario postsecondary system when establishing partnerships if we are to set a clear vision for where we are headed. Our current focus includes consumer protection, minimal repetition of previous coursework, reduced spending, and time to degree. To advance this goal, evidence-based policies and research that directs change will be required.

For example, the value of measuring student movement by the number of students that use a pathway rather than the number of pathways is an important shift for a mature system. Defining efficient pathways based on the costs of admitting and recruiting students is also necessary and can be achieved by examining the financial data on pathway development. In addition to this call for informed action, the need to conduct joint research and examine information gaps in transfer student outcomes on a provincial scale such as graduation rates, academic progression, etc. was identified.

Finally, using data is imperative for setting accessibility targets, particularly for baccalaureate attainment. Pathways from diploma and advanced diplomas, and expanding college degrees were cited as being ways of increasing attainment rates by providing opportunities for underrepresented groups.

Expanding College Degree Granting

The expansion of college degree granting was a theme that received attention throughout the symposium. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Canada ranks relatively low in degree attainment for younger cohorts despite many students aspiring to this credential.

In countries where colleges have been empowered to award a high percentage of degrees, degree attainment has widened. Colleges draw from a wider socio-demographic pool than universities, which has increased access. A request to reduce the power imbalance between negotiating parties by reducing the barriers to stand-alone college degree programs was made.

A dated understanding of Ontario’s colleges was discussed as a challenge when forming partnerships and brokering student movement between sectors. At times, college instruction and curriculum have been perceived as being lower level than universities, and this perception has resulted in less credit and opportunities for students.

Looking across jurisdictions, credit transfer has been successful in provinces and states where there is no reason to perceive colleges are different from other degree granting institutions. Partnerships require equal standing for both parties.

Partnerships vs. Philanthropy

Partnerships are not a passing flavour but instead are central to institutions’ missions and mandates. It is essential that partnerships are not based on charity or pity but instead on mutual benefits.

Discussion centered on the concept that there should be no good deals but only fair deals in partnering. Sheldon Levy provided this insight based on his extensive experience as President and Vice Chancellor of Ryerson University, President of Sheridan College, and senior positions at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, the University of Toronto, and York University.

If one party feels they have given more than the other or that expectations are out of sync, complications will arise. Partnerships are a business deal and as such they should embody shared risk, returns, respect and trust.

As this summary describes, the symposium provided a space to reflect on where we have come, where we are headed, and what we need to consider in forming future partnerships in Ontario.

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