Apples to Apples? Ontario’s Differentiated Baccalaureates

April 26, 2017   |   Ontario, PEW Team Research

by Diane Simpson

In 2002, legislation changed in Ontario allowing public colleges in the province to offer baccalaureate degrees for the first time (Clark, Moran, Skolnik & Trick, 2009). Presently (2017), almost 15,000 students are studying in over 100 college baccalaureate programs at 13 out of 24 public colleges in Ontario. The number of applications for college baccalaureates more than tripled from 2006 to over 36,000 in 2014, demonstrating the demand for this type of programming.  But how do college baccalaureates differ in content and delivery from their university analogues?

To answer this question, we compared the curricula of college baccalaureates with those of cognate degrees offered at universities within Ontario. Five college degree programs from the fields of applied arts, business, health and technology were selected based on enrolment numbers and the number of years that the degree had been offered. Two types of Ontario universities were identified for the analysis of the cognate degrees: those focused on experiential and Work Integrated Learning (WIL), and those with a primary focus on intensive research.[1]

To conduct the curriculum analysis, we drew upon the work of Basil Bernstein, a key English sociologist of education in the last quarter of the 20th century.  In his analysis of curriculum, Bernstein identified two types of knowledge—esoteric knowledge and mundane knowledge. These types of knowledge form two discourses within curriculum—vertical and horizontal.  Vertical discourses describe knowledge that is not segmented by specific contexts, and may thus be considered esoteric, or abstract. In contrast, horizontal discourses are those that embody every day or “mundane” knowledge: that which operates and is understood in specific contexts (Bernstein, 2000; Wheelahan, 2010).

For each of the institutions in the study, we examined how curriculum is linked to theoretical bodies of knowledge versus every day knowledge. The analytical process we used identifies rules that have been created for the selection, sequencing, pacing and evaluation of knowledge, with an emphasis on links with the labour market, and the role of the labour market in the design and the delivery of college baccalaureates.

Based on Bernstein’s identification of two types of knowledge discourses, vertical and horizontal, our analysis of curriculum demonstrates a stronger link between college curriculum and horizontal knowledge. Links to the labour market are evident in curriculum design, program delivery, and eventual employment of graduates. The table below provides an example of the different content of degrees at different institutions. It also shows variations in the focus of cognate degrees in two different universities within the system. There are, therefore, variations between types of institutions, but also variations within institutional types.

Table: Weight of Skill-Based Knowledge Within Curriculum

Applied Theoretical Outside Discipline Co-op/Work Placement
Seneca 50% 28% 10% 12%
Ryerson 24% 37% 9% 30%
York 20% 45% 35% 0%

The findings of this study may be helpful to students and families. Understanding the different curriculum orientations of programs is essential for prospective students as they compare and contrast the baccalaureate options available to them. Our findings invite further investigation into the ability of the differently oriented baccalaureates to prepare students for the labour market, or further studies at the graduate level. The findings also demonstrate wide variation in cognate bachelor degrees across the system, the students that they serve, and the approaches taken to curriculum.

Despite such lack of uniformity, we continue to evaluate college baccalaureates against those offered by universities as if the latter serves as a singular benchmark. Further, criteria more suitable to evaluating cognate degrees does not acknowledge the distinctive aims of applied degrees. Given the variety of outcomes and purposes served by baccalaureates offered by all kinds of institutions in the province, isn’t it time to stop treating college degrees as poor cousins, and recognize the legitimate role they play in higher education?

Contributor: Diane Simpson


Bernstein, B. (2000). Pedagogy, symbolic control and identity. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield.

Clark, I., Moran, G., Skolnik, M. & Trick, D.  (2009).  Academic transformations: The forces reshaping higher education in Ontario. Montreal and Kingston: Queen’s Policy Studies Series, McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development. (2014). Strategic mandate agreements. Retrieved from:

Muller, J., B. Davies and A. Morais. (2004).  Reading Bernstein, researching Bernstein. London: Routledge Falmer.

Wheelahan, L. (2010) Why knowledge matters in curriculum: A social realist argument. London: Routledge.

End Notes

[1] These distinctions were drawn by the universities themselves, as outlined in Strategic Mandate Agreements submitted to the Ontario Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development (2014) by the province’s post-secondary institutions.

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