By Laura Servage

I completed my dissertation in partnership with an Alberta community college. Like most all community colleges, this institution was an important centre for credentialing in short courses and diplomas: the kinds of programs that could get people in to the workforce quickly, and match skills to high-needs occupational areas. The college relied on government funding for a great deal of its operating budget: Alberta Works clients on social assistance were funded to complete programs of study in the hopes that this would get them “off the dole,” so to speak, and employed to a level of self-sufficiency. The program is not unlike what is offered by Ontario Works.

The students who participated in my study were pursuing Licensed Practical Nursing (LPN) diplomas. The program was demanding and intensive, but graduates had a reasonable expectation of good paying work in health care. Most all I interviewed were interested in becoming nurses or nurse practitioners in the long run, and at the time of study, some pathways were in place to help LPN graduates to pursue these goals.

The college also offered shorter programs. In four to twelve months, students might complete credentials to become fork lift operators, day home providers, or health care aides. The provincial government was happy to just to get people working, and these less-skilled jobs might be appropriate for people — recent immigrants or example — who lacked the education and English language skills to tackle longer and more complex learning pathways.

Yet these short programs were missing something very important: the prospect of progress and growth that was available to the LPN students I was working with. Students were discouraged from completing any courses outside of those absolutely required to get them in to the workforce as quickly a possible, which meant that many could not even advance toward a high school diploma so long as they were on Alberta Works funding. Once obtaining credentials or certification, most could expect to work in jobs that would afford little future learning — credentialed or otherwise.

From the perspective of policy makers, in the college I worked with, LPNs with jobs and childcare providers with jobs were both success stories if they resulted in fewer people receiving public assistance. The college tallies its completion rates and employment rates. Numbers are reported. Fiscal year ends are closed, and new academic years begin. But what of our graduate x-ray technicians, childcare providers and medical receptionists? Are their jobs stable? Are they fulfilling? Will they have future opportunities to gain new knowledge and skills? Will their experience in their present jobs be valued by future employers?
<h4><strong>Education With Prospects for the Future</strong></h4>
There is no doubt that short courses offered by community colleges fulfill important roles, both in terms of individual development and meeting immediate labour market needs. However, the limited prospects for future growth in such occupations highlights many of the problems that arise when work and learning are constructed by policy makers entirely in economic terms — as something divorced from people’s community lives, interests and aspirations.

The capabilities approach to education calls for a more expansive understanding of education and work. It is a vision that cannot be achieved through market mechanisms alone. Presently, employability programs — particularly those aligned with so-called “welfare-to-work” schemes — perform a short-term and arguably short-sighted <em>matching</em> function: they develop skills in potential workers and match workers to jobs that need to be filled. The outcome is one with a good likelihood of employing people, but also of keeping them trapped in jobs without opportunities for growth (Keep &amp; James, 2012).
<h4><strong>Coordinating Work and Learning</strong></h4>
Instead of a matching function, such programs need to move toward a coordinating function that builds and relies upon community partnerships. Because of their strong geographical roots and vocational focus, community colleges are ideally suited to perform this function (Wheelahan, 2016). Comparing Ontario’s VET-oriented colleges to Australia’s TAFEs, Wheelahan argues that Ontario’s system is superior because it relies more upon “high trust” relationships among employers, workers’ organizations, and educational institutions. Strong, flexible local partnerships make it more likely that VET can be developed within a capabilities framework rather than the narrow, short-term focus on skills engendered by human capital theory.

A similar vision for strong collaboration is articulated in the 2016 report to the Ontario Premier, <em>Building the Workforce of Tomorrow</em>. Interestingly, the panel states that, rather than inquiry toward a “highly skilled workforce,” it would be “more useful for the province to focus on the workforce as a whole.” (p. 10) The distinction drawn here is not elaborated and is thus somewhat unclear. It may be interpreted as aiming for greater inclusion of workers and labour market positions at the lower end of the skills sector in policy visioning and policy development.

The model of collaboration promoted in the report is similar to the partnership model that Wheelahan and Moodie have promoted within the capabilities framework. Instead of relying on markets that can buffet disadvantaged workers about in the “low pay no pay cycle,” (Essential Skills Ontario, 2012) social partnerships are intentional efforts among stakeholders to coordinate education, training and paid employment. Ideally such efforts yield vocational streams — overlapping occupations and occupational sectors that draw on like or similar capabilities (Wheelahan, Yu &amp; Buchanan, 2015). The goal of developing vocational streams is to strengthen both horizontal and vertical mobility in ways that benefit workers and employers alike.
<h4><strong>Keeping the Full Spectrum in Mind</strong></h4>
The size and visibility of Ontario’s higher education sector makes it easy to focus on the kinds of pathways that move people diplomas to degrees — from mid-skill credentials to applied or academic degrees with subsequent potential for graduate skills. Indeed, PEW’s <a href=”http://https:/”>present SSHRC project</a> is focused very much in this area.

However, it is also important to recognize the kinds of pathways work that needs to happen at the lower end of the skills spectrum. Present PEW initiatives to map pathways for Canada’s engineers and nurses are revealing some of the challenges of developing career ladders and vocational streams that help people with short qualifications to move into academic and applied academic programs. These challenges must be addressed if a fully inclusive model of post-secondary pathways is to become a reality.


Conway, S. (2016). <em>Building the workforce of tomorrow</em>. Report from the Premier’s Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel. Retrieved from <a href=””></a>

Essential Skills Ontario (2012). <em>From better skills to better work</em>. Toronto ON: Author.

Keep, E., &amp; James, S. (2012). A Bermuda triangle of policy? “Bad jobs”, skills policy and incentives to learn at the bottom end of the labour market. <em>Journal of Education Policy, 27</em>(2), 211–230. <a href=”″></a>

Wheelahan, L. (2016). <em>Vocational education in crisis: Why we need a new social settlement</em>. Centre of the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education. OISE, University of Toronto.

Wheelahan, L., Buchanan, J., &amp; Yu, S. (2015). <i>Linking qualifications and the labour market through capabilities and vocational streams. Synthesis report</i>. National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER). Adelaide. Retrieved from

by Edmund Adam

In 2000, the Postsecondary Education Choice and Excellence Act authorised Ontario’s colleges to award bachelor degrees. It marked a milestone in a journey that had begun a decade earlier with Charles Pascal’s (1990) Vision 2000, which recommended the creation of new degree-granting institutions. The government justified this reform on various grounds. A strong rationale was broadening student access to baccalaureate level study, particularly for students from groups under-represented in the university.

In 2002, college baccalaureates were officially introduced into Ontario’s post-secondary education (PSE) system, with nine colleges offering 12 baccalaureate programmes. In 2016, thirteen colleges offered 108 baccalaureate programmes, and with full-time enrolments estimated at 15,000. However, the question remains about the extent to which college baccalaureates have achieved the social objective of widening access – that is, facilitated baccalaureate completion rates for traditionally under-represented target groups.

Prior studies in other jurisdictions indicate that college baccalaureates have indeed broadened PSE participation for under-represented groups (Floyd, Skolnik, & Walker, 2005; Wheelahan, Moodie, Billett, & Kelly, 2009). Our Ontario Human Capital Research and Innovation Fund research project addresses this issue by focusing on the characteristics of students enrolled in college baccalaureate programmes, their decision making processes, their reasons for enrolment, and the impact of participation on their identities.

In our study analysis, we applied a theoretical framework developed by Ball, Reay, and David (2002) regarding two ideal types of students in terms of PSE choice: embedded and contingent choosers. Embedded choosers are those students who have a clearly forged pathway to PSE coming out of high school, whereas contingent choosers are those for whom participation in PSE depends upon overcoming one or more barriers. The two ideal types build on Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of ‘cultural capital’ which, in its simplest form, refers to the kinds of symbolic wealth transmitted from middle-and upper-income parents to their children to sustain family status across generations (Bourdieu, 1977). Generally, it is embedded choosers who possess this cultural capital.

The study presents evidence obtained through interviews with 22 baccalaureate students from five Ontario colleges. Preliminary analysis of interview data offers interesting results. For example, 60% of the interviewees were non-traditional students above the age of 25 years. 55% students explained that their decisions to choose college baccalaureates were informed mostly by a ‘word of mouth’ from those in their immediate social circle: friends, colleagues, and sometimes parents. Reasons for choosing a college degree programmes varied, but the most important reasons were location, cost, greater opportunities for coops, the applied nature of programmes, availability of specialised programmes, lower admission requirements, and ample financial aids for students with outstanding academic credentials at high school.

Data also suggest that college baccalaureate students are, more often than not, contingent PSE choosers. This is evident in two of our findings. First is the local considerations for decision making: cost, location, coops, and financial aid are important for college baccalaureate students, in stark contrast with embedded choosers’ considerations such as status and prestige of degrees. Second, 73% of students report no parental involvement in the decision to attend a college baccalaureate programme.

As to student identity, our analysis shows that college baccalaureate students identify more with the field of study than with the college they attend. Students interviewed indicate that when asked how they describe their experience to family, friends, and acquaintances, they prefer to talk about their field of study or the profession they want to enter before they volunteer the name of the institution in which they are undertaking this degree.

Our analysis provide insights into the contributions colleges can make to dealing with the challenge of fulfilling the growing demand for bachelor degrees and the provision of equitable access to baccalaureate education and other access initiatives.


Ball, S. J., Reay, D., & David, M. (2002). Ethnic choosing: Minority ethnic students, social class and higher education choice. Race Ethnicity and Education, 5(4), 333-357. doi:10.1080/1361332022000030879

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Cultural reproduction and social reproduction. In J. Karabel & A. H. Halsey (Eds.), Power and ideology in education (pp. 487-511). New York: Oxford University Press.

Floyd, D. L., Skolnik, M. L., & Walker, K. P. (2005). The community college baccalaureate: Emerging trends and policy issues. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus.

Vision 2000. (1990). Quality and opportunity. The final report of the vision 2000 task force. Toronto: Ministry of Colleges and Universities.

Wheelahan, L., Moodie, G., Billett, S., & Kelly, A. (2009). Higher education in TAFE. Adelaide: National Centre for Vocational Education 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.

By Amanda Brijmohan

This past year, the Pathways to Education and Work (PEW) research group has been funded by the Ontario Council for Articulation and Transfer (ONCAT) to research where effort should be invested in developing and maintaining educational pathways between colleges and universities. Findings from the project suggest that only 23% of universities’ pathway agreements are with colleges within commuting distance of the university, whereas 66% of students who transfer from a college to a university do so from a college within commuting distance of the university. These findings provided the basis for developing a decision-making tool, principles and framework to help policy makers, educational institutions and faculties/departments in guiding college-university pathway development.

Recognizing that the tool could be further enhanced by listening to the expert insights of interest groups, the PEW research group held a policy consultation symposium on April 5th, 2016. Attendees included pathways developers, administrators from both the college and university sectors, as well as policy-makers from multiple levels of government.

After providing the research base for the findings, and introducing the decision-tool, principles and framework, the team posed the following questions to the audience:

  • Overall, is a tool like this helpful? Why or why not?
  • What are your overall thoughts on the tool (content, structure, focus, language etc.)?
  • Are there any specific changes we should make?
  • Is there anything that is missing?
  • What are your suggestions on what we can do to make sure it is used?

Expert feedback was first provided by Dr. David Trick, President of David Trick and Associates, and by Cindy Dundon Hazell, Professor Emeritus at Seneca College. Dr Trick observed that there are 3 dimensions of policy:

  1. strategic
  2. programmatic
  3. operational

Dr Trick argued that governments tended not to be very good at setting strategic goals, and that this limited the effectiveness of its encouragement of student transfer.

Professor Hazell observed that 47% of all transfer students do not complete their first qualification, and that many transfer students do not follow established pathways. Professor Hazell argued for moving from pathways to principles and frameworks supporting student transfer.

Participants also provided feedback on the decision-making tool through a mixture of open forum Q & A, and breakout discussions. In the plenary after the breakout sessions, participants supported the general principles of student transfer and thought that these could be extracted to a document separate from examples and success stories. Some participants sought specific attention to equity groups, and others sought variations in the language used in the decision tool.

The consultation was concluded by closing remarks made by Glenn Craney, Executive Director of ONCAT. Mr Craney welcomed the decision-making tool and supported the team’s collaborative approach to developing it. He supported the different layers of action to bring people together to support student transfer. Mr Craney noted that the tool ties together themes that ONCAT had been considering recently into a comprehensive package.

The team plans to revise the tool and its report in light of these and other feedback comments made through feedback forms, and during breakout discussions throughout the consultation.