What’s in a degree program?

Defining new degree programs’ academic, social specifications important, associate dean (studies) says

Before new degree program information can appear in faculty course calendars, it must be approved by several departmental, faculty and University Senate committees.
Before new degree program information can appear in faculty course calendars, it must be approved by several departmental, faculty and University Senate committees.

Post-secondary students in Europe will be able to easily study and apply their degrees in different countries by 2010.

Since 1999, 40 countries have signed on to the Bologna Accord, which seeks to standardize post-secondary education across the continent.

In Canada, where higher education is a provincial responsibility, there’s little regulation over what goes into a degree program on a national or provincial level. But that’s starting to change.

“In each of the provinces there’s been a different but analogous form of standardization,” said Vice-Principal (Academic) Patrick Deane.

When it comes to establishing degree programs, Deane said, the main distinction is between professional programs, which have to be accredited by a third party, and other programs, which only require Senate approval.

“Usually there’s an obligation for the curriculum to follow a pattern broadly agreed upon within the profession,” he said. “[The Faculty of Applied Science], they don’t have a hell of a lot of leeway in terms of the kind of program they can offer there. To some extent that’s true in medicine.”

For degrees such as politics and English, on the other hand, there’s more flexibility in terms of what’s required for a degree program, Deane said.

“[You want to] ensure that degree … has a shape that is properly responsive to, I suppose, cutting-edge thought,” he said. “Most curricula are the combination of history and forward-looking considerations.”

Due to globalization, there’s a growing trend towards standardizing non-accredited degree programs across schools provincially, nationally and globally, Deane said.

“We’re entering an age in which the likelihood there will be a high level of uniformity in, say, what constitutes a bachelors degree is growing.”

In 2005, the Ontario Council of Academic Vice-Presidents (OCAV) issued a report detailing guidelines for undergraduate degree level expectations.

“The globalization of higher education has led to the need to be able to compare and contrast the variety of qualifications granted by academic institutions for credit transfer, graduate study preparation and professional qualification,” it states.

The report lays out objectives for different types of degrees—a bachelor’s honours degree graduate should have “a developed knowledge and critical understanding of the key concepts, methodologies, current advances, theoretical approaches and assumptions in a discipline overall, as well as in a specialized area of discipline”—but doesn’t specify any course or program requirements.

Last February, education ministers from Canadian provinces issued a report with standards similar to those in the OCAV publication. The document was intended to ensure educational standards are similar across the provinces so students could transfer more easily between schools and have their credits recognized throughout Canada.

Standardizing degrees would make it easier for students to study at different institutions, but Deane said he worries it would also homogenize higher education and rob universities of what makes them unique.

“As with everything, it’s how you use these things. I think student mobility is a very good thing,” he said, adding that standardization shouldn’t be a problem as long as it doesn’t compromise the uniqueness of local university education.

“Students are not homogenous. It’s appropriate that institutions at which they study should not be.” Standardization already exists, however, for professional degree programs such as engineering aimed at giving students a specific skill set.

The Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board must approve any new programs or changes to existing programs to ensure that engineering students attending any school will graduate with the knowledge necessary to be a professional engineer.

“That’s the real difference with arts and science,” said John Pierce, associate dean (studies) for the Faculty of Arts and Science. “We’re not training to some applied or directed end.”

Within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, some chemistry and computing programs are accredited, he added, but not to the same degree as in the Faculty of Applied Sciences. After a new degree program has been approved by the university’s Senate, it’s reported to the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, Pierce said.

“We have to report to the government to ensure it’s funded,” he said. “They then review it to ensure the formulas are right for funding. They have to approve that yes, this is a science program, it should get this funding.” Although students can suggest new degree programs or can lobby departments for changes, Pierce said there has to be a movement by faculty within the department for anything to actually happen. However, student input is valued throughout the process.

“We see students’ effects particularly where we’re revising programs. When it comes to curriculum committee level, we ask if students were involved in the revision process and how,” he said.

Student input was crucial in the expansion of the Global Development Studies program (DEVS).

“The student demand constantly exceeded what we could meet,” Pierce said, and so the program was expanded from offering a medial to 20 students in 1997 to being an official department of 250 students, offering studies towards a major, minor or medial degree.

“The pressures the students brought to bear brought about changes and expansion,” Pierce said.

He said faculty discussions with other universities also help determine what kind of new programs Queen’s offers.

“The idea is also to give a little uniqueness to the program,” Pierce said.

Because Queen’s has a Faculty of Arts and Science—as opposed to two separate faculties, like at some other schools—there’s potential for more interdisciplinary programs.

“We’re one combined faculty. It allows us to create programs where students can move across from an arts to a science quite easily, or combine them,” he said. Although that makes it more logistically complicated, the combined faculty also allows students more creativity and flexibility.

Since 1997, Queen’s has offered Senate-approved certificates as evidence of specialized study. Undergraduate certificates in areas such as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Studies and International Studies demonstrate interdisciplinary study. Although certificates were originally designed to encourage interfaculty studies, Pierce said, the complexity of co-ordinating between faculties was too much of an obstacle.

Pierce said that today, a certificate is similar to a minor in the number of credits and specialization of study required, but isn’t as official.

“Certificates are kind of anomalous. Students are not registered in them as they are in their degree programs. The minors and so on are much more fully integrated into the system,” he said.

Students can also receive a subject of specializations (SSP) or a special field concentration (SFC) to demonstrate extensive work in a commonly themed area in their Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts degree, respectively.

Either specialization requires the student to complete a major, which typically consists of 10.0 credits, in addition to further credits in the area of specialization.

When creating a new program—be it a minor, major, concentration or specialization—Pierce said the social implications of a program are now being considered.

“What’s relatively new, within the last four to five years, is defining the social and academic need of a program,” he said, adding that there are certain questions the different committees will consider in evaluating degree proposals.

“What are the academic outcomes? Is there a possibility this program will in someway contribute to society?” —With files from Anna Mehler Paperny

Creating a non-accredited degree program

Faculty members interested in creating a new degree program bring their idea to a department’s curriculum committee. The committee then puts together a proposal outlining the academic and financial details of the program.

The amount of funding required differs depending on the type of program and resources already available.

The proposal is then approved by the following committees:

• Department committee.

• Faculty curriculum committee, composed of faculty members and students from different disciplines.

• If necessary, the committee of departments, made of department heads, will review the proposal to ensure there are sufficient funds within the faculty.

• Faculty Board.

• Senate Committee on Academic Development.

• If necessary, Senate Budget Review Committee to assess the resource implications of the new program.

• Senate.

Finally, the new program is then approved by the provincial government to make sure it will receive funding.

The entire process could take up to a year, said John Pierce, associate dean (studies) for the Faculty of Arts and Science.

Changes to existing degree programs have to go through the same process, but don’t need to go beyond the Faculty Board approval stage.

Lisa Jemison

Accrediting an engineering degree

Lynann Clapham, associate dean (academic) for the Faculty of Applied Sciences, said when creating a new program, Applied Science goes through the same process as other faculties, but there are additional steps to complete.

Engineering programs must be approved by the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board, which is run by Engineers Canada. Deborah Wolfe, director of education, outreach and research for Engineers Canada, explained the accreditation process in an e-mail to
the Journal.

• A university asks to be accredited by completing a questionnaire about the university, the school of engineering and the proposed program.
• The accreditation team reviews the questionnaire and visits the university to prepare a report. The team assesses the proposal based on curriculum content and the program environment.
• The university reviews the report before it’s submitted to the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board, which makes the final decision.

Lisa Jemison and Anna Mehler Paperny

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