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" Would the educational bureaucracy that plagues our high schools descend upon our universities as well"

Yup. That's what's coming. Undergrad is the new high school.

Does Ontario not have as formal a transfer system as BC does? Granted, we worry a lot about equivalents, and it is clear that some courses transfer more easily than others, but in general I think the system works well - at least in Economics. (English is another issue.) The system may work as well as it does because it was established when there were only really three large "receiving" universities- UBC, SFU, and UVic - and many community colleges.

"Who would set the standardized exams?"

Why be standardized? Yes, higher education is largely about selection. OK. If you allow a student to take a similar prerequisite course elsewhere, let them show that they can pass the course at your school, by passing your test (or maybe by writing a paper).

Linda, no we don't, but there is a huge amount to be said for the BC system, for having students take their first two years at places like Capilano College sorry Capilano University and then transferring to SFU/UBC. A good number of students from my high school grad class did that, and it served them well.

Min, anything like passing additional tests/writing additional papers is a major barrier to credit recognition.

This is what the "storm" ought to look like:

Standardized, thorough, grueling and expensive comprehensive exams in each field similar to medical boards or the bar exam will replace the degree/GPA as the principal measure of achievement and knowledge. Accredited degree optional.

K, I assume you're referring to the New York bar exam. No one who has written the Ontario Bar Exam would describe it as thorough or grueling or as a test of much of anything beyond an ability to manipulate an HB pencil and speak one of English or French (sort of - the Law society of upper Canada doesn't bother to proofread its material). It is expensive, although why that should be is beyond me. (The New York Bar is hard, but then again, most of the people who write it, and certainly most of the people who pass it, have accredited law degrees to their name).

"Meat-grinder courses" - courses like intermediate microeconomics that chew students up and spit them out - must exist if a bachelor's degree is to have any value as a signal of ability.

Let's consider that proposition. What kind of economics department only has one or two rigorous courses?

I'll grant that credit recognition is a problem if an economics department only has one, or a handful, of rigorous courses, say econ 200, that someone could readily avoid by taking a summer school course at Flaky-U. On the other hand, that's only a problem if all the other courses offered by the department (say, econ 300 or econ 400) are equally flaky, and a student who took econ at Flaky-U could otherwise excel in them despite having skipped econ 200. But, in that case, the problem isn't credit recognition so much as the fact that the majority of that department's course offerings are flaky.

On the other hand if, as I would have thought would be the case, econ 200 is an essential building block to econ 300 and econ 400, then credit recognition shouldn't be a problem. Sure, econ 200 is a "meat grinder", but not because it's more rigorous than econ 300 or 400 (if it is, what does that say abour the upper year courses?). If the fail rate is lower in the upper year courses, its only because the weaker students never enrol in them, having been streamed out by econ 200. In that scenario, the student who skips econ 200 and takes a summer course at Flaky-U isn't doing himself any favours. Sure, he doesn't get streamed out by econ 200, instead he gets crushed by econ 300 and 400 (and if he doesn't, well, more power to him).

In that light, it doesn't seem to me that credit recognition should "taint" the signalling purpose of a degree, provided that a particular department doesn't have just one "rigorous" course. Now, there may be some practical considerations that should be taken into account in dealing with credit recognition. Obviously, you'll want to ensure that graduates get the majority of their courses from your university. To the extent that enrolment is limited in upper-year courses, you might want to give priority to students who took econ 200 in your department (which is fair enough, they were here first). But those strike me as concerns that can be readily addressed without undue restrictions on credit recognition.

I've never been able to complete an athabasca course, more correctly, I've never been able to begin a correspondence course. In class is a must, for me anyway.

k's difficult testing is kind of where udacity.com is going. pay for the certification at the end of free tuition.

There is already pressure towards conformity in the teaching of economics. We should teach X, because the textbooks all include X, other economists at other schools think that X should be taught, we don't want our students and our department to be embarrassed when they go off to grad skool and it's assumed they all know X, etc. I really wouldn't like even the CEA to decide on a common curriculum. More heterodox economists would be even more upset, and I would sympathise with them.

Universities compete, not just on how well they teach, but on what they teach.

Wonderful post. Credit recognition is an important part of what happens when we return knowledge to its rightful place as the first economic prior. Not saying that we don't need the monetary prior that does a world of good, just that it needs the supplement of the knowledge prior in order to maintain stability.

Until a few years ago, all Cegep programs were centrally determined by the QC Dept. of Education ( commitees of civil servants, college admin and teachers-professors).
The, in the spirit of improvement and excellence through competition and developping programs adapted to local needs ( at least on the tech side of the cegeps), program structure was decentralised though the diplomas are still issued by the deprtement, after approval by the colleges.. Now, every college, sifting through the mandated competences still centrally determined, decides what goes into each course. Students who could move seamlessly between institutions are now stuck within a mazr of courses never exactly equivalent. It is not as bad in the pre-university side.
Just yesterday, our dept. received a file from a transfer student. Almost all of his courses had to be denied as each lacked one "module" replaced by something else we don't find relevant. Funnily, only his economics course was approved (by me). It seems that in econ, we stick more to textbook than in finace or internal control...
( For those outside QC, university here is shorter and all programs are professionnnal (no Liberal Arts). For those going to university, a two-year course is required between high-school and university. Technicians also train during a three-year course after which the students can also enroll at U. Cegep teachers are bundled with university professors under Schedule 2 to Annex 1502.1 section C6, chapter 15 of the Canada -U.S. Free Trade Agreement)


Yes, like a real bar exam, probably harder. The medical boards can (and should) be quite  tough. It might be expensive if it's going to be thorough. Ideally there ought to be an oral component, perhaps via video conference with a panel of expert examiners to probe the bounds of the candidate's knowledge. But not expensive compared to a degree. I just meant compared to the typical GRE-type exam. Could be a thousand or two, not many thousands.

In most fields (pretty well anything but law), it ought to be a global standard thus solving many of Canada's immigration difficulties at the same time.  I guess in the spirit of market efficiency there ought to be a few competing standards. I really can't imagine what (legitimate) obstacles could be standing in the way.

Nick: "Universities compete, not just on how well they teach, but on what they teach."

Fine. Let there be multiple standards if you want. Choose which ones you accept. 


Anyways, mostly I assume we are talking about science and professional degrees. They all teach the same thing, just at different levels of thoroughness, difficulty and general quality of instruction. There is essentially zero controversy over what someone with an undergrad in physics ideally should know. The progression of courses is also quite standard, especially among the better institutions. I am really not an expert on the arts but I would assume standardization could be difficult beyond introductory courses (I could be wrong!). Economics is probably a border case.

Huh. I found first year Econ pretty straightforward. I didn't know it was supposed to be a "meatgrinder", though it was pretty dry and in a class of about 400, so I can see how attrition rates might have been high.

(Note: this was at Carleton, but not taught by any of the writers here.)

Even in economics, I'd bet that if you put Joe Stiglitz and Ed Prescott in a room and told them to work together to design an undergraduate curriculum that would cover micro, econometrics, finance and supporting courses, but *no macro*, they'd emerge happily with a finished product 60 minutes later. It's only macro/money that's seriously broken.

In most fields (pretty well anything but law), it ought to be a global standard thus solving many of Canada's immigration difficulties at the same time. I guess in the spirit of market efficiency there ought to be a few competing standards. I really can't imagine what (legitimate) obstacles could be standing in the way.

Interestingly, we have a similar practice in Canada for law. As noted above, our bar exam (at least in Ontario, to be fair to other provinces) is useless, so in order to ensure minimum competency, there is a national accreditation system for people with degrees from outside Canada which requires them to write exams in areas where they aren't considered to have received equivalent training. For example, if you have a degree from Australia you might only be required to write exams in Canadian specific areas of law (say, criminal, family and constitutional law) since they figure you probably have a good sense of the general principals underlying areas of law that are common to Australia and Canada (say contracts, torts and trusts). On the other hand, if your degree is from Poland, to pick a country, they figure (probably fairly) that there's precious little overlap between your previous training and Canadian law(since, as far as I know, the Polish legal regime is radically different from the Canadian tradition) so you'd have to write more exams.

In any event, so goes the theory. In practice, I'm not sure how well it works. In order to pass the exam, foreign lawyers end up auditing law school courses (which I suppose is cheaper than actually attending law school, but still an impediment), the exams take time to prepare for, and they're still expensive. On top of which, there is often a sense (not wholly unjustified) that the demands imposed on foreign lawyers are more rigorous than those imposed on Canadian law students (Not so much that the exams are harder, but that while Canadian law students can take flaky "law and ..." courses, foreign lawyers have to write exams on substantive areas of law, say trusts, or family law that aren't mandatory in Canadian law schools, which is a fair criticism). And, of course, only about a third of those who enter the process are ultimately accredited.

Then again, I'm somewhat skeptical about the "one and done" type of exam, no matter how rigorous or meaningful (despite being fairly good at them). I mean, sure we have the Boards for medicine, but would-be doctors only write them after they've jumped through years of hoops to be doctors. They're rigorous, but we don't rely on them exclusively to keep out the quacks. The New York Bar exam is rigorous, but if you can write it 7 times, the odds are pretty good that you'll pass it sooner or latter, no matter what kind of goof you are. And, of course, for every rigorous exam, like the New York Bar, there's the Ontario Bar exam, which takes a special effort to fail.

Moreover, I think the market is (properly) skeptical of people who qualify for professional credentials solely by way of "one and done" exams. To take the New York Bar as a case in point, sure, anyone can write it, but generally (and, I'm happy to concede, there may be exceptions) the big US law firms look to the graduates of ABA accredited law schools for future lawyers, rather than the pool of people who successfully write the bar. No doubt there are a number of reasons for that, but certainly one of them is a (not wholly unreasonable) skepticism of the bar exam as a screening mechanism. It may be A screening mechanism, but the combination of that with a degree from an ABA accredited law school (or something equivalent - there was a time when New York was a big draw at UofT) makes for a much more effective screening mechanism. Indeed, one of the complaints from lawyers who go through the accreditation process in Ontario is that, because the exams are graded on a pass/fail basis, it's impossible for employers to distinguish between the marginal candidate and the superstar on the basis of the accreditation exams. Even if we could come up with, say, a physics accreditation exam (much less an economics or history one), query whether employers would be keen to rely on that, or whether they'd continue to look for degrees from universities that they recognize.

"Even if we could come up with, say, a physics accreditation exam (much less an economics or history one), query whether employers would be keen to rely on that"

They should. If you can get through a series of tough physics written and oral exams then what exactly could you be missing? I've hired lots of people with hard science degrees and would be happy to depend on a tough series of exams rather than a gpa from some relatively unknown to me institution. Worst case, you lose people who don't test well. But you can't fake your way through a tough abstract algebra or statistical mechanics problem. 15-20 hours of grueling questions and you're good. Ability to do research is another matter but you can't know that from an undergraduate transcript either.

Jonathan - I heard the "meatgrinder" expression used in connection with intro to econ at another Ontario university, though getting through Econ 1000 can be a serious barrier to business and some other groups of students.

Nick - like you, I had the idea of being told to conform, even though I teach very standard textbook-y courses. The idea that universities compete on what is taught is interesting - but how can such competition be effective within, say, economic departments if students have no good information about what different econ departments are teaching? How many people could identify the more heterodox Canadian economics departments, the more mathematically oriented ones, the less techy ones?

I hope this post didn't depress you, b.t.w., I was a bit concerned it might.

K, Bob - the UK system has historically evaluated students on the basis of high-stakes exams at the end of a student's program. Actually the whole system from high school onwards is based on high stakes exams - so it's what to look at if you want to figure out the downsides of such an approach!

I don't think high stakes exams give as good a signal of ability as continual assessment. But I do like the openness of the UK system - there is serious discussion about assessment, about how to examine students, which often doesn't happen here. And there are good arguments for allowing students to challenge courses.

In Ontario it's possible to get some kind of high school equivalency by writing an exam - something that can transform people's lives by allowing them to get into college or other post-secondary programs.

"In Ontario it's possible to get some kind of high school equivalency by writing an exam - something that can transform people's lives by allowing them to get into college or other post-secondary programs."

Then again, in Ontario, it's possible to get a real honest-to-god high school diploma by showing up for the better part of 4 years and having a pulse. Set against that standard, any kind of written exam is rigorous.

Bob - actually set against, say, BC in the 1970s, Ontario high school today really isn't too bad. Canada as a whole does pretty well in international tests of student attainment.


It's not just macro. Look at the debate over "cookbook" econometrics that took place on this site not too long ago:

For what it's worth, even though I don't favour the "cookbook" style myself, I fully support Frances and other like-minded individuals in teaching however they see fit (this assumes that such individuals are "qualified" to teach, which, in my definition, means that they are actively doing research in a relevant area). I wouldn't want, say, the Canadian Econometrics Study Group telling instructors what they had to cover in their courses.

How many credits can Canadians take at another university? I had to take most of mine at the university I graduated from. Sure, I could have gotten around o-chem and physics, but that was the limit. I still would have had a&p, microbiology, cell and genetics. Not to mention the sophomore level full bio sequence, three terms of calc and a full year of basic chemistry. Isn't economics equally integrated? Without decent background wouldn't your students fail the remainder of their courses at your (presumably more prestigious) university? If they wouldn't fail, why are the prerequisites so hard? Perhaps instead of inviting our brightest minds to spend the energy of their youth "climbing mount everest" we could design a program that fosters greater understanding in the field and encourages use as the best test of knowledge. This might single out the best students in a more useful fashion than test taking, and it wouldn't be harmed at all by accepting outside credits (to a point of course- otherwise you really attended the other university!).


It doesn't have to be all "high stakes" exams. I like your high school example. People can finish high school or they can write an exam. Same with a university degree. I just think that anybody who has the skill and drive should be able to prove their mettle without having to pay rents to "accredited" degree granting institutions (some of which are not that great). It would be hugely valuable to employers too. It would also be valuable to gather data on how well the graduates of each institution do on standardized exams. Both for prospective students and the governments who pay.

econometrician: "Look at the debate over "cookbook" econometrics"

I don't think there's any debate there about what's good econometrics though. It's just a question of how well the students are required to understand the underlying theory. The cookbook economists would get the not-too-difficult applied questions right, but would fail on the probability theory. And rightfully so.

Bob - actually set against, say, BC in the 1970s, Ontario high school today really isn't too bad. Canada as a whole does pretty well in international tests of student attainment.

I was one of the last OAC's and to get a five-year OAC OSSD you did have to know something. By the time you were in OAC you were down to the university wannabes. First-term calculus was a rehash of OAC calculus. People who had decent math teachers in high school routinely did well. Strangely it was the out-of-province and even out of country students who got bit on that course. First-year algebra is much more of a pain, but by fourth year they managed to get a decent text book that actually explained the concept of a vector space in clear language.

My screen name comes from the first-year Physics midterm I aced because I knew how to calculate a 3x3 determinant to solve for a torque vector. 3 stages of math, method already memorized from high school, it went well. The prof was teaching a nonsense forula memorization that didn't take well in people's heads. I was one of 5% of students who answered the question that way, all due to high school.

Actually, looking around a first-year university class Ontario tends to run one of the leading high school programs among all States/Provinces.


I was also one of the last OAC classes. Then again, you didn't need to take OAC to graduate from high school in Ontario - the running gag was that Ontario squeezed a four year program into five years. And the guy who took five years to get 30 credits (including, back then, the various "non-academic" stream courses - what were they called again? General? Basic?) and graduated with a solid D- average got the same diploma as the guy who got 40 credits in the academic stream in five year and graduated with an A average. There's a reason that a high school diploma doesn't perform much of a signaling role anymore.

"he prof was teaching a nonsense forula memorization "

Well, bad teaching and terrible curriculum can happen anywhere. I suffered through a "dynamics of vibrations" class where the prof used us as guinea pigs/copy editors for drafts of his textbook. The guys approach was to memories the form of various problems and their solutions: look Ma, no analysis! I was so bored I wanted to top myself. This was second or third year mech eng at McGill (for a QC student, so add 1 for ON).

And in CS, I had sessional teaching a software engineering methods class (big class - maybe 70+ student) who didn't follow the syllabus at all, didn't give any assignments or exams, and actually stopped showing-up for classes at some point. The students went ballistic. Eventually, a faculty member whose research hobby horse was software engineering had to take over, but it was too late in the term to do much. He assigned a small project, gave us a deadline way past the end of term, and basically gave everyone an A. It was disgraceful.


I was also one of the last OAC classes. Then again, you didn't need to take OAC to graduate from high school in Ontario - the running gag was that Ontario squeezed a four year program into five years. And the guy who took five years to get 30 credits (including, back then, the various "non-academic" stream courses - what were they called again? General? Basic?) and graduated with a solid D- average got the same diploma as the guy who got 40 credits in the academic stream in five year and graduated with an A average. There's a reason that a high school diploma doesn't perform much of a signaling role anymore.

No, they didn't. You may be thinking of Grade 13, which was a different curriculum from OAC. OAC's were only offered for Academic stream courses, 6 OAC's got you an Ontario Secondary School Diploma. General-stream courses led to an Secondary School Graduate Diploma and only went to Grade 12. Basic Stream courses only went to Grade 10 and led to a School-leaving certificate. Different streams got different diplomas and had to be there for different lengths of time.


You're dating yourself. The Secondary School Graduate Diploma (awarded after grade 12) and the Secondary School Honours Graduation Diploma (awarded after completing grade 13) where abolished in 1984 and replaced with the Ontario Secondary School Diploma (the "OSSD"). If you completed high school after that time, you got an OSSD. While it was certainly possible to get an OSSD in 4 years (that was the purpose of the elimination of Grade 13) few did (less than 15%) and the practice of taking a "victory lap" was common place (still is, something like 20% of Ontario high school graduates take 5 years to graduate, despite the abolishment of OACs).

No, I graduated in 2001. OAC wasn't eliminated until 2004. You're misremembering. Grade 12 G-level led to an SSGD, A-Level OAC's led to an OSSD.

You could leave after Grade 12 or OAC but you got a different slip of paper.

I'm 29, thanks Bob.


Granted, at 34 my memory isn't what it used to be, but I do recall that my grade 12 report card had a notation to the effect that I met the requirements for an OSSD (despite my not yet having completed 6 OACs at that time). In any event, I wasn't relying solely on my memory, I was looking at wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ontario_Academic_Credit. Not the most reliable source, I grant you, but probably the best we're going to find on pre-internet age (1984) education reform in Ontario. I also think it's telling that the peel region board of education policy on mature students refers to the SSGD as a pre-1984 concept (http://www.peel.edu.on.ca/alt_programs/adult_ed/PLAR/students/index.htm) as does the government of Ontario (http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/extra/eng/ppm/132.html). Not that I trust the government of Ontario, but...


Having hijacked your post, I wondered if you had any thoughts on this report in the Star:

The gist of it can be gleaned from the opening couple of sentences:

"Ontario universities need to cut back bachelor degrees to three years, offer classes year-round and allow students to earn more than half their credits online, says a government post-secondary paper obtained by the Star.

The proposals would get students through university or college faster — the report says college diplomas should be two years at most — cheaper and better, says the draft report."

Setting aside the obvious criticism - hard to take seriously a proposal that calls for doing things "cheaper and better" ("Damn, why didn't we think of that?') - some of those are proposals that are worth considering (year round courses would be one way of increasing "teaching" productivity, although I imagine that won't go over well in the faculty lounge). I'm less keen on the online learning proposals. Granted, online learning is probably no worse than your typical 1000 student lecture at convocation hall. Then again, if the 1000 student lecture was typical of the in-person university experience, I wouldn't be keen on that either.

I think the more fundamental problem is that we have to stop mindlessly sending kids to university. Matt Gurney had an interesting piece in the Post online today (http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2012/02/22/matt-gurney-university-students-borrowing-their-way-into-unemployment/) about the godawful prospects of many recent university graduates (including the cocky business majors - I get some satisfaction from that, they were the ones who used to taunt the economics majors, wrongly, as being people who couldn't get into commerce) who end up doing a 4 year degree before heading back to college to learn some marketable skills. There's nothing wrong with that, if people are genuinely seeking the "university experience" (i.e., a university degree as a consumption good). But I suspect that there's a hefty minority (or maybe majority) of today's university students who are there only because their guidance counsellor/teachers/parents/premier told them, falsely, that a university degree would lead to a "good" job.

Rather than watering down the university experience in pursuit of a "cheaper and better" education ("Socrates on $10 a day"), maybe we should ask ourselves whether we might be better served by encouraging students to pursue other avenues of education which, if not cheaper, at least might better provide the "I need a degree to get a good job" students with what they're looking for (i.e., the skills needed to acquire a "good" job) rather than a degree that doesn't mean much to them and a hefty student debt.

I can find my old report cards with the guidelines, but your old report card likely meant you were on track. No OAC's, no OSSD. G-level courses only went to Grade 12 and led to an SSGD. Wiki's wrong.

Though you are right on the concept of a "good" job. Unemployment, much to academia's and politicians consternation has persistently increased over the last 30 years and job tenure has decreased, or in other words the concept of "job security" has declined. Now it may have been that the concept was flawed at the outset and we deluded ourselves into thinking one could treat a job like property and retire from it after decades of service. I am actually favourable to that view. But the first reply of politicians and academia (not just economists) is to increase education. It's an easy answer and at least gives the listener something to do and aspire to.

It's much harder to talk about trying about envisioning future demand, thinking about what fields will be in demand, investing for that future, productivity investments for existing firms, access to working capital, trying to keep competition at bay, etc. All of these play real roles in the availability of employment. Many of these issues are corporate issues that have to be addressed at the corporate level. But politicians don't like to talk about them or to appear to be beating up on business like that.

Instead we try to decrease corporate taxes, itself not a one-shot solution either. When our corporate taxes are lower than the US the gain from cutting them further is marginal and low.

In my experience every employer I have ever worked for has a filing cabinet full of resumes. Simple positions have taken months to respond to me. This is not the experience of those who went to work in the 1960's. I try as I might to tell them the world has changed but some just won't listen.

When I talk about "failing gracefully" as a lefty I mean that when a business is no longer viable and has to downsize, the workers are looked after and the loss is minimized. This means removing the provision of health benefits from the corporate level completely and eliminating the employer-based tier of pension provision completely. Health benefits, particularly drug benefits need to be provided by government. CPP's replacement ratio likely needs to be increased. I want a robust model that can survive a corporate bankruptcy or three.

You can't flog a dead horse or a dying industry but you can make sure it won't crush you when it keels over.

Why not simply fix this problem of course pre-requisites with:
(a) A list of courses that must be taken at some point during the degree program (ideally sequentially, but caveat emptor)
(b) Strongly recommended pre-requisites; that is, ignore at your own peril

Some students will stumble, but the extra flexibility should overall help students get through faster.

Jack, I hear you. Free to choose and free to fail.

"It only takes one piece of poor planning and the entire pre-requisite sequence is messed up. The student has three options: stay in school for an additional term or two, switch majors and graduate with some other degree, or drop out entirely."

Sounds pretty dire but usually you can ignore prerequisites for courses if you just talk to the professor.

KV - that may still be true some places, but I haven't been able to waive an individual student's pre-reqs for a long time.

One significant problem with waiving pre-reqs is externalities. Having one student in class missing a pre-req can be worked around; having a significant number or proportion of the students missing a pre-req can cause significant hold-ups in lecture material and added office hour time. And a rule of thumb that says something like: "the first x students who apply for a pre-req waiver for this course get it; no one else does" hardly seems fair.

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