On Mondays, in the second year of his information-technology program, Russell Baylis learned how to shoot video in the green-screen studio at Ottawa's Algonquin College. On Tuesdays, he attended lectures on linear algebra at Carleton University. Now in his fourth year of a combined program between the two institutions, the 21-year-old will graduate in June with a university degree in IT, and an advanced-technology college diploma in interactive media.
With those credentials, and a portfolio in hand, he hopes to land a dream job designing digital special effects, like the projected 3D waves during Madonna's performance at the last Super Bowl. "Things change so quickly," says Mr. Baylis, "having the practical application works, but you need a theoretical understanding." It's a winning combination: This fall, 323 students applied for 100 spots and the graduates are often snapped up by companies such as Google and IBM.
This best-of-both-worlds program – theory-based, hands-on, job-friendly – might happen more often if Canada had a national strategy for postsecondary education, one that clarifies what the country expects from the institutions creating its next generation of leaders and skilled workers, and defines how Canadians will know when they're getting it right. In fact, among developed countries, Canada is unique in its failure to develop a national approach to universities and colleges. But such a strategy, advocates say, would help solve many of the most serious criticisms levelled at universities. These include that they aren't transparent about their results, flexible to labour-market demands, or innovative enough with credit-transfer agreements and partnerships between universities, and with colleges, which are now usually negotiated one by one.
"When you don't have a national strategy, you can't make conscious choices, so you follow where the political winds blow," says Paul Cappon, former president of Canadian Council on Learning, which closed its doors in the spring.
The trend to joint programs between colleges and universities – like the one Mr. Baylis is taking – is still stymied by institutional snobbery and bureaucratic restrictions around credit transfers. There are an increasing number of "two-plus-two" initiatives, in which college students take a two-year diploma and then head off to university for another two years to complete a degree. But the more innovative approach is the kind being adopted by Carleton and Algonquin, in which students study at both institutions consecutively – so that, as in the case of Mr. Baylis, they can take what they learn in human computer interaction at university and immediately apply it to their 3D software course at college.
"The students go out into the world with both sets of skills," says John Shepherd, vice-president of academics at Carleton, "and that makes them very attractive to employers."
A national strategy could, for instance, establish an accreditation system to encourage universities to specialize in areas such as undergraduate learning. Since education is a provincial responsibility, the federal government concentrates its specific funding on research, thereby encouraging universities, Mr. Cappon suggests, to jockey for graduate-level research grants at the expense of teaching. A strategy would require jurisdictional cohesion, getting around the logistics of achieving agreement between 13 education ministers, who are often shortlived in their portfolios.
The organizational hurdles are hard to justify when the European Union has made significant strides in recent years to facilitate credit transfers across the continent, as well as to develop clear learning standards so that a student graduating with a bachelor of science in Berlin acquires the same skills as one graduating in Lisbon. "It's not unusual for a student to study in four different countries in four years," says Dr. Cappon, allowing them to learn multiple languages, experience different cultures and create wider job prospects.
A national strategy, says Sara Diamond, the president of OCAD University, would improve Canada's response to labour needs – educating students about career prospects, even nudging them into high-demand fields. Estonia, for instance, gives tuition breaks to engineering students; the British government announced this week that it will offer scholarships worth $32,000 to university grads who train as computer-science teachers, an expertise in short supply.
"We are missing opportunities," Ms. Diamond wrote in an e-mail interview. "It is the talent that we nurture now that will guide us in a complex world. Surely the production of that talent is a national challenge that requires our attention."
Currently in Canada, competition for students and ingrained institutional prejudices have hindered a pan-national approach. While combined programs are expanding, universities are still seen as the place where the smart kids go to get a well-rounded education, even if practical training at colleges is more likely to land them a good job.
That's not doing students any favours: Mr. Baylis will graduate after four years of tuition with highly valued skills, while an increasing number of his university peers will take a meandering, and more costly, path to college to boost their resumés.
"We need to deliver the right people with the right credentials to the right economy at the right time," says James Knight, president of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges. He tells one story about a law student from Douglas College who was denied admission into UBC's law school because of his college credentials; based on his stellar LSAT score, he went off to Oxford instead. "Some institutions have an elevated view of the type of education they offer."
"Sometimes we lose sight of the needs of the students. We look at the bureaucracy within our institutions," says Larry Partab, chair of the creative art department at Red River College, which runs a joint communications program with the University of Winnipeg. Although there is some flexibility, the program works as a two-plus-two model – so that once students have studied theory at university, they acquire practical experience at the radio and TV stations at college, as well as internships.
According to the Red River data, 80 per cent of the 2011 graduating class had jobs in communications a year after graduating. "When you look at the end product – meaning the student – there is such richness in their skills."
And for Russell Baylis, the skills he acquires are what counts – not institutional prejudice, not bureaucratic red tape. He's dreaming of the day he might design his own halftime show in the big leagues.