The honours degree’s uncertain future

The problem
For the 2010-11 academic year, the arts department has been asked to find $440,000, or 1.5 per cent of their budget, in concessions as a result of campus-wide budget cuts. The department has chosen to seek out alternatives to losing faculty and/or programs in the hopes that they will be able to find enough money to prevent professors or more unique programs from being lost.

Proposed solution
In response to this warning, the department has proposed an Honours Bachelor Arts (BA) Arts degree, which will allow students who have not declared a major, or who have a grade point average (GPA) of 5.0 to 6.99, to be classified as an honours student while completing a degree that does not require them to select an area of specialization.

Potential class system
One projected solution is for the honours degree to be classified into a hierarchy. Dependent on GPA, a student would receive a first, second or third-class honours degree. A student with a 7.0 GPA for example would receive a second-class honours degree. This method is employed by some schools in Canada, such as the University of New Brunswick, and is used in the United Kingdom.

Problems faced
One of the fears is that if a solution cannot be found, Laurier will lose its smaller, more unique programs. As budget cuts are unavoidable it is challenging to develop a solution that leaves everyone satisfied. Professors recognize that the dean of arts is trying to prevent the elimination of interdisciplinary programs, such as medieval studies, women’s studies and Muslim studies – which many are opposed to – and is looking elsewhere for solutions.

The status of ‘honours’

The idea behind the proposed reworking of the honours degree is that if Laurier declares more honours students, the university will receive more funding from the government. However, professors question whether monetary reasons are the best motivation to create such a degree.

“It’s the kind of reason that we can’t escape,” said English professor Markus Poetzsch.

“Everyone feels as though their hands are tied, they want to do what’s best for the faculty and the students, but I feel like there’s a kind of desperate economic that’s behind all of this.”

With the changes the honours degree has gone through not just over the past few months, but over the last few decades – which includes the elimination of the undergraduate thesis and increased seminar class sizes – the whole idea of the post-secondary degree has become convoluted and saturated.

“I have no idea what honours means anymore,” said Poetzsch. “I don’t think it has any kind of meaning.”Sociology professor Gary Potter echoed this sentiment, calling the proposed hierarchical class system of honours degrees “crap.”

“The problem is that at the end, giving people with Cs an honours degree [is] going to backfire in the long-term,” said Potter. “If we do something like that, it will just diminish our reputation. It will mean to the rest of the world after a while that Laurier honours aren’t really honours.”

What does ‘honours’ mean?

Some students and faculty feel as though the value of an honours degree has decreased over the years and that the current fiscal crisis striking many universities, including Laurier, further challenges the degrees’ future legitimacy. The honours degree has undergone many changes throughout the years, even losing some of its key elements such as the honours thesis component and small upper-year courses.

With the increased size of seminar classes, chair of the English department James Weldon believes that classes have become so large that they don’t represent the purpose that senior-level classes once had.

“The idea of an honours degree has somewhat already been diluted,” said Weldon. “It’s been constantly eroded.”

Weldon believes that if faculty, administration and the provincial and federal governments work together, a solution that doesn’t compromise academic integrity can be found. “It’s so messed up now. Students are paying higher tuitions and I don’t think they’re receiving the best education that institutions can give them,” said Weldon.

Josh Smyth, who graduated with a political science and applied economics degree in 2009 and sat on the academic senate during his third and fourth year added that he feels as though the term honours is completely losing its meaning.

“Clearly what we’re moving towards is just a degree mill model. You can call it honours, you can call it general, you can call it nothing if you want.” Smyth believes that inevitably this model will only lead to universities getting more money, but from students who shouldn’t even be attending the institution in the first place.

Degree without specialization

Another concern raised by professors was related to the structure of the honours BA arts degree and what courses it would require students to take. While no specifics have been determined, it has been suggested that students should have to take specific core courses from various programs – for example geography 290 – to complete their degree.

However, co-ordinator of film studies Phillippa Gates noted that it would be difficult for honours BA Arts students to enroll in these courses when priority might still be given to students with declared majors, as this is currently what happens.

“The other option would be to create specific courses for this degree,” said Gates. “The question around this is if we’re already in financial trouble, where do you get the money to staff more courses?”

Poetzsch brought up another concern, questioning what benefit a degree without specialization really has to students and what it will prepare them for after graduation.

“I don’t think we have any idea what this [honours BA Arts program] could look like 10 years down the road when graduates of this degree are wandering the hallways of the world looking for work,” said Poetzsch.

“How well-prepared will they be?”

Government funding

Universities in Ontario receive a higher basic income unit (BIU) of government funding for students classified as honours versus general students, at a rate of 1.5 : 1.

“They were probably thinking ‘we’re not going to fund mediocrity so we’ll give more money to honours,’” noted Potter, regarding why he thinks the government funds students differently.

Poetzsch noted that if students with a GPA of 7.0 or higher working towards a general degree had to choose a major, thus classifying them as honours students, the university would be able to collect more money from the government.

Poetzsch believes that this would be the best solution, as opposed to the proposed honours BA Arts degree, because he believes that it is driven by the wrong motivation.

“The economic pressures are going to be there, but they can’t allow us to make uninformed or not well-thought-out academic decisions,” said Poetzsch.
Smyth, believes that from a budgetary perspective, the university is trying to do too much in too many places.

“People need to confront reality a little bit more,” said Smyth. “I’m not sure that [creating a new degree] is an effective way to manage a long-term budgeting process.

All it does is make us look like fools. What you’re doing is mortgaging the reputation of both the [honours] degree itself and of the school administration.”

Academics on a budget

Academic planning plays a large role in how well the reputation of the honours degree is upheld, which in a large part is driven by the current financial state of universities across Ontario. When the last academic plan was created five years ago, then vice-president of academics Sue Horton admitted that money was much less of a focus than it is today.

“Budget cuts are more severe now,” said Horton. “Obviously we were [always] being cautious but we weren’t implementing cuts because enrolment was expanding and the government was continuing to fund it,” said Horton.

“Budgets were actually expanding and that’s how we were able to establish things like the faculty of education [which opened in fall 2007]. I think things have changed within the last 18 months.”

Vice-president of academics Deb MacLatchy stated that with the challenges universities are currently facing, funding plays a much larger role when planning for the future of Laurier’s academics than it ever has before.

“The challenge is that we’ve got to work with the system that we have.… The idea of what an ‘honours’ is has been through an evolution over the past few decades,” said MacLatchy.

No obvious solution

While professors and students seem to agree that the honours BA arts degree has significant problems, there is no clear alternative to solve the financial problems of the department.

Third-year archeology and classical studies student Anatolijs Venovcevs expressed concern that no matter how the department deals with cutbacks it is really a lose-lose situation for students.

“On one hand, if [the honours BA Arts] program doesn’t go through, that’s half a million dollars being cut, which means programs will be gone….

“If it does pass, we will be giving honours status to people with a 5.0 GPA which undermines the values of the degrees people work hard to attain,” he added.

Alternatively, Smyth feels that Laurier needs to stop attempting to avoid the bigger problems and make the inevitable cuts.

“If you ask almost any student here they would prefer a smaller selection of higher quality courses,” said Smyth. “Either profs are going to be teaching something that is crappier or there are going to be less profs.”

However, Smyth does not believe that cutting the smaller programs altogether is the best solution, but that instead each department has room to make its own concessions.

“I’m not sure the answer is to cut the programs that are smallest or weakest. There are lots more business students than women’s studies students. Does that mean we should cut women’s studies? I’m not sure that’s true.”

Mobilizing the student body

Universities, in an attempt to counter their increasing deficits, continue to increase enrolment, thus handing out more and more honours degrees each year, which is contributing to the ongoing degree inflation.

Smyth noted that while he feels his faculty was able to prepare him for a path towards graduate studies, many students will leave university less than qualified not only for continuing education but for the workforce.

“How are you serving the students by giving them a qualification that doesn’t represent what they’re qualified for academically? In that sense it’s a bit of a farce,” said Smyth.
Seeing the path honours degrees have taken thus far, students and faculty alike are worried about its future.

“I’m not happy,” said Weldon, adding that the university administration is not solely to blame, but the provincial and federal governments as well. “We have a good university here. I see that solid academic reputation being eroded.”

Despite his displeasure with the proposed direction of Laurier’s honours degrees, Weldon expressed his faith in current students. He said that students should continue to question the trends of the honours degree and fight against the ongoing shift in the value of their education.

“Essentially universities have become more like businesses over the years, and it’s not a good trend,” said Weldon.

The dean of arts declined to be interviewed for this article.

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