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Military Education


CFB Kingston photo DCS 0038 by Steven McQuaid

The Commissioning Parade, Royal Military College, May 2004.

Military Degrees: How High is the Bar and Where’s the Beef?

by Lieutenant-Colonel David Last, PhD

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It is unfortunate in some ways that officers are advised to obtain a degree, rather than an education.1 Of course, it is easier to identify a degree than an educated mind. I know officers with a superb professional education – well read, articulate, critical and open-minded – who have somehow escaped ‘higher education’entirely. I know others whose ticket-punching university degrees have left them just as resistant to new knowledge and as suspicious of ideas as they were before the parchment was inked. Education touches us all in different ways. If the Canadian Forces are going to produce degrees-as-required from the Forces’ own university, we should think about the types of degrees, and articulate for Canadian Forces students and administrators exactly what they are being asked to do and why.

My purpose is to describe for potential students why university in general, and Canada’s military university in particular, is important. Knowing this helps us identify both opportunities and problems to avoid. We can draw from this some of the basic requirements for education (hence degrees) at various levels, and use this to help set the figurative height of the bars that we ask students to surmount. Educational needs drive us to find the means to produce – the “beef” must come from professors. This means that the university ethos must be protected and expanded, and the urge to uniformity must be resisted.

The Canadian Defence Academy (CDA) and the new emphasis on education represent something of a renaissance in military thinking in Canada, and present tremendous opportunities for institutional and professional development. It is an exciting time to be a thinking soldier. But there is also a risk that in seizing and shaping educational institutions to the needs of a profession, we will lose something of the essence of a university. If this happens, neither RMC nor the CDA will serve Canada well.

Universities are important because they preserve and expand knowledge. They do this by accumulating libraries, conducting research, publishing, and teaching. University bureaucracies and military administrators do not do these things; professors do. Professors are independent and self-regulating academics, with the freedom to think and research critically. A doctoral degree within an academic discipline relevant to their field of study is the ticket to professorial credibility, though an outstanding research and publication record sometimes substitutes for this. Collectively, those who are thinking and writing and teaching make up the “academy” – a word that originates with the Greek word for the garden where Plato taught. The “academy” has never been limited to universities and colleges, but there are ways to recognize its members and their contributions. People who acquire knowledge in a disciplined way through original research, who transmit this through membership in academic associations, through publishing, editing, public discourse, and through formal teaching, and who are recognized as valuable scholars by academic peers are members of the “academy” in a broad sense. A surprising number of military men and women outside universities are recognized as scholars and as experts in their fields, but this recognition can be transient unless it is accompanied by status in a university.


CFB Kingston photo DSC 005 by Steven McQuaid

The RMC Colours are brought on for the graduation parade, May 2004.

The heart of intellectual honesty and criticism, through six centuries of religious dogma, political fashion, and professional strictures, has been the university.2 Politics, both national and professional, have routinely entered into the university.3 Academic disciplines, pursuing knowledge for its own sake within defined boundaries, have always coexisted with professional schools and practical purposes. The distinctions between ‘pure’ research and ‘applied’ research, between ‘arts’ and ‘sciences’, between ‘academic’ and ‘professional’ have been historically useful boundaries for focusing the teaching and research efforts of the university. Knowing how universities have evolved and contributed to knowledge can help us understand what can go wrong with them.

One thing that can go wrong is that professions can take over schools. Universities really burgeoned in the renaissance when they were able to shake off the stultifying influence of ‘professional’ religious dogma, and seek to understand the world around them. Early medical schools were sometimes trapped by the need to defend ‘knowledge’ that existed, rather than question existing practices and improve upon them.4 Law schools have gone through periods of conservatism and activism. Whenever a profession controls the academy, there are pressures to preserve and validate the status quo, rather than question and criticize.

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This brings me to the curious case of a university, not just a college or school, entirely established by and for a profession. The Canadian Defence Academy and the Royal Military College of Canada are units of the Canadian Forces. Or are they? Philosopher Bertrand Russell referred to the tolerance of ambiguity as the hallmark of an educated mind. Technically, CDA and RMC are CF units. But in reality, the CF is merely a custodian of a national institution with a higher purpose. Since its foundation, RMC has been a nation-building institution. When the country needed engineers, it produced engineers. Some stayed in uniform, but many did not. Its graduates have gone on to public service and private industry; it helped integrate immigrants, and offered opportunities to people who could not afford university. Building the nation in this way has been its contribution to security in the broadest sense. Engineers who helped build roads, bridges and railways in the 19th century contributed as much to national security and identity as those who have shaped the reality of a bilingual armed force and civil service since 1970. So RMC has always produced ‘security professionals’, whether they stay in uniform as officers or not.

Canada needs a national university, producing security professionals who will contribute to the nation and to the global community. This is the real opportunity created by the CDA and the expansion of RMC beyond its walls. Educated men and women imbued with leadership and a desire to serve will make good officers. But they will also be good citizens, contributing to the nation and the world beyond. That is what universities produce. A narrower focus on producing officers for the CF risks turning the institution into a training school. How will we know when that happens? University professors know their subjects through original research, and set the curricula for their own classes. The classes change each year, because knowledge is never static. Students know that they are learning, because they have more questions at the end than at the beginning of a course, but they have a good idea about how to look for answers to these questions. This is education. When a ‘subject expert’ prepares a ‘package’, which interchangeable instructors ‘deliver’ to students, we are treading the line between training and education. When the ‘subject expert’ has assembled knowledge from other sources, and cannot explain how or why something is known, then we have lost the essence of the questioning university. Pedagogy (the art of teaching) without epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge) degenerates quickly into pedantry (insistence on forms and details).

In Officer Professor Military Education (OPME), the Canadian Defence Academy seeks professionally relevant university-level education for junior officers, but expects that all officers will have a comparable educational experience. By removing the discretion of qualified academics to teach what they know, and limiting the course to a standard outline (even one that changes periodically), the Officer Professional Military Education programme rests firmly on the line between education and training. The critical thinking expected of students in essays and exams necessary for university credit keeps OPME on the education side of the line. This brings me to the question of standards. What is expected of professionals at each stage in their professional education? Is there some logical correspondence between rank progression and degrees? If junior officers need bachelor’s degrees, then do senior officers need master’s degrees? How do different master’s degrees stack up? And who, if anyone, needs a doctoral degree?


CFB Kingston photo KN2004-165-46 by Brad Lowe

The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Ray Henault, inspects the graduation parade at RMC, May 2004.

I think it is helpful to begin with a model of higher education. There is some international consistency in the basic steps to higher education – bachelor’s (premier cycle), master’s (deuxième cycle), and PhD (troisième cycle) are not universal, but are widespread and well understood. Within the European Community, the Bologna Process works to standardise university accreditation according to this recognizable three-cycle model that is comparable to North America’s.5 Efforts to standardize the requirements for degrees at different levels within the European Community, and the members of NATO’s Partnership for Peace Consortium of Defence Academies, derive from a common interest in ensuring compatibility of standards and credits, even while each university fiercely guards its independence.6 We can describe in general terms the characteristics of each of these levels, because we use them for evaluation of course material and accreditation.

Before students enter higher education, they should be equipped with the basic tools for learning, including literacy, numeracy, and logic. This is a level of education that should be universal in a developed society, and indeed we base many of our recruiting standards on this foundation. Thereafter, we can describe all higher education and life-long learning according to two axes of progression – academic, and practical or professional learning. Of course, the two are closely related, but the axes help to describe in some detail the expectations of different programmes and degrees.

The bachelor’s degree, or premier cycle, has been almost universally taught within an academic discipline since the Middle Ages. Students at medieval universities began by studying the foundations of learning – grammar, logic and rhetoric – associated with a bachelor’s degree, before progressing to arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy, associated with a master’s degree. Divinity, law (canon and civil) and medicine were considered advanced studies. Today, bachelor’s degrees are offered by the faculties of arts and sciences, and by professional faculties in specialized applications such as engineering, education, and law. Faculties are typically divided into departments according to academic discipline: history, languages, and social sciences in arts, or chemistry, physics, and mathematics in science, for example.

The purpose of an academic discipline is to provide the boundaries within which rules are set about how we know what we know, and the sources and methods by which we seek to answer questions.7 We recognize that each discipline has a sphere of competence. By concentrating on particular fields of knowledge that share sources and methods, a student builds a coherent and meaningful body of established knowledge, but also, perhaps more importantly, learns something about the process of learning. It is not in the accumulation of little pieces of knowledge that education progresses, but by recognition of the ways in which that knowledge is acquired, validated, and applied.8 To progress beyond the first cycle, a student should have a broad knowledge of what is known within a discipline, including having read widely across most of its key fields.9

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Figure 1. Academic and Professional Progression

In accrediting courses, we draw a distinction between junior credits (those applicable to the first and second years of a bachelor’s degree) and senior credits (those applicable to the third or subsequent years).10 Junior courses build a foundation by teaching the state of knowledge within a discipline, usually relying on lectures and readings. Senior courses demand that students apply that knowledge to seek answers for themselves, relying more heavily on lab work, research papers, and seminars. Most degree programmes require a certain number of senior credits within a discipline in order to graduate. For example, RMC requires that honours chemistry students complete at least 22 chemistry (or other approved) courses at the 300 and 400 level. In Figure 1, we can draw a diagonal line across the bachelor’s cycle, indicating that senior courses represent an advance in both learning and experience. An honours degree should assure a student of an adequate foundation in the discipline to continue to the next stage of learning. To have a ‘foundation’ in a discipline implies that a student is aware of the fields within the discipline, usually by taking at least one course in each field. The student has thereby been exposed to a variety of sources and methods appropriate to each field, and has read or heard of important advances of knowledge within the discipline. A student of politics is thus aware of the ‘secondary literature’ (research that draws upon and reports original research using primary sources) in Canadian government, comparative politics, political theory, political economy, and other fields depending on the programme.

Some universities award a general degree after just three years of study (or thirty one-term courses), sometimes without a concentration in a discipline. This is an attractive option for a quick degree, but can limit future studies by failing to provide a foundation within an academic discipline. In Figure 1, I have indicated the general degree (BMASc) straddling the line between junior and senior courses. One might expect only a third of the general student’s courses to be taken at the senior level. The general student is thus missing the important year of consolidation, reflection and self-education that caps a degree enabling further academic study. Even if a student takes more courses later, comprehension may be less coherent because of the discontinuity. A thoughtful individual might overcome this through self-education and reflection, but this is difficult to ascertain without personal acquaintance.


CFB Kingston photo DSC 0048 by Steven McQuaid

Following a long-standing tradition, after the commissioning parade the RMC graduating class throw their pillbox caps into the air.

The general student, or the student who has not concentrated within a discipline, is at a further disadvantage, which may be insurmountable. Perhaps only two or three of the courses he or she has taken are within any discipline. Compare three courses in a general degree without concentration to 22 courses in the same discipline in an honours degree.11 At 39 contact hours (lectures) and 78 study hours per course, the honours student has more than 2500 hours of exposure to a discipline – to the general student’s 350 hours.

In most universities, academic distinction requires both a comprehensive programme of studies (usually meaning more credits within a discipline) and a higher standard (usually maintaining a minimum mark). Why? Look through the courses a student is required to take in order to graduate with a major or minor in a particular discipline. They have usually been chosen in order to expose the student to a cross section of the discipline as wide as possible within the department. A certain breadth and depth are thereby achieved within a discipline in a bachelor’s degree. This is important for further work within the discipline.

A supervised independent research paper, thesis or study project is a common requirement for graduation with distinction. In order to complete such a project, students must demonstrate competent use of the sources and methods developed by the discipline. History students learn something of historiography; economics students learn something of econometrics, and so on. By doing so, they move into the intersection with the second cycle – mastery of a discipline. At this level, they no longer simply accept what they read or are told, but test knowledge for themselves by synthesizing secondary sources and the original work of others, and by finding or compiling new information from primary sources – those which are generated directly by the phenomena under study.

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Research under supervision is the hallmark of the academic master’s degree. Professors teaching at the graduate level are expected to be actively researching and publishing, and may involve their students in their research. But supervised research does not always have to result in a book-length manuscript examined by external experts. It might be in the form of a series of research papers approved by the supervisor and an internal committee, or exclusively by the supervisor (when a degree is awarded by course-work rather than research). The advantage of a thesis project examined by external experts is that a student thereby demonstrates the capacity for original research which meets an academic standard within a discipline. It is difficult to do this unless the student has a prior foundation within that discipline, including familiarity with sources and methods. Thus the academic progression often entails a thesis or research project, while a master’s by course-work tends to veer to the right in Figure 1 above, making it more difficult to continue to the next cycle.

We offer two different types of master’s programmes through RMC, and analogues can be found at other universities. First, I should be clear that there is no snobbery entailed in distinguishing between an academic and a professional progression of degrees. Some of our most respected professions – engineering, law, and medicine, for example – require professional rather than academic degrees. They also maintain high standards through oversight and examination within the profession. Having said this, the two types of degrees are not necessarily substitutes for each other. A master’s degree in law may not get you into a PhD program in history (but again, in some places and under some circumstances, it might). A professional master’s degree indicates mastery and application of a specialized body of professionally relevant knowledge, and a demonstrated ability to work within that professional community. An MBA, for example, prepares a graduate to work within a professional management community, just as Staff College prepares a military officer to work within a professional staff. Professional degrees must consider the needs of the profession in developing a body of people who think in ways that help to solve the problems of the profession outside the walls of the university. Academic degrees, on the other hand, are concerned principally with the preservation, validation and generation of knowledge. The yardstick for validation comes from within the university. Thus accreditation of the Master’s of Defence Studies (MDS), like accreditation of other graduate degrees, falls to the Ontario College of Graduate Studies, though the programme was devised to meet the needs of the Canadian Forces.12


CFB Kingston photo

Former Defence Minister, The Honourable John McCallum, then Chancellor of Royal Military College, confers a bachelor’s degree at a Spring Convocation.

It should be clear from this discussion that while academic and professional military degrees must be equally rigorous, they have different requirements for entry and completion. We might expect most students entering the War Studies programme to have a prior degree in arts or social sciences. Since knowledge of theory, sources and methods within a discipline is a prerequisite for a successful thesis, we might expect students from different disciplines to complete the programme by course-work. In contrast, the prerequisite for the professional MDS is not prior study within a discipline, but prior experience within the profession. Because the MDS has an explicitly professional focus, the student can draw upon professional experience to evaluate appropriate information and draw informed conclusions. This does not obviate the need for use of theory, sources and methods in the MDS thesis. However, the yardstick for their application is not the state of knowledge within an academic discipline, but the state of knowledge within the military profession. They are applied, generally, not to an academic problem, but to a practical military problem.

The War Studies MA thesis is expected to reflect broad knowledge of the discipline within which it is awarded. Although the label ‘War Studies’ is clearly multi-disciplinary – like Women’s Studies or Environmental Studies – the examining form actually states an examining department. Generally, it is the department of the supervisor. The candidate must know enough to defend the thesis within the discipline in which it is being examined. Three two-term courses in the War Studies programme are not adequate to provide a foundation in a discipline. This implies that the first degree should confer enough familiarity to permit the candidate to situate the thesis in the theoretical framework of the discipline, apply the sources and methods of the discipline, and to be examined on them. Therefore, candidates should not write a social science thesis unless they have a social science undergraduate degree. The same is probably true for history and most other disciplines, although the degree of specialized knowledge necessary will vary according to discipline and research topic.

This brings me to the third cycle, or what our American colleagues ominously refer to as a “terminal degree”. If learning within a discipline marks the first cycle, and research (using established theories, sources and methods) marks the second cycle, what marks the third? The hallmark of the doctoral degree is the generation of new knowledge. Mastering the methods of a discipline permits a student to move from the first to the second cycle. ‘Philosophy’ comes from the Greek expression for love of knowledge, and implies love, study and pursuit of wisdom about the nature and causes of things, theoretical and practical. Exploring epistemology – the theory of knowledge – marks the entry to doctoral work. What is the origin of knowledge? How do experience and reason contribute to knowledge? How do we know what we know? What are the changing forms of knowledge as new conceptualizations of the world emerge?13 The pupil knows because she was taught, the Bachelor knows because he read it himself, the Master knows because she tested it, and the Doctor of Philosophy doubts – which is what spurs new questions.

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But how many philosophical doctors do we want in uniform? A North American PhD entails several years of study leading to comprehensive exams in two or more fields within a discipline, followed by extensive research to produce an original work of scholarship (previously unpublished facts and original ideas). It is a long and lonely journey usually implying a narrow depth of scholarship culminating in doubt. It entails three to five years of isolated study in the prime of one’s professional development.14 Doctoral study is a good preparation for life as an academic, which entails research, teaching, and service to the academic profession. It is not a good preparation for life as a leader, a soldier, or an officer, though some may survive a doctoral programme and thrive in these other pursuits. That they do so should not be accepted as a recommendation. We should therefore accept that the number of military students progressing from the second to the third cycle should be small, and that their careers might be limited. Using figures from the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada’s Trends in Higher Education, 2002, the ratio of bachelors to masters to PhD students in Canada is approximately 450:70:1. If this ratio is relevant to military education, it suggests that in the small pool of Canadian uniformed students we might anticipate no more than seven or eight sponsored PhD positions across all disciplines, or perhaps one or two a year allowing for completion times. Clearly the doctoral path is not for everyone.

But there are also some cautions to apply to a military PhD programme. Much has been written about the malaise of universities over the years. In the Great Brain Robbery, three well-known historians argued that the major problems of universities in the 1980s were not related to funding, but to universities becoming instruments of policy rather than instruments of learning.15 In Petrified Campus, they revisit the subject and criticize tenure and political correctness for undermining academic rigour.16 Reading between the lines, we should be cautious about any guaranteed programmes for military faculty, or special positions for those in uniform. Universities that hire their own graduates are frowned upon because of the incestuous recycling of ideas that this implies.17 Most good university faculties include few of their own graduates. The smaller the university, the more important this rule becomes. It would therefore seem that for the military to make good use of sponsored doctoral positions, they should not be offered at the only military university in Canada, if their principal employment is to be at that university.

But perhaps there is scope for philosophical doctors in uniform outside the military university. The Security and Defence Forum (SDF) “is mandated to develop a domestic competence and national interest in defence issues of current and future relevance to Canadian security.”18 The Royal Military College is only one of sixteen universities in the SDF community, which boast fine scholars, but few in uniform. In the 1950s and 1960s, most universities had an Officer Training Corps, every town had a prominent war memorial, and many towns had a Militia unit ensconced in an historic armoury. Military sociologist Terry Willett has hypothesized that the concentration of bases, reduction in size and number of units, and increase in the percentage of officers educated at RMC has reduced the “social footprint” of the Canadian Forces, limiting its ability to interact with society, to the detriment of both. Perhaps in the spirit of generating new knowledge, the role of the military PhDs produced by the national university should be to bring military knowledge to civilian universities, or to foreign shores.

The nature of the academic progression described here confers no monopoly in generating new knowledge. Enormous efforts have been exerted to improve professional military education in Canada through staff colleges, the Advanced Military Studies Course, the National Security Studies Course, and the National Security Studies Seminars. At their best, each of these generates a learning environment that draws on professional experience and fosters critical thinking, the collection of new information and the promulgation of new ideas. Peer-reviewed publications, public presentations, and professional accomplishments attest to the rigour and utility of the professional progression now well established. But as Figure 1 illustrates, there is a point of divergence. A master’s degree will not prepare an officer to work as a divisional staff officer, because it does not include the foundation of doctrinal knowledge imparted through Staff College. An MDS or NSSC credit will not prepare a student for doctoral work because it does not include the foundation of disciplinary knowledge imparted through study within an academic discipline. We should be cautious about adjusting these boundaries because they are practical ways to preserve both professional expertise and academic independence.

Universities are important because they are centres of learning. To have a military university is to have a responsibility to the nation both for its preservation and for its use for national purposes. Faculty and students alike share the responsibility, and it is appropriate for us all to have some common understanding of the alternative paths for professional and academic education. As a final word, one might say, choose your rut carefully – you could be in it for a lifetime!

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Lieutenant-Colonel David Last is the Registrar at Royal Military College. For some years he has taught in the Department of Politics and Economics at the College.


  1. Ramsey Withers and John Cowan, RMC Undergraduate Study Group, Report of the RMC Board of Governor’s Study Group: review of the undergraduate program at RMC, 30 April 1998: balanced excellence: leading Canada’s Armed Forces in the new millennium. (Kingston: Royal Military College of Canada, 1998).
  2. Abraham Flexner, Universities: American, English, German. (London: Oxford U.P., 1930, 1968).
  3. Peter C. Emberley, Zero Tolerance: Hot Button Politics in Canada’s Universities (Toronto: Penguin, 1996).
  4. Johanna Geyer-Kordesch and Fiona Macdonald. Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow: the History of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, 1599-1858 (London: Hambledon Press, 1999).
  5. Nicole Rege Colet, “The Bologna Process and Curriculum Development,” Rectorat of the University of Geneva, presentation at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, 1 April 2003.
  6. WGCD meeting, Geneva, 1 April 2003.
  7. Originating with theology (knowledge passed to a disciple), the concept of academic disciplines evolved with universities. Zachariah Coke wrote in 1657, “objective disciplines be principally four: theology, jurisprudence, medicine, and philosophy” Complete Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, (London: Oxford University Press, 1991), volume 2, 735. This reflected the schools at Oxford at the time. See also Chaos of Disciplines on the sociology of knowledge and its structure in academic disciplines.
  8. Clark Kerr, The Uses of the University, 5th edition. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).
  9. Abraham Kaplan, The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioral Science. (San Francisco, Chandler Pub. Co., 1964). [Stauffer Library – H61 .K17].
  10. Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, “Post-Secondary Overview,” (Toronto: Queen’s Printer for Ontario, 2003).
  11. In the examples, I follow the convention of counting a one-term course as a single credit. Examples are drawn from the RMC Undergraduate Calendar, 2002-2003.
  12. Ontario Council on Graduate Studies, OCGS By-laws and Procedures Governing Appraisals. Revised April 2003.
  13. Simon Blackburn, “Epistemology” and “Philosophy”, Dictionary of Philosophy. (London: Oxford University Press, 1996).
  14. In fact, the completion rates in arts and social sciences are just above 50 percent after 8 years. Peggy Berkowitz, “Graduate Schools held to account,” University Affairs, March 2003, 31.
  15. David Bercuson, Robert Bothwell, J.L. Granatstein. The Great Brain Robbery: Canada’s Universities on the Road to Ruin. (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1984).
  16. David Bercuson, Robert Bothwell, J.L. Granatstein, The Crisis in Canada’s Universities: Petrified Campus. (Toronto: Random House, 1997).
  17. Veteran university administrator Jacques Barzun describes the process of assuring quality faculty in The American University: How It Runs, Where It Is Going (New York: Harper and Row, 1968) 34-42. The environment in Canadian universities today is similar.
  18. DND Policy Group, “Defence and Academic Programs: Security and Defence Forum (SDF),” 23 December 2002.