Making Sense of International Joint Degrees in Canada and Beyond

By Nick Clark, Editor, WENR and
Sophia Lowe, Research and Policy Analyst, WES Canada

Cross-border university enrollments have been skyrocketing over the past decade, however, the global expansion and internationalization of post-secondary education should still be considered in its formative stages, with many new internationalization strategies and initiatives still evolving. International joint and dual degree programs have become increasingly relevant as an internationalization strategy, as they provide a relatively risk-free means of promoting teaching and learning across national borders. While the effort and complications of establishing joint and dual degrees should not be overlooked, they do offer a less-risky means of diversifying an institution’s, or department’s, international degree offerings without branching out into more high-risk and capital intensive endeavors, such as the development of overseas campuses. These programs also offer practical solutions to legislative roadblocks governing international-education provision in many domestic markets around the world. Consequently, interest in joint and dual degree programs has risen dramatically, yet much confusion still surrounds these programs, from nomenclature to recognition to licensure.

The purpose of this article is to provide a brief terminology primer, highlight some innovative examples of international joint and dual degrees, and to examine some of the issues related to the development of these programs and their qualifications, with a particular focus on Canada, one of the ‘middle powers’ 1 in the education-export industry.

What is an International Joint/Dual Degree?

The international joint/dual degree bridges many current trade-in-education norms and defies simple categorization, which may help explain its growing popularity. While student mobility generally does not meet with many barriers from the perspective of trade regimes or national regulations, cross-border education faces many challenges. 2 The international joint/dual degree allows for innovative transnational academic collaborations, bringing benefit to the consumer (student), the institution and the national education systems involved, without greatly upsetting trade negotiations and national legislatures.

In many emerging economies – most notably China and India – these degree programs are one of the only means of establishing a presence for universities with international-expansionist ambitions. As noted above, the internationalization and globalization of education is in the formative stages, and this is evidenced in many countries by a lack of clearly defined regulations governing the presence of foreign institutions within domestic markets.

As defined by the General Agreement of Trade in Services (GATS), which remains under negotiation, there are four modes of transnational education provision: (1) cross-border supply; (2) consumption abroad; (3) commercial presence; and (4) presence of natural persons. Joint and dual degrees fall under the first category, which does not necessarily require the physical movement of consumer or provider. Depending on how the agreement is structured, however, joint degree programs usually include the movement of students and academics across borders, classified under modes two and four respectively.

It is no great surprise, therefore, that the meaning behind the term joint degree, and how it differs from a double, dual, concurrent, conjoint and combined degrees is often cause for confusion among international-education professionals.

Alphabet Soup: Double, Dual, Concurrent, Conjoint, Simultaneous, Combined and Joint Degrees


Joint Degree

A joint degree is typically completed in the same time it takes to complete a regular degree. The program is jointly operated and administered by the partner universities. Courses are taught at two or more partner institutions in one or more countries, with students usually taking an even share of their classes at each university. Upon completion of the program, a single degree is awarded (one piece of paper) with validation and signatures from the president’s of all participating universities.

When joint degrees are well structured, students benefit from being able to draw from the best of both institutions. Generally, joint degrees involve the participation of both institutions in curriculum development and joint program approval, collaboration in student selection and course delivery. 3 However, international joint degrees are not widely recognized. “They are often recognized only in one country, with partner countries issuing additional certificates.” 4

Dual /Double Degrees

Dual degree programs lead to the award of two (or more) distinct, although often complementary, degrees. They can be two degrees taken at one university or at separate partner universities (in different countries in the case of international dual degrees). When a dual degree is completed at two or more universities each university accepts some number of credits toward the award of its own degree for courses taken at the partner university. These degrees are also called double degrees, conjoint degrees, or simultaneous degrees. 5 For simplicity, we will refer to these programs as dual degrees.

As one would expect with a parallel degree program, the required study time is usually longer than that of a single degree; however, it is less than that required for two separate degrees not taken in tandem. The time saved comes from “double-counting” courses common to both degree programs. Like the joint degree, approximately half the total period of study is spent at the partner institution, if there is one. When dual degree studies take place at the same institution, they are often called combined degrees or concurrent degrees. The two degrees might be in the same subject area, or in two different subjects. For international dual degrees, they are often in the same discipline of study.

Joint degree programs are generally considered more complex to construct and more difficult to approve. Dual degree programs are more common, as the universities involved retain full control over criteria, such as admissions and credit allocation, for the award of the degree. As with a joint degree, universities still have to be careful that the dual degree program does not dilute the integrity of other programs or of the university’s brand as a whole. Therefore, great care should be taken to ensure rigorous academic standards and that there is sufficient academic rationale to justify the program.

The Canadian Perspective

In Canada, domestic dual and joint degree programs are much more common than international joint and dual degrees, but there is increasing support for these types of arrangements. They appear to be more common in professional fields such as law and business.

According to a 2006 survey6 by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, there were a total of 21 international joint and dual degree programs being offered by 13 Canadian universities. Only seven of those universities reported an enrollment of one or more students with a total enrollment of 440 students across all 13 universities. Evidently, these programs are relatively thin on the ground in Canada, when compared to similar programs offered by European, American and Australian universities.

A Sampling of Joint Degree Offerings in Canada

In Toronto, York University offers a domestic joint graduate degree with Ryerson University in communications and culture. According to the program’s website, students benefit in being able to draw from the strengths of each department: York’s department offering strong theoretical training and Ryerson offering strong practical training through “extensive” industry links.

Internationally, York’s School of Business offers an 18-month joint Executive MBA program in partnership with Northwestern University’s (Chicago) Kellogg School of Management. This partnership is groundbreaking in that it was the first joint degree program between a Canadian and a U.S. institution. The program’s website emphasizes the benefits of being able to network with a diverse group of international peers, in addition to having the opportunity to capitalize on study opportunities offered at each of the schools’ network of international partners.

York’s latest agreement, with Fudan University in China was announced in April 2008. The two universities will be partnering to offer a joint degree program (although the media release confusingly uses the terms “dual” and “joint” interchangeably) in history, financial mathematics, computer science and design. Students participating in the programs will spend two years at Fudan, followed by two years at York, and will graduate with a degree jointly awarded by both institutions.

Funding was approved in October 2008 under the EU-Canada Cooperation Programme in Higher Education, Training and Youth for the development of a network of joint bilateral and multilateral transatlantic computer science joint degree programs

A Sampling International Dual Degree Programs in Canada

An interesting example of a Sino-Canadian international dual degree program is Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) partnership with China’s Zhejiang University. The collaboration is particularly innovative because it is offered in a subject-area, computer science, not normally considered a candidate for such international collaborations. Students study for five years with a first year in Vancouver followed by two years in China and the final two years in Vancouver. Students are awarded two distinct degrees upon graduation.

Thompson Rivers University (TRU) announced a new agreement with the University of Gävle in Sweden that will allow students to simultaneously earn a degree from each university in the fields of geography and geomatics. Under the agreement, TRU students completing an undergraduate geography (BA) major can take an additional year of study at the University of Gävle to earn a BSc in Geomatics. The agreement also allows students to simultaneously earn two diploma-level credentials: an Associate of Arts degree (2 years) from TRU and a Geomatics Technician diploma (1 year) from the University of Gävle. All courses are conducted exclusively in English.

According to Uli Scheck, TRU Associate VP Academics and Dean of Arts, these new double degree and diploma options present “an exciting opportunity for [TRU] students to internationalize their educational experience. Both options will be of great interest to students from across Canada and will set the stage for developing further international degree opportunities in the Faculty of Arts.”

York University operates a dual degree program in mathematics and statistics with Italy’s University of L’Aquila, however, the Canadian side of the agreement is still waiting for its first taker after three years of availability, according to a 2007 news release. As part of the program, a student in York’s Department of Mathematics & Statistics would complete the third year of their degree at the University of L’Aquila earning a Laurea di primo livello (equivelent to a BSc). For a York student to take part, they first have to seek admission to the dual degree program, either honors or regular, in their first-year of study or switch from their current mathematics or statistics program. After finishing mandatory first- and second-year courses at York, including language preparation, the student then studies at L’Aquila for one year and completes the degree requirements for the Italian BSc. They would then return to York for a fourth year of study and complete the degree program requirements there. The program requirements for courses in mathematics and statistics are almost identical at York and L’Aquila and credits earned at one university count fully towards the degree at the other university. While no York students had enrolled in the program as of 2007, two students from L’Aquila studied at York in 2005-2006 and one in 2006-2007.

Law Offerings

The University of Ottawa signed an agreement last year with the University of Paris 10 to offer a master’s level double degree in civil law. Students study for one semester at each campus to earn an LLM from Ottawa and the Master 2 from Paris.

The transatlantic offering builds on the Ottawa Faculty of Law dual-degree agreements with Michigan State University and the Washington College of Law (American University, Washington D.C) through which students can undertake Ottawa’s Bachelor of Law (LL.B) and its U.S. partners’ Juris Doctor (J.D.). The program, completed in four years, is geared toward students interested in studying cross-border business transactions and global intellectual property and technology law.

The University of Windsor Faculty of Law offers a dual degree program in collaboration with the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. Completed in three years, successful graduates are awarded a Windsor LL.B and Detroit J.D.

Building on the success of the dual degree, the University of Detroit signed an agreement with the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (ITESM), one of Mexico’s leading private law schools, in April of this year to create The North American Lawyer Multiple Degree Program, or “ The NAFTA Lawyer Program”. The degree program provides students with the educational background necessary to qualify to practice law in both the United States and Mexico (the J.D. degree in the United States and the L.E.D. (Licenciado en Derecho) degree in Mexico). The new program will enable Windsor Law students enrolled in the JD/LLB Program to obtain all three degrees (the LL.B., the J.D., and the L.E.D.) and potentially practice in all three countries. Students must demonstrate proficiency in both English and Spanish to enroll. Another unique aspect of the program is that UDM Law will offer 14 Mexican law courses that will be taught at UDM Law in Spanish by professors from ITESM. Those students who may not want to participate in the full program can choose these courses as electives, which can count toward approximately one-third of the credits required for their U.S. J.D. degree. While some students may choose to participate only in the American/Mexican aspect of The NAFTA Lawyer Program, others may apply to participate in the joint Canadian degree program as well. It would take students more than 10 years to obtain this “trifecta” by studying separately at each institution. However, under this program, students can do so in 6 years, receiving a U.S. J.D., a Canadian LL.B, and a Mexican L.E.D.

York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School signed an agreement in 2005 with New York University Law School to offer a dual degree leading to the award of a Canadian LL.B. and a U.S. J.D. degree in four years, essentially trimming two years of study if the student were to undertake these courses back to back rather than simultaneously. The program is structured with two years in Ottawa followed by two in New York.

Three of Ontario’s six law schools now have agreements with U.S. law schools, allowing students to graduate with both Canadian and U.S. law degrees. Considering the trade relationship between the two countries, under which there are 300 governing treaties, it seems more than likely that other Canadian and American universities will follow that lead. While the University of Toronto and Queen’s University independently offer a Juris Doctor degree, it is not approved by the American Bar Association, meaning graduates are not eligible to take the U.S. bar exam, whereas graduates from the three programs highlighted above are eligible.


One of the hallmarks of Europe’s journey toward the European Higher Education Area has been the development of joint degrees. A central tenet of the Bologna Process is the promotion of academic mobility, which in part is being advanced through institutional collaboration and the development of joint degrees, especially at the graduate level. In addition to promoting mobility and employability, joint degrees offer the prospect of promoting greater understanding between higher education systems, a process that will help those systems converge while also developing joint quality assurance procedures.

In a 2004 report7, the European University Association explored the importance of joint degrees from a number of angles. For students, the benefits were described as “immense.” The report continues by stating that, “studying in structured programmes that offer learning opportunities in another institution and country stimulates new ways of thinking and generates a wealth of new cultural opportunities, including the possibility to develop and extend language-learning skills and being exposed to new learning methods. Working with students and professors in multicultural environments enhances experiences of European culture and extends pan-European social and technological knowledge. Developing permanent network links across Europe assists future employment prospects and, in this context, graduates’ CVs have considerable “added value”. There is no doubt that such learning experiences change lives, broaden intellectual horizons and offer new professional perspectives.”

From an academic standpoint, the report concluded, “these programmes provide professional development opportunities outside their national context. The developed and tested ties within a network build solid bases for international cooperation. They can facilitate research contacts and enable exploration of complementarities in teaching and learning methods. Interaction is fostered between teaching and research in specialised areas and staff benefit from the exposure to different academic environments and traditions.”

For the institution, benefits come from “learning about policy and practice in other European institutions and countries,” and being able to “place themselves at the forefront of European inter-university cooperation. They also have the opportunity to combine the diverse strengths of individual institutions, some of which may be small in size, and build a greater potential for specialised programmes with high quality teachers and infrastructure. An institution’s involvement in innovative and collaborative programmes may enhance its international reputation and attract new students.”

EU-US Atlantis Program

Europe’s desire to promote institutional collaboration through joint degrees does not stop at its borders. Funding has been made available on both sides of the Atlantic to promote such collaboration through the EU-US Atlantis Program, an eight-year EU-US education agreement (2006), which to date has seen the launch of 14 new transatlantic cooperation projects. Their purpose is to foster transatlantic academic cooperation through innovative student exchanges resulting in double degrees, joint curriculum development and policy studies.8 Of the 14 projects so far selected, eight transatlantic joint or dual bachelor’s and master’s degrees have been approved for funding. Details of the programs can be found on the European Commission’s website.

Why Develop International Dual Degrees?

According to an AUCC study surveying internationalization in Canada, “the main rationale for integrating an international dimension into universities has remained the same: to prepare graduates who are internationally knowledgeable.”9

Developing degrees in concert with an international partner is by its very nature a complex, costly and time-consuming undertaking. A well-structured program will have undergone careful scrutiny, involving multiple rounds of discussions and meetings, with all decisions requiring many levels of approvals at both institutions.10 These discussions and agreements require give and take from academics and faculty heads at both institutions, with curriculum compromises and modifications having to be made. At the end of the process, after memoranda of understanding are signed, curricula designed and logistical issues addressed, there is no guarantee that there will be sufficient student interest to warrant the effort (see York agreement with University of L’Aquila above). If the goal is to expose students to different cultures and academic programs, why not just promote year-long study abroad programs, which are arguably easier to establish and often more popular with students?

In Singapore, where universities and colleges have eagerly embraced the international joint and dual degree, these programs are gaining traction. According to Lily Kong, Vice President at the National University of Singapore (NUS), these programs have proven popular for “those desirous of an overseas education/degree but for whom that is not possible (e.g. financial constraints, familial conditions), the shortened period overseas becomes a nice middle-ground. For those tentative but curious about a full overseas education, this too provides a comfortable combination. Others have recognized the advantages of two sets of educational, social and cultural experiences, and developing two sets of friendships and networks. And of course, the value of two degrees in less time or one degree from two prestigious institutions is a draw in itself. Indeed, this has become a significant part of NUS’ strategy to attract some of the brightest students in Singapore to study at NUS, and early indications are that it is working.”11

NUS currently offers joint undergraduate degrees with Australia National University in physics, chemistry, mathematics, economics/actuarial studies, history, philosophy, English literature; the University of Melbourne in civil engineering; and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in geography, political science, history, English literature, and economics.

Avoid Equivalency Headaches

While a period spent studying abroad can be highly rewarding for students seeking to inject some international exposure into their degree program, the potential headaches of ensuring credit is received for courses taken abroad can often be enough to deter students from doing so.

According to Paula Wilson, Associate Vice-President International at York University, “dual degree programs are becoming increasingly popular at universities around the world. Students studying abroad must first ensure that the courses they take will be accepted at their home institution, and working out those details takes time and energy. Dual degrees bypass this process, as the course equivalencies are worked out in advance.”12

Degrees and Job Prospects in Two Countries

The most popular international dual degree programs in Canada are offered in the field of law, and they reward graduates with an ABA-recognized JD degree from a U.S. partner, and an accredited LL.B degree from the Canadian partner. Considering the volume of trade in goods and the movement of people between the two nations, the dual law degree offers qualifications relevant to a host of legal areas, and presumably makes graduates highly employable on both sides of the border, especially if the relevant professional boards are passed. York University is one of the Canadian universities offering such a program which, when contrasted with its mathematics dual degree with Italian partner, University of L’Aquila, offers an insight into what makes a particular program successful.

As mentioned above, the L’Aquila partnership had not enrolled a single Canadian student in the three years to 2007, and enrolled just three from Italy. While Paula Wilson’s observation that “students…receive the bonus of receiving a degree from each institution, which can be helpful when seeking additional education or career opportunities,”13 is true, one has to also consider the relevance of an Italian mathematics degree for a Canadian mathematician. A formalized period of study abroad may have been a more appropriate means of internationalizing the York mathematics program.

For those York mathematicians looking to be internationally mobile, and any other students engaged in a dual degree program around the world, Wilson’s follow-up comments ring true: “In the L’Aquila case, for example, a York degree might be more valuable in North America, but the L’Aquila degree is likely to be more valuable in Europe. It also signals to employers that the graduate has international experience, a second language and welcomes new and novel opportunities. Finally, developing and administering dual degree programs provides the departments and institutions involved an opportunity to strengthen ties and deepen relationships, making the dual degree program exciting and valuable to everyone involved.”

Institutional Networks

Additional benefits might include the development of strategic alliances and partnerships with key institutions abroad, the promotion of innovation in curriculum and diversity of programs, the promotion of internationalization activities on campus, and the enhancement of an institution’s reputation as an internationally focused campus. The EUA put it succinctly when it stated in 2004 that, “joint programs are also said to offer opportunities for teacher exchanges, which contribute to professional development, help create new contact networks, open up possibilities for research collaboration, and encourage contacts between various academic traditions.”14

For institutions in developing economies, benefits can extend to the prestige of partnering with big name institutions, which can mean increased enrollments and therefore increased revenue; and also the connections that come with collaborating with such institutions which might lead to increased international investment.


While the benefits of international collaboration through joint curriculum development in a globalizing world are undeniable, the process of building a joint or dual degree program is by no means a walk in the park: there are plenty of headaches to go around.


One of the main benefits to the student is greater international flexibility in the job and further education market; however, there is no guarantee that dual or joint degrees will be recognized by relevant authorities or institutions. The EUA states that joint degrees are not widely recognized, or that they are often recognized only in one country, with partner countries issuing additional certificates. In addition, it is important to establish whether or not professional boards will recognize coursework taken overseas.

How do grading scales compare across borders and from institution to institution? Grading standards might be tighter at one of the partner institutions, while grading and recording procedures might be incompatible, which may lead to negative impacts for students coming from one or both sides of the collaboration.

Accreditation/Quality Assurance

Closely linked to the question of recognition is the question of accreditation and quality assurance. Who is responsible for the accreditation of such programs when they extend across international borders? This is tied into who the awarding institution is, and whether or not foreign credentials are recognized by host countries. In addition, are partner programs of a similar quality and standard?

The issue of accreditation is of particular concern in developing joint or double engineering programs. For example, the requirements for accreditation of Canadian engineering programs are governed by strict regulations and accreditation becomes difficult if part of the program is taken in a different education system, either as a joint/dual degree or on exchange.


Are the costs associated with the program borne equally by both institutions? Moreover, can students afford the added cost of international travel, especially those students from certain countries or socio-economic backgrounds. Although joint and dual degrees reduce the amount of time it would take to earn similar credentials if undertaken separately, they frequently entail a year or two of extra study for an individual program (not usually the case for study abroad), adding to overall tuition and living expenses.

Another question to consider is whether students have to pay overseas tuition costs or if the tuition is assessed by their home institution as if they were undertaking the entire program in country?

Effective Curriculum Design

The process of building an international joint degree program involves negotiation with faculty and departments in a different country, often separated by many thousands of miles. As such, meetings related to curriculum design might be limited. For a program to be effective, it is important that it is designed in such a manner that it is an integrated, well thought out and coherent program addressing program learning outcomes, as opposed to a spliced cut and paste of two separate programs.

Support Network

While issues related to personal situations may not be exclusive to dual and joint degree programs, they are certainly a factor to be considered in the development of such programs. Personal concerns extend to culture shock, fear of failure in a foreign education system, language barriers, red tape, lost wages, and family and work commitments.

Food for Thought

Joint and dual degrees can be an effective strategy for institutions looking to encourage students and academics to internationalize their studies and research. It also offers an avenue for increased international enrollments; however, these programs require significant time, forethought and dedication if they are to be implemented successfully, as these concluding quotes suggest:

  • “Cross-border higher education will not help developing countries unless it is accessible, available, affordable, relevant and of acceptable quality. Also key are the contentious issues of who awards the degree, who recognizes the degree and whether this is accredited or quality assured.15
  • “Our experience is that exchange programs with international partners of high quality are more attractive to our students than joint degree programs. 16
  • “Joint or double degrees would appear to be most attractive and successful when there is “value added” associated with the achievement of the specific credential(s); for example, the JD/LLB programs qualify graduates to work in both the Canadian and US legal systems, and joint business programs prepare graduates to function smoothly in international business settings17
  • “Programs need to complement, not simply duplicate, each other, or there is no point to them, as seen through student eyes and pocketbooks.18

1 One of four classifications (Major Players, Middle Powers, Emerging Destinations, Emerging Contenders) defined by the Observatory of Borderless Higher Education to describe the size of a country’s education-export industry.

2 See International Higher Education Policy Institute

3 O’Brien, C & D. Proctor. (n.d.c.). “Challenging innovation: a consideration of international joint degree programs for Australia.” Accessed online:

4 Canadian Association for Graduate Studies. (2006). A Profile of Master’s Degree Education in Canada.
Accessed online:

5 These are not to be confused with double majors, where students take extra courses at one institution for another credential on their degree.

6 Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC). (2006). “Preparing Students for a Global Future: Internationalization Initiatives of Canadian Universities. Based on submissions to the 2006 Scotiabank-AUCC Awards for Excellence in Internationalization Program.”
Accessed online:

7 EUA (2004). “Developing Joint Masters Programees for Europe.”
Accessed online:

8 See

9 Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) & Scotiabank. (2007). Internationalizing Canadian campuses: Main themes emerging from the 2007 Scotiabank-AUCC workshop on excellence in internationalization at Canadian universities.
Accessed online:

10 Kong, Lily (Feb. 15, 2008). Global Higher Ed. “Engaging globally through joint and double degree programmes: a view from Singapore.”
Accessed online:

11 ibid

12 York’s Daily Bulletin (Nov. 26, 2007). “International Dual Degree Program is Looking for Students”.
Accessed online:

13 ibid

14 EUA (2004). “Developing Joint Masters Programees for Europe.”
Accessed online:

15 Knight, Jane (2006). UNESO. “Higher Education Crossing Borders: A Guide to the Implications of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) for Cross-border Education.”
Accessed online:

16 Embleton, Sheila (2006). Notes from a Workshop on Transatlantic Degree Programs, Chicago.
Accessed online:

17 ibid

18 ibid

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Posted in Americas, Credential Evaluation Issues, Mobility Trends, Strategic Internationalization