Good Practices for the Recognition of International Credentials in Canada
Timothy Owen & Sophia J. Lowe, World Education Services, Canada
This is an abridged and slightly modified version of the Canada country report written by Timothy Owen and Sophia J. Lowe for UNESCO’s Expert Group Meeting on Migration and Education: Quality Assurance and Mutual recognition of Qualifications, held in September 2008, in Paris. The full report is accessible on UNESCOs website: “Labour Market Integration of Skilled Immigrants: Good Practices for the Recognition of International Credentials”
Transferring the education and experience of migrants to new countries with different systems of education is not always smooth. While 70 percent of Canada’s immigrants have at least some post-secondary education and Canada has a sophisticated network of labour market integration programs, coordinating the recognition of the education and skills acquired outside the country, and successfully supporting the labour market integration of internationally educated professionals (IEPs) into jobs commensurate with their skills and education is proving a challenge.
Since 2001, Canada has admitted an average of 240,000 immigrants a year as permanent residents. In addition, 165,000 temporary foreign workers and 75,000 international students were admitted to Canada in 2007.1 Recent changes in immigration policy are allowing some of those who have entered Canada as temporary workers or students to apply to become permanent residents. Current laws allow those who have been in Canada as permanent residents for three years or more to apply to become citizens. Every year, approximately 150,000 people are granted citizenship, and in 2006, 85 percent of those who were eligible for citizenship became citizens.2 Canada also allows individuals the possibility of retaining the citizenship of their home country to become “dual citizens”. The 2006 Census found that 2.8 percent of the population held dual citizenship.3
Today, Canada selects immigrants under three broad classes: economic (mainly through the Federal Skilled Worker Program), family and refugees. Most immigrants (131,258 in 2007, including family members of principle applicants) enter Canada under the Federal Skilled Worker Program, commonly known as the points system.4 The education levels of immigrants from all classes are high. In 2007, 37 percent of immigrants of core working age (those aged 25 to 54) had a university degree, compared with only 22 percent of those born in Canada. Furthermore, 20 percent of immigrants have a graduate degree, compared with just 5 percent of Canadian born. In total, 70 percent of all working-age (15 to 65 years of age) immigrants to Canada in the recent past have at least some post-secondary education.5
Over the past decade, Canadian provinces and territories have become active in the process of selecting economic class immigrants through Provincial Nominee Programs (PNPs). There have also been changes to work regulations for international students, and there is greater uptake and support for employer-driven programs like the PNP and the Temporary Foreign Worker Programs to expedite application processing to get workers into Canada quickly. In September 2008, the Canadian Experience Class was launched to expedite the retention of some temporary foreign workers and international students who are well adjusted to Canada and have demonstrated their success in the labour market.
All of these immigration policy shifts are attempts to better match skilled immigrants with occupations seen as in need in the labour market, and to circumvent some of the barriers to entry for skilled immigrants.
Mobility Challenges in Canada
Recognition of qualifications in Canada is particularly challenging since the “learning recognition system is a patchwork of systems and methods”.6 Federal and provincial, or territorial, governments are each responsible for parts of the system, creating a complex structure which results in mobility issues for everyone. The federal government is primarily responsible for immigration (although constitutionally it is a responsibility shared with the provinces and territories), for national labour market policies, and for providing national tools to help maintain occupational competency and strengthen the economic union.7 Provincial and territorial governments have jurisdiction over most skilled trades and professions, higher education, and have delegated authority to regulatory bodies to determine licensing and certification requirements.
Barriers exist within certain regulated professions and trades that prevent people from having their qualifications and experience recognized in other jurisdictions in Canada. Furthermore, those who have gained university or college qualifications in one institution often have difficulties having them recognized by another institution when transferring credits. As one interview respondent for this report noted, “overcoming provincial barriers is the biggest challenge to creating pan-Canadian credential recognition standards”.8
To attempt to address Canadian mobility issues, in 1999, as part of a broad Social Union Framework Agreement, all governments in Canada agreed to abide by the regulations set out in the Labour Mobility Chapter in the 1994 Agreement on Internal Trade (AIT). This meant that jurisdictions had to give appropriate recognition of training, skills, education and experience to people from outside their jurisdiction and accommodate them in terms of regulation, licensing requirements and employment. These mobility agreements are important, but they have not yet proven completely effective in aiding mobility, since pan-Canadian initiatives are often superseded by provincial agreements and certification requirements. With the support of the federal government, the political leaders of the provinces and territories committed, in July 2008, to ensure labour mobility within Canada by summer 2009 and to amend the AIT by January 1, 2009 to reach this goal.9 Since then, April 1, 2009 has been identified as the deadline for achieving compliance with the provisions of labour mobility and professions and trades that are currently non-compliant have been ordered an aggressive work plan to achieve full labour mobility by that date.
Foreign Credential Recognition
With regard to foreign credential recognition (FCR), the complexities are compounded. There are 13 provincial/territorial jurisdictions, 55 government departments/ministries, more than 50 regulated occupations with more than 400 regulatory bodies, five provincially mandated assessment agencies, two private assessment agencies, and over 270 post-secondary institutions, all of which have some role in recognizing credentials. In addition, there are hundreds of thousands of employers who individually determine the employment eligibility of IEPs, and a large non-governmental organization community of hundreds of service agencies who assist with immigrant integration. This type of institutional complexity makes FCR problems in Canada difficult to understand, let alone address and resolve.10
There are seven “third-party” credential evaluation services across Canada, including five provincially mandated services. In addition, there are two private services. All of these services, as well as one operated by the umbrella organization for professional engineering licensing bodies (Engineers Canada), have agreed to abide by provincial and territorial General Guiding Principles for Good Practice in the Assessment of Foreign Credentials and the Recommendation on Criteria and Procedures for the Assessment of Foreign Qualifications adopted in 2001 by the Lisbon Recognition Convention Committee. These organizations served a combined total of approximately 47,000 clients in 2007, representing approximately one-third of all those who arrived in the country with some form of post-secondary education.
The Bologna Declaration and Bologna Process also have a bearing on Canada’s methods of credential recognition and can be used as important examples of how to integrate processes, as the European reform movement aims to create harmony and compatibility for European higher education and credentials. The ENIC/NARIC Network was set up to oversee, promote and facilitate the implementation of the Council of Europe/UNESCO Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications Concerning Higher Education in the European Region. 11 Canadian Information Centre for International Credentials (CICIC) is a member of the ENIC Network and it is instrumental in the implementation of ENIC recommendations, policy and information distribution. A s part of its commitment to the goals of the Lisbon Recognition Convention, the Canadian federal government and provincial authorities jointly established the CICIC as “part of the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, which is an intergovernmental body made up of Ministers of Education”.12
CICIC provides information and referral services to help support the transfer and recognition of international education and was pivotal in the development of the Alliance of Credential Evaluation Services of Canada (ACESC) in 2000, as part of the strategy to harmonize credential evaluation across Canada. ACESC is comprised of five provincially mandated credential evaluation services, which adhere to quality-assurance provisions consistent with those prescribed in the Lisbon Recognition Convention.
The procedures for evaluating and recognizing credentials and qualifications earned outside Canada depend on many factors, such as whether an internationally trained professional is trying to enter the labour market, pursue further studies, or if an immigrant’s chosen occupation is regulated or unregulated, and in what province or territory they wish to settle. All of these variables determine different credential assessment and recognition processes.13 There is little collaboration between the diverse parties assessing and recognizing credentials, so people with an international education may have their credentials assessed numerous times for different purposes. The complications may present serious barriers for IEPs.14
In an effort to address such concerns, the ACESC, in collaboration with the other credential evaluation services, Engineers Canada and the Canadian Tourism Human Resource Council, have just completed a project and report on pan-Canadian standards in credential evaluation entitled “Pan-Canadian Quality Standards in International Credential Evaluation ”. Through a series of consultations with regulatory bodies, educational institutions and evaluation services, the diagnostic survey came up with some policy recommendations. The main recommendations are: the need to increase the profile of credential evaluation services, especially among employers; the need to harmonize standards of document evaluation and resource tools; and take other steps to increase portability.15 Since the publication of the report, the government of Canada has dedicated C$50 million to the development of a common foreign credential recognition framework by September 2009, with an interim report developed by June 2009.
Why Credential Evaluations?
Credential evaluation agencies assess formal credentials by establishing the legitimacy of the institution, the authenticity of the documents, and the comparable level of credentials in Canadian standards. They provide evaluation reports that are used for many purposes, including employment, further education and licensure. There is a growing use of these agencies in Canada by licensing bodies, universities and colleges, although many evaluate international credentials in-house and use these “evaluations” only internally, either for licensure or for admission, including admission with advanced standing.16 Under these circumstances, there is no written report that the individual can use elsewhere. In some circumstances, institutions might rely on an evaluation service to authenticate documents and indicate the status of the institutions that issued their documents, but make a determination of the comparable Canadian level of education themselves.
Credential evaluation reports help individuals make informed decisions about applications for immigration, employment, education, training and professional membership. Evaluation agencies help end-users (employers, regulatory bodies, institutions, etc.) understand the Canadian value of foreign credentials and provide assurance that supporting documents are legitimate. In Ontario, approximately 18,000 newcomers apply annually for a formal evaluation of their credentials through these agencies, and another 9,000 apply directly to licensing bodies. This can be compared with the 65,000 immigrants with post-secondary education who are admitted as permanent residents to Ontario each year.
Despite outreach efforts by evaluation agencies and governments, many employers are still unfamiliar with their services. The many stakeholders involved, the lack of awareness and understanding of the role of evaluation agencies, and the potential for inconsistent assessment outcomes by different agencies can undermine efforts to improve credential recognition. At the same time, credential evaluation agencies are only part of the solution in terms of addressing FCR as they only assess formal credentials, and not competency, work experience, or language.
While credential evaluation can assess and measure formally earned qualifications, measuring life experience and workplace skills remains a major challenge, since lack of Canadian work experience is a significant barrier to employment for many IEPs. Ideally, exemplary practice in credential and skills recognition would be an assessment of paper credentials in conjunction with a competency assessment of workplace knowledge, skills and experience.
Other Canadian Alliances for Foreign Credential Recognition
In 1994, the Canadian Association of Prior Learning Assessment (CAPLA) was established as the national voice for prior learning assessment and recognition. CAPLA advocates for formal acknowledgment of previous learning experiences and flexible, yet rigorous and transparent, means to test such learning. The goal is to better recognize informal and experiential learning to allow adult’s access to continued-learning opportunities and employment commensurate with skills and experience. This is particularly important to IEPs, who face barriers not only in terms of the recognition of their formal credentials, but also in terms of recognition of their life experience and training.
Sector councils have also played a large role in supporting the integration of immigrants and recognition of foreign education and skills. Sector councils are “partnership organizations [between educators, employers and employees] that address skills development issues in key sectors of the economy”.17 There are about 30 sector councils operating in partnership with the federal government in various sectors in Canada, and together the sector councils have formed The Alliance of Sector Councils (TASC ). One of the major working groups and focuses of TASC is immigration and FCR, bringing all sector council voices together to address the issues, develop expertise and seek solutions for each sector.18
Building Momentum on Foreign Credential Recognition
In response to the barriers and challenges discussed above, governments, academic institutions and community organizations have undertaken research, developed and implemented programs, and even introduced legislation in attempts to find systemic solutions. The origins of these programs go back many years, but specific attention has been given to assessing and recognizing international credentials in the past decade.
While the selection of skilled workers through the Federal Skilled Worker Program has been the central policy tool at the federal level, the decline in labour market performance of skilled immigrants over the past two decades has become a major concern for all governments. Addressing FCR was the initial focus of attention for funding and programs, but the scope of programming has now broadened to include other labour market integration interventions.
FCR initiatives have focused on access to reliable and current information, licensing and accreditation, labour market needs, bridging programs, further education and settlement counselling – both pre-arrival and within Canada. There is also a push to streamline and create better consistency across the provinces and territories and in different sectors regarding FCR, while integrating recognition of non-traditional learning and experience. Engagement with employers, and addressing systemic issues of discrimination, has also begun to be addressed, at least in part.
The federal government’s creation of the FCR Program in Human Resources and Social Development Canada (HRSDC) and the Foreign Credentials Referral Office (FCRO) as part of Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) are significant responses to issues with FCR. The FCR Program aims to harmonize FCR and assessment processes across Canada into a pan-Canadian approach. The main objectives are fairness, accessibility, coherence, transparency and rigorous quality services in credential evaluation and assessment.19 Throughout this program, the federal government has played a facilitative role with the provinces and territories by providing strategic leadership in order to foster the development of consistent, national approaches to FCR.
In 2007, the FCRO was launched to provide information with path-finding and referral services for internationally trained individuals in Canada and overseas. The FCRO also works with provincial and territorial governments and other stakeholders to improve the coordination of FCR processes while respecting jurisdictions. In 2006 and 2007, the federal government committed C$32.2 million to this initiative over 5 years and a one-time additional allocation of $5 million to the FCR Program, bringing total funding for this program to $73 million. A Further $50 million was announced in the January 2009 budget to speed up the process of assessing and recognizing foreign qualifications.
In 2006, Ontario passed Bill 124, the Fair Access to Regulated Professions Act, which promises in its principle and spirit to advance equitable access to 35 regulated professions in Ontario. This will help “ensure that regulated professions and individuals applying for registration by regulated professions are governed by registration practices that are transparent, objective, impartial and fair”.20 The legislation also included the 2007 appointment of a Fairness Commissioner to assess and monitor the registration and regulation process and the compliance of regulators, and further includes internships in ministries and Crown agencies for IEPs.21
Through the Office of the Fairness Commissioner (OFC ), regulators can explain regulatory processes to the public in an impartial arena.22 While we have yet to see the full effects of the legislation, the OFC is performing audits and providing oversight of the regulators in Ontario to ensure that the process is fair and transparent for everyone. Already, some regulators have conducted internal reviews and made changes to their policies and practices. While an excellent and necessary piece of legislation, it is still critiqued for not fully addressing the issue of Canadian experience as a part of FCR and it is still unclear whether the OFC will have the teeth and backing to make real systemic change.23
The OFC has been used as a model in Canada. In Manitoba, the government passed Fair Registration Practices in Regulated Profession Act and appointed a fairness commissioner. Nova Scotia has also introduced a Fair Access Bill and is in the process of implementation. Alberta has also recently developed a framework for FCR.
Towards Better Foreign Credential Recognition
Everyone at the Table
Most commentators interviewed for this report agreed that making the process of credential recognition work requires the collaboration of all parties: licensing bodies, education institutions, employers, community organizations, government bodies, and immigrants themselves. There are instances where such collaboration occurs, and has a positive effect. Where it does not, it can create major barriers (see text box).
Starting the Process Overseas
In order to begin to address credential recognition issues within Canada, immigrants need to be provided with information and tools as early as possible in the immigration process, preferably prior to their arrival in Canada. Providing specific information that can help immigrants make informed decisions and identify any gaps in their skills before coming to Canada (and begin to address them) will enable quicker integration into jobs that appropriately reflect their academic background and work experience.
Services such as credential evaluation, skills and language assessments, job search and résumé building skills, workplace orientation and counselling for options to bridge skills are essential in preparing immigrants for success in Canada. Website portals can provide access to important tools and information which immigrants can access from almost anywhere in the world. Information includes: credential evaluation services, region-specific labour market information, salary ranges by occupation, cultural norms in the Canadian workplace, childcare information and job-search banks.
While information sharing at the earliest stage possible is critical to the success of immigrants, some interview respondents indicated that there are currently “too many information sources” making information flow inefficient. The “bits and pieces of information” obtained are sometimes inaccurate or may become out of date.24 They suggest that potential immigrants need better coordination for the distribution of official information, which is provided overseas, or even after arrival. Still, the exploding volume of information available on the Internet and increasing access to it worldwide probably makes accurate information streamlining unfeasible.
In fall 2006, the Association of Canadian Community Colleges launched the Canadian Immigration Integration Project (CIIP), funded through the federal FCR Program.25 The CIIP is currently being piloted in the Philippines, China and India to help immigrants and their spouses who have applied under the Federal Skilled Worker Program prepare for integration into the Canadian labour market while in the final stages of the immigration process. The program is intended to provide these immigrants with a more realistic understanding of the opportunities and challenges they will face; a chance to make better-informed decisions about the choices available to them; and, to be better equipped to enter the labour force.26 Through the program, there is both a one-day session on information and resources organized according to the destination province or territory, as well as one-on-one counselling interviews where participants are helped to develop Individual Integration Plans (IIP).27
At the end of March 2008, registrations totaled just over 3,000, and almost 2,000 had already participated in CIIP services. Applicants destined for Ontario who are part of the CIIP have access to an online database offered by World Education Services Canada, a credential evaluation service based in Toronto. This online tool, called the Preliminary Online Equivalency (POE ), can be accessed from anywhere in the world and provides applicants with an immediate indication of the equivalency of a credential in Canadian terms, prior to their commissioning a full evaluation. As immigrants attempt to prepare themselves to transition to life in Canada and access available resources, they need to know where their credentials stand in the Canadian context, any gaps that might exist in their education, and, if possible, how to fill the gaps as quickly as possible for speedy labour market success. Feedback from applicants using this service has been overwhelmingly positive.
Innovative FCR Initiatives
The Colleges Integrating Immigrants to Employment (CIITE), launched in Ontario in 2003, has also been working on innovative programs that build on IEPs qualifications and “expedite securing employment in their field of expertise or in a related field”.The CIITE project started with colleges in the Toronto area concerned with a changing demographic in the colleges. Since the inception of CIITE, 21 of 24 Ontario colleges have taken part in the project and eight sub-projects have come out of the diagnostic first and second phases. These include credential recognition, advising services for internationally trained immigrants, language benchmarking of college programs, competency assessment, data collection, and employment services.
The credential recognition sub-project is working to launch a web-based Record of Education and Experience (REE) “that will create a standard form to be used by colleges to recognize international credentials and experience through Advanced Standing/Transfer Credit”. The hope is that the REE will eventually be understood and used by employers as well as colleges. If adopted widely, the REE will provide IEPs with “a standardized document to apply for recognition at colleges, as well as a tool for seeking employment”.31 Advising Services for Internationally Trained Immigrants, now being pilot tested, entails a number of colleges with advisors on-site who provide information, referral to community agencies and guidance for immigrants in determining the best steps to take in terms of future schooling and employment.32
Another new pilot program, just underway, (funded with $3 million from HRSDC through the FCR program) and run through Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology (SIAST) will train workers who are still overseas in the mechanical trades, validate their competencies and support their immigration directly to an employer though the PNP. The project is being piloted at partner colleges in Ukraine, the Philippines and Vietnam.33 SIAST purchases appropriate equipment, places it overseas in the colleges and then tests competency and language skills specific to the occupations needed. The partner colleges give skills training and then SIAST works with employers to match workers. The match guarantees that if the employer is unhappy with the worker after they arrive, SIAST provides additional training for free.34
SIAST has many of the elements needed for successful integration of immigrants and employer satisfaction. The guarantee of a competent worker provides the employer a low-risk process for hiring, and immigrants will receive the support and training needed for success. SIAST is also working with accreditation bodies so that workers can get licensed in Canada.35
Other Labour Market Programs
Three of the more innovative approaches started up to address FCR and the success of skilled immigrants have been bridging programs, mentorship and internship programs, and employer engagement initiatives.
The idea of “bridging” programs was introduced in the late 1990s; IEPs were provided with training that would bridge any gaps in their education, skills and competencies in order to help them prepare for, and access licensure and/or employment in their desired field. These programs can provide opportunities for clinical or workplace experience, skills training, targeted academic training programs, examination preparation, language training (specific to the profession), and opportunities for job shadowing and networking.
Bridging programs exist both independently or are integrated into college and university programs. Settlement organizations, government programs and regulatory bodies also operate bridging programs, and many programs involve all of these organizations. In fact, those interviewed said there is a need for a systemic approach where all stakeholders are present in discussions, planning and implementing such integrated programs.36 Many of these programs include language training that is occupation specific.
Bridging programs have been referred to as essential, and summed up as the best program interventions available to assist skilled immigrants enter their professions. At the same time they are ad-hoc, funding is time-limited, and they serve only a limited population in specific occupations. Despite the flaws in bridging programs, research shows that any “top-up education helps immigrants” since employers trust the names from Canadian institutions, even just on a certificate.37 Earning a Canadian credential, no matter what type, appears to give greater value to the credentials the IEP has already earned.
While many programs exist, access and integration to these programs can be a challenge. Sometimes immigrants do not know that a program exists, and demand for programs often exceeds space and funding. There are even cases where the bridging programs cost more to the student than it would for them to start their education over again from scratch.38 While some colleges and universities are doing joint recognition of prior learning and foreign credentials to allow immigrants to fill in gaps in education and bridge their skills and training, complications in the way governments fund college and university programs may make it difficult for the institutions to offer the course that the immigrant needs when they need it.
Successful bridging programs involve employers, and help connect immigrants to informal job networks, so that they can gain valuable professional experience and knowledge. The Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC) has played a critical role in engaging employers on immigrant integration, providing leadership and resources for other organizations, and engaging with the public.39
TRIEC aims to “convince Toronto employers that they need to better appreciate the value of immigrant workers”40 through the collaboration and involvement of multiple stakeholders, including bringing corporate businesses into the dialogue and delivery of programs. Hireimmigrants.ca , a project of TRIEC, is a website which showcases promising practices and provides employers with a toolkit to help them make smart hiring decisions and avoid discounting the potential value of hiring immigrants.41
TRIEC also initiated the Mentoring Partnership Program and The Career Bridge internship program, and both have proved helpful in bringing employers on board with immigrant labour market integration and helping skilled immigrants get professional experience and access to job networks.42
The Mentoring Partnership Program matches skilled immigrants who are ready to work with mentors experienced in their field (the prospective field of the immigrant). Seventy-two percent of participants have found employment through this program.43 TRIEC’s Career Bridge program was created in 2003 as an innovative internship program that attempts to “address the dilemma of no Canadian experience, no job; no job, no Canadian experience,”44 which prevents the success of many skilled immigrants in the labour market. The program matches skilled immigrants, who have had their language and qualifications assessed, with employers. Through the Career Bridge program, in 2006, the Ontario Government created the Ontario Public Service Internship Program for Internationally Trained Professionals to work in the Ontario government.
There remains a need to engage employers about immigrant source countries and their quality of education. Without the knowledge, employers “may adopt a risk-averse attitude by giving preference to domestically educated workers in their hiring decisions”.45 Especially in unregulated professions, employers assess credentials and experience at their discretion.46 Employers’ lack of awareness was identified in a study by the Public Policy Forum where almost half of all employer respondents surveyed had no experience verifying foreign qualifications and work experience, while only 16 percent could name a credential evaluation service.47
Awards and recognition of employers and organizations that have good FCR practices and hire IEPs has also proved successful. TRIEC rewards and recognizes organizations that have displayed outstanding practices that provide IEPs the opportunity to use their skills and experience in the workplace. These organizations are rewarded and showcased – increasing their exposure and advertising. The Toronto Star also publishes Best Employers for New Canadians , which has a similar effect. Such recognition is not only significant for the organization itself, but has helped influence corporate culture and hiring practices.
TRIEC has also engaged in public education efforts to raise awareness about the lack of recognition of foreign qualifications, and the resulting waste of skills that immigrants bring with them to Canada. Some of these efforts include public service announcements on television, and print ads in newspapers (see below)
The movement of the highly skilled immigrants across borders presents numerous challenges, with the transferring of education and experience high on the list. In Canada, where most immigrants are highly educated, problems of immigrants attaining jobs commensurate with their skill levels persist. A major barrier is the lack of understanding and recognition of foreign credentials in Canada.
There have been many responses to FCR and labour market integration barriers from the international community, from the Canadian government, from community organizations and migrant groups. This paper has outlined some of the concerns for immigrants in Canada and many of the promising practices and lessons learned in Canada, as the nation moves toward better programs and coordination of the recognition of education and skills acquired outside the country. Canada is continually working to improve the systems and practices of FCR, not only critical to the success of immigrants in Canada, but ultimately, to the success and prosperity of the nation as a whole.
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