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Academic Requirements and Acceptable Alternatives:
Challenges and Opportunities for the Regulated Professions in Ontario

2. The undervaluing of international qualifications

This section presents a brief review of research that explores the persistent undervaluing of international qualifications in Canada and around the world, some contributing factors, and observers' conclusions.

Existing research

A significant body of research has documented the challenges that internationally educated people face when they try to get work in Canada.

However, most studies have tended to either:

  • address immigrant access to all occupations, without distinguishing between regulated and non-regulated occupations
  • focus on one large profession, such as nursing or engineering

Further, except for a few profession-specific case studies presented at conferences on prior learning assessment, there has been little systematic exploration of the use of acceptable alternatives to introduce flexibility into the licensing process for regulated professions.

This study addresses that gap.

The study also builds on existing literature that shows the continuing undervaluing of immigrants' education in the Canadian labour market. One study showed that two-thirds of recent immigrants with a university education were working in occupations that usually required no more than a college education or an apprenticeship.3

Such findings illustrate the urgency of developing new strategies to overcome licensing barriers, in order to more effectively mobilize the knowledge and skills of internationally educated professionals.

Global comparisons: Recognizing qualifications

Canada is not alone in facing these challenges for immigrants. A 2009 European study showed that 36% of working-age immigrants born outside of the European Union (EU) were overqualified for their jobs, compared to 28% of those born in the EU and 21% of those who were born in the EU country where they were working. To help address this key policy challenge, the European Commission recently supported a major study on the recognition of migrants' qualifications.4

That study notes several important developments since the year 2000. For example:

  • Countries such as Denmark and Germany introduced new legislation to govern the recognition of foreign qualifications.
  • Databases and assessment services have helped to ease the recognition of international qualifications.
  • There has been a gradual trend towards competency-based assessment of formal and informal learning.

EU citizens typically face fewer barriers, while people from countries outside the EU often face limited access to both professional recognition and permanent residence.

Drawing on case studies from Australia and Canada, the EU study recommends initiatives such as:

  • bridging programs
  • competency-based assessments
  • courses that help applicants prepare for exams

At the same time, the study stresses the important role that mutual recognition agreements between different jurisdictions can play in easing the recognition of foreign qualifications and enhancing mobility.

Global comparisons: Language assessment and learning

Innovations in the assessing and recognizing of qualifications have an important role to play in correcting the undervaluing of immigrants' education. However, other barriers — such as those related to language assessment and learning — must also be addressed.

Recent Australian research has called for improving the assessment of internationally educated health professionals' language skills. It notes that native English speakers often fail to achieve the language benchmarks that internationally educated applicants need to reach to become licensed. The research urges regulators to carefully analyze the language competencies required for professional practice, rather than uncritically adopting benchmarks established by other regulatory bodies.5

Better learning methods are also critical. In Canada, many internationally educated professionals are frustrated by the slow pace and generic nature of intermediate language programs. Despite recent growth in advanced training in occupation-specific language skills, access to these programs is still limited.6

The time lost to meeting language benchmarks — as much as five years — can be significant. Extended time away from practice can contribute to the deterioration of applicants' professional skills and a lack of up-to-date knowledge. This significantly lessens the applicants' chances of becoming licensed.

Employer preferences and labour-market realities

In Canada, internationally educated professionals face a variety of barriers, at both the individual and system level.7 Language difficulties are a frequent and obvious barrier. But there are other, often-overlooked barriers.

For example, employers prefer applicants who have Canadian experience. This "Canadian experience" barrier is so prevalent that the Ontario Human Rights Commission recently warned employers and regulatory bodies that rejecting applicants on this basis may constitute a human rights violation.

Employers tend to hire immigrants into positions that do not reflect their education and experience. A Toronto research roundtable identified concerns about the emerging trend of "skills hoarding" — where employers benefit from workers' higher-level skills without ever opening doors to jobs and salaries that are appropriate for those skills.8

Research on temporary foreign workers has also pointed to employers' preference for overqualified candidates.

Temporary foreign workers coming through low-skilled pathways face even greater obstacles, as their employment at low-skill jobs makes them ineligible to apply for permanent residence status under the Canadian Experience Class. Because their work visa ties them to a specific employer or sector, many temporary workers have no way forward to employment that is appropriate to their skills.9

Immigration policy

Over the last decade, temporary migration — both skilled and low-skilled — has grown rapidly in Canada. This has created new challenges for qualification recognition. It has also driven various changes in the regulation of professions. For example:

  • Many Ontario regulatory bodies have moved away from requiring citizenship or permanent residence and now accept applicants with appropriate work authorization from Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
  • Some professions have created provisional-licence or limited-licence categories to allow applicants to enter the labour market earlier.

However, there remain serious contradictions between the "just-in-time" orientation of temporary migration programs and the complexities of the licensing process for regulated professions.

To improve economic outcomes for immigrants, government policy-makers have repeatedly adjusted the way Canada selects skilled immigrants. The Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (2002) introduced a human-capital model that awarded points based on language, education and work experience, while later changes brought back a priority-occupations list.

However, changing selection criteria alone has been largely ineffective in helping to appropriately integrate immigrants into the economy.

Census data shows that immigrants earn significantly lower amounts than their Canadian-born counterparts. In 2006, the average annual income of university-educated immigrants in their prime working years was just over half that of their Canadian-born counterparts.10 Another study of pre- and post-migration employment showed that 48% of immigrants were employed in occupations requiring university training before they came to Canada. Only 23% were employed in such occupations four years after landing.11

Research implications: Removing barriers and improving supports

Improving the process for selecting immigrants is not enough:

  • The 2009 Pan-Canadian Framework for the Assessment and Recognition of Foreign Qualifications recognized the need to build a shared vision and active collaboration between governments and regulatory stakeholders to improve access to the professions and trades.12
  • Ontario's immigration strategy recognizes the need for continued work to remove barriers and improve supports for successfully integrating immigrants into the Ontario labour market.13

Researchers who have focused on the regulated professions have recommended that regulators and governments target their help at the early years after immigrants arrive in Canada. The reasoning is that if immigrants are to succeed in entering their intended profession, that success is most likely to happen during these early years — or not at all. Long delays in getting licensed can lead immigrants to a downward economic spiral.14 Prolonged unemployment or underemployment leads to deterioration of their professional skills and loss of confidence, which reduce their chances of getting appropriate work.15

Research indicates that interventions should aim to improve understanding of other jurisdictions' educational systems and increase the scope of mutual recognition agreements, while also building capacity to pinpoint and address applicants' competency gaps.

Currently, the region where immigrants were originally educated has a significant impact on their licensing and employment outcomes, as does their education after they arrived in Canada. Immigrants have better outcomes if they studied in countries with education systems and language of instruction that are similar to Canada's. So do immigrants who complete post-migration education in Canada.16

Observers note that regulatory bodies need funding and support from government to correct the generally poorer outcomes for immigrants. They have questioned the prospects for future progress on the recognition of foreign qualifications, given that much government funding has been project-based rather than ongoing.17

Researchers argue that several positive initiatives that need support include those designed to:

  • improve recognition of international qualifications, in the most timely way possible
  • enhance access to bridging programs, programs to help applicants prepare for exams, and occupation-specific language training, with appropriate financial aid

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Notes and references

  • 3. Houle, R. and L. Yssaad. (2010, September). "Recognition of Newcomers' Foreign Credentials and Work Experience." Perspectives on Labour and Income, 11 (9), 18–33.
  • 4. Schuster, A., M. Vincenza Desiderio, and G. Urso (Eds.). (2013). Recognition of Qualifications and Competences of Migrants (Brussels: International Organization for Migration).
  • 5. Hawthorne, L. and A. To. (2012). "The Impact of English Language Testing on Medical Registration Outcomes in Australia — Evidence and Outcomes 2005–2011." Presentation to the International Association of Medical Regulatory Authorities (IAMRA) conference held in Ottawa, October 2–5. Retrieved from
  • 6. Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI). (2012). Making Ontario Home 2012: A Study of Settlement and Integration Services for Immigrants and Refugees. Retrieved from
  • 7. Two sources:
    • Picot, G. and A. Sweetman. (2012). Making it in Canada: Immigration Outcomes and Policies. IRPP Study No. 29 (Montreal: Institute for Research on Public Policy).
    • Policy Roundtable Mobilizing Professions and Trades (PROMPT). (2004, July). In the Public Interest: Immigrant Access to Regulated Professions in Today's Ontario. A PROMPT Policy Paper (Toronto). Retrieved from
  • 8. Toronto Immigrant Employment Data Initiative (TIEDI). (2012). Immigrant Transitions from Underemployment to Skills-commensurate Employment. TIEDI Roundtable discussion paper #4.
  • 9. Lowe, S. (2012, July). Transitioning Temporary Foreign Workers to Permanent Residents: A Case for Better Foreign Credential Recognition. CERIS Working Paper No. 91 (Toronto: CERIS — The Ontario Metropolis Centre).
  • 10. Toronto Immigrant Employment Data Initiative (TIEDI). (2012). Immigrant Transitions from Underemployment to Skills-commensurate Employment. TIEDI Roundtable discussion paper #4.
  • 11. Grenier, G. and L. Xue. (2011, May). "Canadian Immigrants' Access to a First Job in Their Intended Occupation." Journal of International Migration and Integration, 12 (3), 275–303.
  • 12. Forum of Labour Market Ministers. (2009). A Pan-Canadian Framework for the Assessment and Recognition of Foreign Qualifications. Retrieved from
  • 13. Ontario Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration. (2012). A New Direction: Ontario's Immigration Strategy. Retrieved from
  • 14. Grenier, G. and L. Xue. (2011, May). "Canadian Immigrants' Access to a First Job in Their Intended Occupation." Journal of International Migration and Integration, 12 (3), 275–303.
  • 15. Two sources:
    • Schittenhelm, K. and O. Schmidtke. (2010, December). "Integrating Highly Skilled Migrants into the Economy: Transatlantic Perspectives." International Journal, 66 (1), 127–143.
    • Toronto Immigrant Employment Data Initiative (TIEDI). (2012). Immigrant Transitions from Underemployment to Skills-commensurate Employment. TIEDI Roundtable discussion paper #4.
  • 16. Three sources:
    • Girard, M. (2010). "Match Between Pre- and Postmigration Education Among New Immigrants: Determinants and Payoffs." Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 40 (3), 81–99.
    • Girard, M. and M. Smith. (2013, May). "Working in a Regulated Occupation in Canada: An Immigrant–Native Born Comparison." Journal of International Migration and Integration, 14 (2), 219–244.
    • Zietsma, D. (2010, February). "Immigrants Working in Regulated Occupations." Perspectives on Labour and Income (Statistics Canada), February 2010, 13–28. Retrieved from
  • 17. Guo, S. and H. Shan. (2013). "Canada." Case study about good practices and recommendations regarding recognition of foreign qualifications. In Schuster, A., M. Vincenza Desiderio, and G. Urso (Eds.), Recognition of Qualifications and Competences of Migrants (Brussels: International Organization for Migration), pp. 229–253.

Academic Requirements and Acceptable Alternatives:
Challenges and Opportunities for the Regulated Professions in Ontario

Exemplary Practices

The OFC gathers regulatory bodies' exemplary licensing practices so that they may learn from one another. Exemplary practices about academic requirements and acceptable alternatives are listed below.

  1. Accepting and supporting diverse applicants

    This practice acknowledges a diversity of midwifery...

  2. Clarifying documentation requirements and acceptable alternatives

    This practice will be of interest to regulators seeking...

  3. Communicating acceptable alternatives for applicants with non-accredited education

    This practice offers a visual map of pathways to registration...

  4. Communicating acceptable alternatives for meeting certification requirements

    This practice allows applicants to better understand...