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

4. Licensing and academic requirements

This section describes the policy context and regulatory framework that shape challenges and opportunities related to academic requirements for licensing and acceptable alternatives for meeting those requirements, among regulated professions in Ontario.

National public policy initiatives

In recent years, there has been a strong public policy focus in Canada on improving processes for recognizing and assessing foreign credentials, both for reasons of fairness and to maximize immigrants' contributions to the Canadian economy.

Some progress has been made.

For example, the Pan-Canadian Framework for the Assessment and Recognition of Foreign Qualifications has helped to raise awareness and increase financial support for assessment and recognition initiatives by regulatory stakeholders (for example, provincial regulatory bodies and national organizations that deliver assessments and exams). At the same time, the framework has enhanced national coordination and harmonization of professional standards. This, together with labour-mobility legislation, helps professionals who are already registered in one Canadian jurisdiction to practise in another.

However, it is difficult to assess the framework's success in meeting its primary goal: to help immigrant professionals "use to the fullest their skills and experience within the Canadian labour market."18 The federal government's latest progress report notes that Canada has not yet developed a strategy for measuring the framework's impact.19

Continued challenges for internationally educated professionals

Despite the Pan-Canadian Framework, internationally educated people seeking licensing in a regulated profession continue to face significant challenges.

In some cases, these challenges may be related to differences in the academic requirements for licensing in different jurisdictions for the same profession. For example, a person might have practised as a psychologist with a master's degree in his or her home country, but require a doctoral degree to be licensed in Ontario.

In other cases, the greater challenge for applicants may lie in demonstrating that their academic background is "equivalent" or "substantially equivalent" to the academic requirement in Ontario.

Some individuals also experience difficulties getting the transcripts and course descriptions they need to prove their academic achievements.

Self-regulation: Balancing competing interests

Regulating a profession involves defining acceptable qualifications and establishing a distinction between people who are qualified to practise the profession and those who are not.

On the one hand, this distinction protects the public from unqualified practitioners.

At the same time, it grants power, social status and higher income to the members of a closed group. This can lead to protectionism, where escalating academic requirements and restrictive licensing practices exclude new members unnecessarily.

Professionalization can therefore both serve and undermine the public interest. Sociologists have explored the relationship between professions and income inequality, and have documented patterns of exclusion on gender and racial lines.20 At the same time, sociologists have recognized the positive role that specialized knowledge and an altruistic professional ethos can play in the self-regulation of professions.21

Regulators are pulled in different directions by their public-protection mandate and by the interests of their members. Progress on recognizing international credentials needs to be grounded in:

  • recognizing the competing pressures on regulatory bodies
  • redefining the public interest to include a diverse population of applicants to the professions and of beneficiaries of professional services
  • reaffirming professional values of public service

At the same time, self-regulation must be balanced by oversight and accountability. Vigilance is required to ensure fair access to the professions, and to enrich their membership with the contributions of diverse applicants.

Public protection: Seeking assurance of knowledge and skills

In Ontario, as in other provinces, regulatory bodies are subject to intense public scrutiny and take seriously their mandate to protect the public interest. Given the variation in educational programs in different jurisdictions, regulators seek a high level of assurance that applicants have the knowledge and skills that are necessary to practise competently and safely.

In many cases, regulators do not understand the applicant's academic program well enough to have this level of assurance. Even in cases where a paper-based assessment of applicants' credentials suggests that the applicants have an academic background similar to the profession's requirements, non-traditional applicants22 may have to undergo additional assessments or exams before regulators can recognize the "equivalency" of their academic qualifications.

For example:

  • Internationally educated engineers and geoscientists whose education seems to be similar to Ontario's requirements may be asked to write "confirmatory exams" to further prove their knowledge, and those with identified gaps in education are assigned a series of technical exams.
  • Many professions have an "evaluating exam" that internationally educated applicants must pass before becoming eligible to write the licensing exam.

Decreasing the burden for applicants

Gaps in regulators' understanding of international credentials can thus drive the development of alternative assessments and even bridge training, to address perceived gaps in academic training. While such alternatives are preferable to not recognizing the credentials at all, they frequently add to the complexity, length and cost of the licensing process.

To decrease the burden on applicants, the development of acceptable alternatives for meeting licensing requirements must be matched by improvements to credential-recognition processes and the expansion of mutual recognition agreements that allow for automatic full or partial recognition of credentials.23 Currently, mutual recognition agreements are largely limited to English-speaking Commonwealth countries.

Regulators may also need to reflect on their experience with competency-based assessments, and to integrate this learning into their processes. For example, where applicants with a particular educational background are consistently successful on an assessment, it may be unnecessary to assess later applicants with that same background.

This can help streamline the recognition of qualifications and standardize requirements for those later applicants. For example, Professional Engineers Ontario's academic requirements committee has reduced the number of technical exams assigned to a particular group of applicants based on past performance on these tests by applicants with the same educational background.

By building on experience and improving qualification-recognition programs over time, regulators can offer targeted alternatives to applicants with true gaps in academic training, rather than bridge gaps in assessors' abilities to recognize international credentials. For this to happen, regulators may need more resources to conduct research, improve assessor training, and enhance objectivity.

Differential impact

Offering targeted alternatives is all the more important because of the different impact of existing academic requirements and qualification-recognition processes on different groups of applicants.

Some applicants benefit from the regulatory body's advance screening of their academic program, through either an accreditation or mutual recognition process. For these applicants, the licensing process is relatively streamlined. For example:

  • Graduates of accredited programs are assumed to have met all academic requirements.24
  • Applicants from jurisdictions that are recognized under labour-mobility legislation or an international mutual recognition agreement are exempt from any additional steps that are required of applicants whose educational program is unknown.

On the other hand, applicants from non-accredited programs and non-recognized jurisdictions must individually prove the equivalency of their education. Often this involves some form of competency assessment or bridge training to confirm that they have the required knowledge and skills to practise the profession in Ontario. Applicants not only bear the burden of proving their competency, but may also face significant challenges related to the time and cost associated with these extra assessments and training.

The challenges associated with meeting academic requirements may also vary depending on the length of the educational program required for licensing. Where required programs are relatively short (such as a college diploma), it may be easier for non-traditional applicants to repeat all or part of their studies through a regular academic program. Where programs are longer (such as a university degree), there may be a greater need for alternative pathways for demonstrating competencies and/or filling gaps in academic training.

Fair-access legislation

Ontario's fair-access legislation includes the Fair Access to the Regulated Professions and Compulsory Trades Act (FARPACTA) and corresponding provisions in the Regulated Health Professions Act (RHPA). This legislation recognizes the authority of self-regulating professions to specify licensing requirements and acceptable alternatives.

But it also introduces a new level of accountability:

  • Regulators must critically examine the necessity and relevance of registration requirements in entry-to-practice reviews.
  • Regulators must be transparent about all possible routes for meeting licensing requirements, and must provide information to applicants about "acceptable alternatives."

The Office of the Fairness Commissioner (OFC) follows up on issues identified in entry-to-practice reviews that the regulators submit, and monitors the transparency of acceptable alternatives. However, it does not exert direct influence over licensing requirements.

The fair-access legislation does establish two key principles that are critical to improving fair access to the professions:

  • First, all requirements for licensing should be relevant and necessary to the practice of the profession.
  • Second, competencies are more important than credentials.

Following these two principles, the OFC encourages regulators to identify "acceptable alternatives" for meeting licensing requirements.


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Notes and references

  • 18. Forum of Labour Market Ministers. (2009). A Pan-Canadian Framework for the Assessment and Recognition of Foreign Qualifications, p. 1. Retrieved from http://www.hrsdc.gc.ca/eng/jobs/credential_recognition/docs/pcf.pdf
  • 19. Foreign Credential Referral Office (FCRO), Citizenship and Immigration Canada. (2011). Strengthening Canada's Economy — Government of Canada Progress Report 2011 on Foreign Credential Recognition. Retrieved from http://www.credentials.gc.ca/fcro/progress-report2011.asp
  • 20. Two sources:
    • Weeden, K. (2001). "Why Do Some Occupations Pay More Than Others? Social Closure and Earnings Inequality in the United States." American Journal of Sociology, 108(1), 55–101.
    • Witz, A. (1990, November). "Patriarchy and Professions: The Gendered Politics of Occupational Closure." Sociology, 24 (4), 675–690.
  • 21. Freidson, E. (1994). Professionalism Reborn: Theory, Prophecy, and Policy. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press.
  • 22. Non-traditional applicants include both internationally trained applicants and those educated in non-accredited programs within Canada.
  • 23. Mutual recognition initiatives must always consider brain drain and ethical recruiting. Some countries may wish to opt out of mutual recognition.
  • 24. Accreditation typically happens at a national level. Some accreditation systems are bi-national, accrediting programs in both Canada and the United States. A few, such as the accreditation system for veterinary medicine, will also evaluate international programs for accreditation. The program must apply and pay a fee to be considered for accreditation.

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...