How can internationally educated applicants meet educational requirements?
Many regulators require applicants to complete approved educational programs to be eligible for a license. But what happens for internationally educated applicants?

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Establishing educational requirements is a necessary and important component of assessing the competency of entrants to a profession during the licensing process; in fact, education is often the defining feature of a profession that assists in distinguishing it from another regulated profession. To keep the public safe from unqualified practitioners, regulators need to be sure that applicants have the foundational knowledge and skills required to practice. To accomplish this, many regulators will formally recognize certain educational programs they know prepare graduates for practice in their jurisdictions through a process called accreditation.

But what happens for applicants who didn’t complete these accredited programs and wish to practice? Having inflexible educational requirements to obtain a license can be a barrier to entry for many, otherwise competent applicants, particularly those who are internationally educated. In addition to fulfilling their public protection mandate, regulators also owe a duty of fairness to these internationally trained applicants to ensure that licensing requirements don’t impose an undue burden on their ability to practice their profession, given that they are effectively qualified despite not having an accredited educational background.

But it’s not just an issue of fairness. Keeping qualified practitioners out of their profession can affect public protection by limiting the access the public has to receive certain services. As we’ve seen recently as the Omicron variant surges across North America, labor shortages, particularly in health care, can pose a potential danger to the public – and these shortages can be exacerbated by licensing processes that are costly, complex, and time-intensive for internationally trained applicants to complete.

To ensure that they have the same level of knowledge and skills as graduates of accredited programs in a comprehensive – but also fair – manner, regulators have created acceptable alternative pathways in their licensing processes for internationally trained applicants. Here, we’ll examine five broad categories of alternatives, along with benefits and challenges associated with these pathways, and use cases of each among professions in Canada. Categories are not mutually exclusive, as regulators may offer one or more alternatives to their specific educational requirements.

1. Individual assessment of education and experience

Individual assessments (conducted by the regulator or a third-party organization) in which applicants describe their academic and work experience that has prepared them for entering the profession are a common first step to licensing for internationally educated applicants. This can take the form of a brief submission containing the applicant’s academic credentials and a resume/record of work experience, or a more detailed portfolio with witness testimonies and documented evidence that attest to their competencies. Assessments can be entirely paper-based or also involve an interview component.

One major benefit of this type is that, on its own, it usually isn’t as costly as other alternative pathways. However, it can be time-consuming for the applicant to complete, as documentation on course syllabi, evidence of competencies developed through past employment, and/or witness testimonies can be difficult to obtain. Also, these assessments are often just the initial step for internationally educated applicants and are often combined with additional pathways explored below to address any knowledge gaps that are identified.

Lawyers are an example of a regulated profession in Canada that uses this alternative. To be eligible for a license to practice law from Canada’s provincial law societies, internationally educated applicants must first receive a Certificate of Qualification from the National Committee on Accreditation (NCA), which involves an assessment of their academic and professional profile as a first step.

2. Testing of knowledge and/or skills

Some regulatory bodies require internationally educated applicants to pass one or more written or practical tests. Written exams, which precede applicable licensing exams, are used to confirm whether the applicant’s education is adequate or if they need additional training. They can also be used to fill any gaps of knowledge identified by an individual assessment. In health professions, it is common to require a combination of written and clinical exams.

When carefully designed, exams can be an effective way to assess applicants’ skills and knowledge. However, they can also be costly and exam preparation can require a significant investment of time.

Veterinarians are one example of a regulated profession in Canada that uses this alternative. To be eligible for licensing with the provinces’ veterinary colleges, applicants need a Certificate of Qualification that requires passing the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination (NAVLE). However, graduates from non-accredited educational programs must first pass the Basic and Clinical Sciences Examination (BCSE) before being able to proceed to the NAVLE.

3. Individual courses or self-paced learning

Some regulatory bodies allow internationally educated applicants to address specific gaps in their academic training by completing courses offered by post-secondary institutions or other organizations. In some cases, applicants can complete individualized self-paced learning plans that target the specific knowledge they’re missing.

The main benefits of this option are that it’s more flexible, less costly, and takes less time than completing an entire educational program. But it can still end up being an expensive and time-consuming process. Topics covered in courses may not line up perfectly with the knowledge that applicants are missing, which can result in them having to take multiple courses and repeat training they already have. There can also be barriers to accessing courses if they’re only offered by specific institutions at certain times.

One example of a profession in Ontario that accepts this alternative for meeting educational requirements is land surveyors. To be eligible for a license from the Association of Ontario Land Surveyors (AOLS), internationally educated applicants have to complete post-secondary courses identified through an academic evaluation.

4. Bridging programs

Bridging programs help internationally educated professionals fill gaps in their skills and knowledge through a complete package of courses and supplementary learning opportunities. Programs are delivered by post-secondary institutions, and some can include mentorship or internship opportunities.

In addition to preparing them for practice, bridging programs can provide internationally educated professionals with valuable connections and community. However, accessing these programs can be difficult, as they are highly competitive and often have a limited number of spots, resulting in long waiting lists. Institutions are also often geographically concentrated in urban areas. While some funding options are available, bridging programs can still be prohibitively expensive and often take up to a year or longer of full-time study to complete.

Nursing is an example of a profession in Canada that uses bridging programs to help prepare applicants who were internationally trained. Several post-secondary institutions throughout Canada offer bridging programs specifically designed to help internationally educated nurses transition into the Canadian healthcare system, such as York University’s 20-month Post-RN Internationally Educated Nurses BScN Program.

5. Completing accredited educational programs with advanced standing/transfer credits

In cases where bridging programs aren’t available and individual courses are unable to adequately address the gaps in an internationally educated applicant’s knowledge, they may have to enroll in an educational program that is accredited or approved by the regulator. However, they may be able to fast-track the process by getting partial recognition of their past educational experience through transfer credits or obtaining advanced standing that can allow them to join the program mid-stream.

The benefits and challenges of this pathway are similar to those of bridging programs. While it does ensure that applicants have all the required knowledge and skills, it is also costly and time-consuming, with barriers to access (limited spaces, high competition) that can be significant.

Paralegals are an example of a regulated profession in Ontario that accepts this pathway. To be eligible for licensing from the Law Society of Ontario (LSO), applicants must complete an accredited program in Ontario. Internationally educated applicants can inquire about options for advanced standing or transfer credits directly with the academic institutions.

Alternatives to educational requirements are a good start, but more is needed

Offering acceptable alternatives to accredited educational programs during the licensing process is an important step that regulators take to reduce barriers to entry for internationally educated applicants. However, common challenges associated with these alternative pathways – mainly that they can be very costly and time-consuming for applicants with (sometimes) significant barriers to access – underscore the need to do more.

Ontario’s Office of the Fairness Commissioner (OFC) advises that acceptable alternatives for meeting educational requirements should be offered in conjunction with making improvements to credential-recognition processes and expanding the use of mutual recognition agreements where possible. To address existing challenges related to acceptable alternatives, it recommends that regulators should “focus on competencies, not credentials”; make assessment more flexible; work with academic institutions to offer high-quality learning opportunities and advocate for improved access to courses, bridging programs, and advanced standing opportunities; and collaborate with partners to minimize the time and costs associated with alternative pathways.

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Ariel Visconti
Written byAriel Visconti
Ariel Visconti researches and writes on government and politics, regulation, occupational licensing, and emerging technologies.

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