The Gamble on Knowledge

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by Benoît Hardy-Vallée

It’s a gamble because there’s no promise of a job when we graduate, but we’re buying a chance to get out of labour jobs – Thomas Madondoro, in the Toronto StarSeptember 7, 2006.

The author of this sentence graduated from Harare Polytechnic (Zimbabwe), and is a former chief business reporter for the Zimbabwe Herald. A newcomer to Canada, he is completing a certificate in journalism while working as a security guard to meet his needs. Like many newcomers, he must gain Canadian experience and go through the Canadian university system.

Since the Canadian labour market attaches great value to education, but often underestimates the importance of experience from abroad, the addition of Canadian education credentials to your résumé can pay off.

Gaining knowledge and skills through university is a gamble. It can be costly if you have to start from scratch, but unlike casinos, you have more chance of winning than losing. You have to expect an average of $4,000 per year in tuition fees, which is a huge investment for most people. It is a gamble on your future – but as gambles go, it’s a very good bet!

The Canadian university system offers more than 10,000 programs in its 90 universities and 200 colleges. Unlike other countries, there are no entrance exams. Entrance usually depends on the candidate’s high school marks. A newcomer wishing to enter university must submit an official transcript (with good grades). Studies can take place in English or French (depending on the university), so you may have to take a language proficiency test.

In a rapidly changing world, university education has many advantages. Nearly a quarter of new jobs require a university degree. The unemployment rate is also lower among workers with diplomas. If you already have a degree, Canadian education can improve your understanding of Canadian standards and help you get the certification required by many jobs in Canada. For newcomers, the advantage is twofold: in addition to a degree, the university also offers Canadian experience; a chance to learn more about the country and its culture. And do not forget the monetary benefits – a university graduate earns an average one and a half times the salary of someone who has not completed his secondary education.

The figures show that newcomers are a very educated population. In the 25 to 54 year age group, 37 percent of immigrants have degrees. Half the people who arrived in the last five years have post-secondary educations. Only 22 percent of individuals of the same age born in Canada have a degree.

If a degree increases the chances of getting a better paid job and immigrants have higher-than-average education levels, then newcomers should have a real advantage. While this might sometimes be the case, the labour market seems to favour Canadian diplomas.

Over a third (35 percent) of recent immigrants have low wages and it can take several years before wages compare with that of Canadian workers who have similar diplomas or skills.

A study published in the Journal of International Migration and Integration, in 2001, suggests that if all newcomers were paid as well as their Canadian colleagues, it would put $15 billion more into the pockets of immigrants.

Most of this imbalance is because of lack of communication skills. Fluency in English is essential.

Universities require you to pass the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). The problem is that this test was created in the U.K. Those who know British spellings and understand British and Australian references have an advantage. For this and other reasons, you can have a functional level of English, but fail the test and not have access to graduate studies. To address these challenges, the governments of Canada and Ontario have invested nearly $1 billion to help newcomers enter the labour market.

Another option now open to foreign students is the category of Canadian Experience, a new class of im­migrant. Now, a person can apply for permanent residency (and later, for citizenship) if they have:

  1. temporary resident status
  2. completed a program of study of at least two years in Canada
  3. acquired a year of specialized work experience (technical, professional, management)
  4. moderate or basic language skills. Thus, 80,000 students are given the opportunity to more easily enter the Canadian labour market.

Beginning your life in Canada with a university diploma or by going back to school allows you to better ensure your future. There are no sure things in life, but this is as close as you can come.

And that’s certainly worth gambling on…

Internet resources to help you navigate the Canadian university system:

Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada Description of all programs and all Canadian universities by province: Click here 
Canadian Information Centre for International Credentials: Click here
The Canadian Experience class: Click here

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