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International Education, Future Citizens, and the Labour Market: Challenges and Prospect for Ontario



Ontario’s skilled labour shortage, a dire concern for the province and Canada as a whole, is to be met, albeit partially, by targeting international students (IS) as Canada’s future immigrants. The 2014, international education strategy, the first ever for Canada, states: International students are well positioned to immigrate to Canada as they have typically obtained Canadian credentials, are proficient in at least one official language and often have relevant Canadian work experience.” (p. 12).


The Ontario government has worked strategically to “make Ontario the destination of choice for international students” (Ontario, 2010) and indeed Ontario attracts the highest number of IS (43.3%) as it does new immigrant populations (38.4%) (CIC, 2012). Has Ontario’s strategy proven successful? Do IS in fact integrate more smoothly and seamlessly into Canadian society? This research question framed a pilot study conducted at two of Ontario’s universities, as little is known about IS as immigrants.


Supported by the Government of Ontario, Ministry of Training Universities and Colleges (MTCU) through the Ontario Human Capital Research and Innovation Fund a group of four researchers* from York University and the University of Guelph conducted 11 focus groups to examine the experiences of IS as they transitioned from their educational institutions into Ontario’s labour market.  The key findings highlighted the extent to which assumed labour market outcomes often do not align with the lived experiences of IS; several barriers remain which prevent IS from realizing their full potential as “ideal” immigrants.


Poor prospects of finding work in their field; prejudices and resistance of employers to their IS status; restrictions in using Immigrant Settlement and Integration Services (ISIS); perceptions that being a successful worker in Canada is about “who you know, and not what you know;” along with inconsistency of information and lack of clarity on constantly changing immigration policies and processes present barriers to IS integration into Ontario’s labour market. Policy makers have a real opportunity to address these challenges given IS expressed interest in applying for permanent status and their appreciation of the quality of their academic experiences.


About the Research                                       


Case Studies                                                   

The two Ontario universities selected are particularly prominent among IS and contrast in distinct ways.  The University of Guelph was selected because it ranks highest in IS satisfaction among Ontario Post-Secondary institutions and is located outside of the Toronto Area.  York University was selected because it has one of the largest student populations in the country and is located in the Toronto Area. A total of 48 IS participated in 2-hour long in-depth discussions.  


Our Findings                                                   


International students perceive the Ontario job market to be extremely difficult to access.  Although students typically report having work experience both on- and off-campus by the later stages of their degree, there is a general concern that they are not afforded the same opportunities as Domestic Students. 


  • The University Experience

The calibre and quality of education in Ontario is viewed in extremely positive terms.  Nonetheless, greater investment in resources and support to IS is necessary, especially beyond the first year.  Students expressed feeling bouts of ‘home sickness’ even in their third and fourth year of study, the need for “community and connection” and for the university  “to get [IS] more involved with domestic students, not just international students.” IS expressed an interest in greater volunteer, co-op and research opportunities as these were viewed as key avenues for networking with Canadian professionals.


  • The Employment Experiences

IS find it challenging to get jobs while in school, whether it be on or off campus. In particular, securing post graduation jobs in their field seems next to impossible. As one student lamented, “I didn’t pay $100,000 to do an administrative job,” while another stated “I wouldn’t stay in a place that would have me under-employed with a degree in Economics.” IS seem perplexed: “you know,…the government is talking about increasing the international student intake in Canada because you know they want to have all these talented people come from all over the world, while even the students in their own country has [sic] no clue what they are going to do with themselves after graduation…and if they don’t know what to do with themselves, what kind of chance do international students have?”


There is a need to improve employers’ awareness of immigration laws pertaining to IS. Particular effort is needed to discourage discrimination on the basis of one’s status as an IS; as one student said,  “I have actually resorted to taking out the fact that I’m not from Canada in my applications, because I just don’t want to get prejudiced out.” “I feel like automatically for them [employers], a red flag comes up;” “once you tell them you’re an international student, something happens.”  Relatedly, students expressed concern at being barred from applying for government positions and other skilled internships for which they are qualified.


Despite a lack of career-relevant off-campus work experience, a surprising finding was the university was the most cited source of full-time post graduation employment among IS. For most, their previous on- campus jobs or volunteer positions with offices such as admissions and recruitment

materialized into full time positions; IS spoke of university staff being “…somebody you could see as a friend as well… [somebody prepared to] give you that chance;” people who are, “really willing to help you and hear your story and stuff like that.”


  • The Immigration Experience

Overall IS found that the student visa, work visa and post-graduation work visa policy and processes were efficient and effective. Several IS recommended that the work permit for IS should be issued along with the student visa as one document. Thus the current change in regulation that does just that will be appreciated by IS.


Students, however, described applying for PR and/or processing of immigration permits as “head-banging” given frequent policy changes and poor communication channels between student and bureaucracy, coupled with universities’ limited ability to advise and offer guidance. Students describe, “that time in between where you’re no longer a student, you’re a worker but you haven’t reached that permanent resident status” as being “just in limbo.”


Policy Recommendations                              

There are several ways in which to improve upon the international student experience:


At the University:

The campus experience is central to IS given that it serves as “home” during their stay in Canada; keeping this in mind:


  • Invest greater resources into supporting international students beyond the first year, including staff, programming, and knowledge mobilization.

  • Increase opportunities and improve access to a variety of on-campus job and volunteer opportunities, including IS to work with faculty on research projects.

  • Integrate more internships and cooperative educational opportunities into academic programs


For Employers:

  • Build awareness and knowledge among employers about immigration laws pertaining to IS


  • Develop checks and balances as well as incentives so as to encourage best practices among employers when it comes to hiring IS, placing particular focus on the intercultural skills of IS and their work experience in their home country.


  • Employers that are immigrants themselves can act as mentors for IS and role models for other employers.


For Immigration:

  • Reconsideration of policies regarding NOC job classification and requirements for employment both in terms of number of years and the types of jobs considered eligible to better reflect the employment reality of IS


  • Research and assessment of IS policy and programs should be supported with an aim at identifying the common obstacles, whether real or perceived, faced by students. Policy, programs and services can be most efficiently and effectively implemented when all three sectors, the governments (provincial and federal), the academic institutions and the labour market work in close collaboration ensuring consistency of message and purpose.


  • Communication between students and bureaucracy is perceived to be exceptionally poor.In light of poor communication channels, limitations on university staff to advise and guide students through the policy process should be lifted.


  • Immigrant Settlement and Integration Services (ISIS), language services and bridge programs should also be made available to IS.




The sample sizes at both institutions were relatively small (24 per campus), thus our findings are not necessarily representative of the entire IS population. Also, based on our sample criteria we did not control for factors that might have influenced our findings such as country of origin, study discipline (e.g., business, psychology, engineering), and length of stay in Ontario. However, we are confident that our methodology provided us with valuable insights into IS experiences and perspectives and enabled us to dig deeper into reasons behind IS responses. We were also able to discuss specific policy and programmatic recommendations with IS and allow them space and time to elaborate on these in further detail, which would be more difficult if we had used a survey to reach a larger number of IS.




“Canadian students have the support of their family and if something goes wrong they can always go back home…” whereas for IS “you don’t have anybody else to turn to.” Our research strongly supports the centrality of social support to the IS experience. It also reveals that the Ontario labour market is not blind to socio-cultural, ethnic, and/or racial difference; rather it can be discriminatory and pose many unfair barriers to IS attempting to enter the job market. Clearly, IS need additional supports if governments expect to encourage and facilitate them to come to Ontario and stay back as permanent residents and future citizens. “Honestly, they can make it so much better for us to get a permanent residency, because if we honestly leave our countries and fly across the Atlantic and across oceans and seas and everything to come here, we are serious. And, you invest $100,000 on tuition and everything, you’re a serious person to set down and put roots in Canada and everything like that, so why are you making us jump through hoops and more, you know? And, we’ve demonstrated financially that we can live in this country.”

*Research Team: Roopa Desai Trilokekar, Associate Professor, Faculty of Education, York University, Saba Safdar, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Guelph,  Amira El-Masri, PhD candidate, York University, Colin Scott, MA, University of Guelph.


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