ARCHIVED – Recent immigrants: A comparison of participants and non-participants in Canadian post-secondary education

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Professor Paul Anisef, York University
Professor Robert Sweet, Lakehead University
Dr. Maria Adamuti-Trache, University of British Columbia
Professor David Walters, Guelph University

This research was funded by the Research and Evaluation Branch of Citizenship and Immigration Canada. This document expresses the views and opinions of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official policy or opinion of Citizenship and Immigration Canada or the Government of Canada.

Copies of the full report are available upon request to

Executive summary

In this study, the Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants in Canada (LSIC) is employed to examine the extent to which immigrants utilized the Canadian post-secondary education (PSE) system soon after arrival, the focus being on adult immigrants who had obtained a post-secondary credential in their country of origin, thus allowing for an analysis focused on the experiences in Canada of immigrants who have post-secondary education at time of immigration. The population sample was thus more limited than previous research in this area (Hum and Simpson, 2003; Adamuti-Trache & Sweet, 2007; Bannerjee & Verma, 2009).

Within 6 months of having arrived in Canada, 10% percent of immigrants within our sample enrolled in a Canadian post-secondary education. Within 2 years of landing some 33% were enrolled and, by the 4th year, 44% had participated in either a college or university course or program. In addition to constructing profiles of participants and non-participants at each of the three data collection points in the survey, we employed selected antecedents and correlates of PSE participation to assess the degree of change in enrolment patterns over the four year period covered by the LSIC survey. The longitudinal analysis of PSE participation revealed the importance of immigrant individual attributes and their social networks, as well as work and family situational factors on newcomers’ decisions to engage in PSE in Canada.

Following these analyses we addressed more specific questions. The first of these examined the settlement experiences of immigrants. We looked at various indicators of material well-being and satisfaction with the process of integration into Canadian society and noted that few differences in satisfaction with life in Canada were revealed when comparing PSE participants and non-participants. A more specific listing of settlement difficulties was also included and this revealed that PSE participants appeared to have greater job-related difficulties than non-participants.

For those who did plan on enrolling in a Canadian college or university, we examined the barriers they encountered over the initial settlement period covered by the LSIC. Comparisons were made between the particular barriers reported by immigrants who did gain entry and those who did not. We detailed the barriers reported by each group and, additionally, determined the individuals or organizations they called upon to help resolve their difficulties.

It is possible that PSE participants can expect more than economic returns on their investment. The literature suggests that there are ‘wider benefits of learning’ that accompany the university and college experience (Schuller, Bynner & Feinstein, 2004). In this study, we examined whether learning in Canadian PSE classrooms offers the opportunity to form friendships that extend beyond the individual’s ethnic group, as these interactions can serve to ‘bridge’ differing ethnic or cultural boundaries and thus build social capital.


PSE participation factors

1. The findings of this study indicate that the primary motivation for immigrants to engage in further study in Canada is economic. PSE participants were less successful than non-participants in successfully establishing themselves in employment and therefore obtaining a Canadian credential can be seen as part of a broader strategy designed to establish the individual in the labour market. Other factors also influenced the decision to enrol. Our sample was limited to those who possessed higher education credentials obtained in their country of origin, and among these relatively well-educated individuals, those with university degrees were significantly more likely to pursue a Canadian credential than were those with a college degree. Previous higher education appears to dispose immigrants to seek further education as an effective strategy for economic and social advancement.

2. This study finds that gender plays a central role in influencing PSE participation, with immigrant women less likely to enrol in PSE. While it is generally accepted that for women and men, higher education is an effective way to obtain employment, the issue of access for women is complicated by social and cultural biases. These take various forms and may be expressed in the tendency to reinforce gender-specific selections of fields of study (Andres & Adamuti-Trache, 2007). Immigrant women must deal with these systemic biases while at the same time adjusting their own cultural beliefs to a new and different post-secondary system.

3. The domestic situation of recent immigrants is shown in this study to affect their ability to engage in post-secondary education. Most are married and many start expanding their families soon after arriving in Canada. The high cost of child-care is a challenge facing many families in Canada, and may be particularly problematic for recent immigrant families faced with the difficult task of establishing themselves. Their financial priorities often can not accommodate the education or training of all family members. This is exacerbated by recent increases in PSE tuition and related costs (Berger, Motte & Parkin, 2006). Contrary to Bannerjee and Verma’s (2009) findings, the respondents in our sample did indicate that PSE costs were a significant barrier to PSE participation. This is consistent with Kapsalis’ (2006) study which showed that a relatively high proportion of immigrants finance their PSE through the Canada Student Loans Program.

4. Another constraint on the decision to pursue Canadian PSE credentials is official language competence. In previous research, this factor has been an important determinant of labour market success; that is, those with better language skills are more successful in finding employment and in advancing their careers. Official language competence is found in this study to play a similar role in the decision to enrol in college or university. This finding is expected given that the ability to speak, read and write in English or French is essential not only to gain institutional entry but to do well in their chosen program of study. While immigrants often qualify for entry by meeting TOEFL score requirements, expressive language remains an issue for many (Grabke & Anisef, 2008).

5. Our analysis also lends some support to those who claim that employers fail to trust the work experiences of recent immigrants and often negate these experiences when immigrants apply for jobs. This perception, particularly acute at 6 months after landing (wave 1 of the survey) diminished significantly by 4 years after landing (wave 3), and may indicate an increased ability by immigrants to ‘learn the ropes’ and convince potential employers of the relevance of their prior work experiences (it is not possible to control for the demand side of the equation in our analysis, which may also have changed over the 3 waves of the survey). While this issue has led immigrants to turn to Canadian post-secondary institutions, participation in Canadian PSE is also fueled by ambition. This is demonstrated by the large number of immigrants who had employers recognize previous work experiences in their country of origin as relevant and who still decided to pursue post-secondary studies to further their careers in Canada.

Wider benefits of Learning

6. Previous research on the returns to immigrant investment in Canadian PSE has concentrated on the economic consequences using measures of earnings, employment stability and continuity, and occupational status. Our research expanded the scope of potential benefits to include the ability of PSE participation to expand the individual’s stock of social capital. The particular indicator of social capital examined in this study was the expansion of friendship networks, distinguished by ethnicity — those comprising friends of the same ethnicity as the respondent and those made up of other ethnicities. We find that PSE participation is associated with expanded and more diverse networks — social capital acquisition represents a potentially positive resource not only in the job-search task but also in enhancing opportunities for career development. While we selected the indicator of friendship networks in this study it would be useful to extend the analysis of social capital to immigrants’ involvement with social institutions such as community and cultural organizations.


Overall, this study advances our understanding of the PSE participation process as experienced by recent immigrants. It nevertheless marks only a beginning step toward the understanding necessary to more effectively position the PSE system within the reach of recently arrived immigrants and allow them to more effectively incorporate further learning in the settlement process. Some directions for future research and policy are discussed in the concluding section of the report; these include a greater focus on the capacity of PSE to accommodate and engage recent adult immigrants from culturally diverse backgrounds; more research on immigrant women’s PSE participation in the context of family priorities and different cultural traditions; the role of immigrant selection criteria on PSE participation and an assessment of how immigrants finance their PSE courses and programs.

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