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Margin Notes

The value of a degree earned in Canada vs. one earned abroad

Canadian-degree holders have roughly half the unemployment rate, NHS data reveals.


Statistics Canada’s recent release of education data from the 2011 National Household Survey had many journalists, public policy analysts and others scrambling to interpret how the country is doing in this important area. Among the key findings: women are earning degrees in ever greater numbers, including in the STEM disciplines, while most apprenticeships are still held by men.

There was also much analysis of unemployment rates by level of education. The story is a positive one: generally, the higher your level of education, the lower your chances of being unemployed. The lock-step nature of this relationship is quite remarkable. Here is the unemployment rate for those aged 25-64 (the prime working age) by level of education:

  • no certificate, diploma or degree, 11.3%
  • registered apprenticeship certificate, 6.7%
  • college certificate or diploma, 5.2%
  • bachelor’s degree, 4.5%
  • earned doctorate, 4.1%.

The only minor anomaly was for those with a master’s degree, where the unemployment rate was 5.0%, above the rate for those with a bachelor’s degree.

But, a closer analysis of the data by location of study – inside Canada vs. outside Canada – reveals something quite interesting that could play a role in the public’s perception of the value of a degree. And that is: those who earned their degrees abroad have significantly higher unemployment levels than those who earned their degrees at a Canadian institution (see graph).


To wit: just 3.7% of those with a bachelor’s degree and 3.8% of those with a master’s degree earned in Canada were unemployed in 2011, whereas unemployment levels were twice as high for graduates who earned their degrees abroad: 7.7% for bachelor’s graduates and 7.5% for master’s graduates. For PhDs, it was 3.4% for Canadian-educated vs. 5.0% for foreign-educated.

The same pattern holds true for young adults aged 24 to 34. So, for example, the total unemployment rate for undergraduate degree holders in this age range is 5.3%, but only 4.7% for those with a degree earned in Canada vs. 9.4% for those with a degree earned outside Canada.

Why is this particularly relevant for universities? Because, there are proportionally far more university graduates who have earned their certification abroad than for other levels of education. For the population aged 25 to 64:

  • about 6% to 7% of those with trades or apprenticeship certificates earned them abroad
  • for college diplomas, it was around 8.5%
  • for bachelor’s degrees, 21%
  • for master’s degrees, 34%
  • and for PhDs, a whopping 42%

Going back to these unemployment rates for holders of Canadian degrees, it’s important to note that these rates are very low. Many economists would consider these rates to be close to the “natural” rate of unemployment (which includes seasonal and voluntary unemployment as people move between jobs in the short term).

The data doesn’t suggest what accounts for this discrepancy in employment rates between those individuals with Canadian-earned degrees and those who earned them abroad. The discrepancy might speak to the uneven quality of degrees earned abroad, or it could be that people with foreign degrees also have less Canadian work experience, and that Canadian employers are therefore less willing to hire them. But that’s just speculation. Either way, it’s important to remember that a degree earned within Canada confers a real advantage in the job market.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. joshua / July 24, 2013 at 10:47

    It would be interesting to see the geographical break-down of where the foreign degrees were earned. It would be a bit surprising, for instance, if unemployment for those whose degree was earned in the UK was similar to those whose degree was earned in say Bangladesh.

    • Martin / September 1, 2013 at 19:32

      In response to joshua’s initial remark I have to say that despite having earned my M.S.W. degree in the UK, and despite having worked as a social worker in the UK for several years, I am clearly struggling to find work as a social worker here in Canada. By now I am convinced that there is a serious bias against anybody who does not have Canadian education and experience, including against people coming from the UK.

      I have now decided to go back to college and to do volunteering. Should this still not suffice to secure paid employment in my field in Canada I will go back to the UK, which would be a shame really (first and foremost for Canadian employers and their attitudes towards foreign applicants but also for me personally of course).

      • Loretta / April 17, 2015 at 17:54

        Martin, I absolutely agree with your comment. There is serious bias in Canada against those from overseas including from other Commonwealth countries such as the UK. I was a Post Graduate Specialist Community Public Health Nurse Practitioner and Nurse Prescriber in the UK with twenty five years of experience in various nursing roles when I came to Canada. I cannot get a license here (even though there is a shortage of nurses and many nurses about to retire in the province I reside) as they want me to sit a competency test and the New Graduate exam for Canadian Nurses!! This will cost me in the region of around 3-4 thousand dollars. I have decided not to bother. The irony is my husband is a surgeon and he was given a full licence without sitting an exam even though his basic medical training was from a third world country!! The whole system in Canada is full of this kind of bureaucratic crap and institutional racism and I would forget moving here unless you can guarantee a job before arrival.

  2. Erasmus / July 24, 2013 at 11:13

    Another interesting thing would be the job types distribution among the degree holders. For instance, are PhDs and Master degree holders having jobs that commensurate their degrees? Let’s also have information on the job types foreign degree earners are into, compared to Canadian degree holders.

  3. Hom / July 24, 2013 at 11:18

    I think mere comparison of unemployment rate between the degrees earned in Canada and outside Canada would be part of the reality – can be a sweeping analysis. I agree with the figures for undergrad and certification/ apprenticeship degrees as they produce manpower that are directly relevant to the local job markets. However, for the employment requiring graduate and postgraduate degrees (especially PhD), it matters more which university or which country because of its focus more on theories and global issues. So, disaggregated data per country would be more interesting and relevant to see whether a US or Europe earned degree would value equally to the degree earned in any of the developing countries to get employment in Canada.

  4. Paul Knox / July 24, 2013 at 11:20

    Students get a wealth of information about career paths and job prospects while at university. They also have the opportunity to develop networks among peers and potential employers. Despite “globalization,” these elements tend to be organized around national labour markets. Therefore, of Canadians who graduate abroad, those who remain in the country where they studied may find employment faster than those who return to Canada. The expatriates’ experience isn’t captured by the NHS. Always consider extra-academic factors when assessing the value and prospects offered by post-secondary education.

  5. Les Freck / July 24, 2013 at 19:22

    I wouldn’t get too excited about these data. I suspect it is just, largely, a reflection of higher unemployment among immigrants.

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