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VideoCast Episode 5: Understanding The Canadian Education System For Study and Work Programs with Catherine Vertesi

Navigating the Canadian Education System can be a challenge for people especially for those who are applying for study and work programs in Canada.

In this episode, Catherine Vertesi – former lecturer, director of undergraduate business and MBA programs, dean, and Vice President Education – discusses the Canadian Education System, and how it can create a path of opportunities when applying for a study and work program.

– So if you come to a school that has got a DOI or an EQA standard, you know that you’re not gonna get cheated, that you’re going to be taken care of.

– This is Study and Work in Canada, Tamwood’s podcast on all things international students want to know about co-op education programs in Canada. I’m Tamsin Plaxton, Tamwood’s founder and president and an avid member of the Canadian private education sector. Welcome back to Study and Work in Canada and I’m excited to be joined today by Catherine Vertesi. Welcome, Catherine.

– Hi, Tamsin.

– Hi. Catherine and I have gotten to know each other well over the last few years through an association, we’re both on call, or we’re on the board of an association called GLOW Ed, Global Women in International Education. And it’s through that association that I’ve had the pleasure of spending time and getting to know Catherine. And I’m continually impressed, Catherine with your professionalism and your experience and wisdom and I know you’ve had such a long career in education in Canada that it’s hard for me to keep it all straight, wondering if you could share with the audience, what’s your history and where are you today with your experience in this industry?

– Thanks, Tamsin. Well, basically, I have been involved, first of all, I’m primarily in business education in that I was at the University of British Columbia for nearly 20 years. And I was, in that time, 13 of them, I was in the faculty dedicated to business. And so I looked after undergraduate, graduate programs and founded a lot of international programs, not only for recruiting students, but in student mobility that is sending students on exchanges, sending them abroad for various work experiences, etc. And I left UBC to join Capilano University as a dean of Business, and then later vice president, really, because I was very interested in an institution that was solely focused on teaching. We know that big universities are have an awful lot of work done in the research side, but my interest really was in the teaching side. So I joined a school that was one of the teaching universities and had a really wonderful experience there. I retired a few years ago, but I’m still very active in that I’m on the board of our private university here in British Columbia and I’ve also done some other consulting work for a number of different organizations. But I think the other thing is, I was a participant in our education system, as well as I had three children who went through the education system here. And so I, over the years, accumulated a fair amount of knowledge about how things work and what I think is great for students and how to make those kinds of decisions. And I’m really happy to be here today and I can share some of those ideas with you.

– Great. Yeah, so that’s exactly why I think you’re the perfect guest for this topic today. So the topic for this episode is about the Canadian education system, and where the study and work programs offered in Canada fit into that system. I think, for a lot of people who are coming from overseas, understanding and navigating the Canadian education system is sometimes a challenge. We have many levels of education, we have kindergarten to grade 12, but then post secondary, we have private, public, we have colleges, universities, technical schools, professional training, and so understanding what all of those options are and where the opportunity for work and study fits and how that can even potentially be a pathway to other opportunities in education in Canada is I think a topic that would be of interest to a lot of our listeners. So, Catherine, where do you want to start on this conversation?

– Well, I think where I’d like to start is little quick facts about Canada and about thinking about Canada as a whole. Canada is the second largest landmass country in the world, but we only really have about 36 million inhabitants. That’s about the size of California, United States. Maybe we’re even smaller than that now. So it’s a country that is vast in geography, but really fairly small in population, and the population is spread out across about 6000 kilometers of border. But Canada is also a highly educated population. About 90% of adult Canadians have graduation from a high school secondary school, then a very high percentage have gone on. I’m sorry, I don’t know exactly what it is, but it’s in the 70% range, have done some post secondary school, which may mean a university, a college, a diploma, a technical school, all kinds of things. And I just like to go through those today and talk to you about the different ones and what kinds of opportunities are there. Now in Canada, most educational institutions are publicly funded, different than in other parts of the world. So a large number of tax dollars from Canadians go into supporting those institutions. However, there is also a robust private education sector as well and I’m gonna talk more about that in in a few minutes. Canada has two official languages, French and English. However, I think that disguises how many languages are actually really spoken in Canada. In my city, which is in Vancouver, on the west coast of British Columbia and Canada, there was a recent survey in Vancouver that showed that 65% of the people who live in this city do not necessarily speak English at home. That means we have people from all over the world who may have been born here, and they still speak those languages at home. My husband is of Hungarian descent, his sister was born in Canada, she never spoke any English till she started school at six years of age, because her mother and father and my husband who was also a little boy when he came to Canada, they all spoke Hungarian at home. So going into their school was a bit of a challenge. But what that means is a visitor to here, you will likely hear a lot of languages, and sometimes even your own language, even if you don’t speak English. About 2 1/2 million students across Canada are enrolled in post secondary education. That means after the regular schooling system, because there’s nearly 4 million students in primary and secondary school. So it’s a big group when we talk about students in Canada. So how do things work? Okay, so schools and colleges and universities that are public receive funds from the government, but private institutions are also really well recognized and they must adhere to the same educational standards as the public institutions. In other words, you can’t get a license to operate a school in Canada, whether that’s a school for children or a school for adults without going through a formal quality evaluation system. And if you’re going to give a credential, it has to be equal to what’s happening in the public sector as well. So in this case, what we have is very good quality assurance of what’s being offered in Canada, whether it’s private or public. Now, Canada in its size has 10 provinces, and it has three territories. And the confusing thing for people coming from outside of Canada is to understand that each province controls their own education system and the curriculum is set provincially. So, a student in the province of Alberta, for example, may not be studying the same things at the same year as somebody in Nova Scotia, 4000 kilometers away. So the role of the federal government is that is the government in Ottawa, the main government of Canada has no real formal role in the delivery of education, it gives money to post secondary institutions for research, it gives special funds for language education, English language and French language education, and of course, all the regulations and laws surrounding minority and human rights, they apply everywhere in Canada in educational institutions as well as public or private. Now, that doesn’t mean that things are incredibly different province to province, because the provinces cooperate. So there’s this council of ministers of education that is the ministers from all of the 10 provinces and territorial governments. They meet very regularly on matters of mutual interest. Those meetings have allowed for the transfer of students between provinces, students from kindergarten to grade 12 can move between provinces without penalty. In other words, a child who has started their education in Quebec, and their family moves, maybe because of job opportunities to Saskatchewan or British Columbia, they go in at the same grade level, they get all their credit and they just proceed with no penalty. Now, the role and responsibility in each of the provinces is that they actually have a lot to say about high school graduation, what it takes to graduate from the high schools in their provinces, plus all degrees, diplomas and certificates need to be authorized by the ministry. The curriculum for kindergarten to grade 12, as I said, is set by the provincial government. But again, all schools private or public must meet the same standards. Now, what’s our terminology here? So we talk about K to 12, which means five years old, and attendance is mandatory at school until you’re 16. So we would say grade 10 or 10th grade, you have to stay in school for that long. As you can tell when 90% of the population already has a high school graduation, that most individuals stay in school. Not so many people leave school before they graduate. Now, elementary school, that’s what we call it, is usually, it’s kids who are five years old to about 12, sometimes 13, depending on your province. So you would go to the same school for that period of time. And then secondary or high school in most provinces, really, it’s thought about as maybe eighth or ninth grade through 12th grade. So it’s 12 years plus kindergarten to complete the compulsory or regular schooling in Canada. Some provinces have a system where they have something called middle school, and they take children from about 12 to 15, and put them in a separate school. And then just the last three years of high school in another school called secondary school. So that’s a bit confusing, but in general, the lower grades with the younger people are called elementary and the higher grades are called either secondary or high school. Now, it gets more confusing when we start talking about post secondary education. That is you finished your high school requirements, and you want to go on and do more education. So we have a whole system of colleges, both public and private. Colleges grant certificates, diplomas, and sometimes undergraduate degrees. And they provide a lot of different post secondary opportunities. So everything from computer and education technology, vocational training, health related paraprofessionals, veterinary assistants, or paraprofessionals in accounting and various different employment roles. A lot of programs are dedicated to fine arts, to engineering, and construction, manufacturing, and of course, business and entrepreneurship. So in a very wide range of topics, colleges, both private and public offer programs and give them to a very significant number of students in Canada.

– Yeah, Catherine, I was just gonna jump in and say, when I grew up in this is probably true for you too, colleges at that time or more trade schools, probably, right? Most people going to colleges would have been taking two year diplomas in trades or manufacturing. And as I’ve watched the industry, the number of programs offered at the college level have really grown and crossed into a whole lot of areas. There’s a lot of crossover now with universities, although they’re not degree granting necessarily, the colleges are are getting into the fields that were typically reserved for universities.

– Well, I’m gonna talk a little bit about some of the differences between a college and universities, but I think colleges have matured, they’ve been able to offer more and more and as their students have graduated and been highly successful in the workforce, governments have looked and said, hmm, I wonder what else we should be doing there. There have also been a hole in a couple of provinces, British Columbia, one for sure. There was a whole development of colleges to allow students to do the first two years of any university program, be granted a diploma, and transfer to a university because our universities were centered in large cities, and we have a lot of people who live in a very large area around our province. I think that we can fit three of the country of France into British Columbia alone, that’s how big it is. And so what they did is develop places for students to stay close to home, and only have to pay the additional expense of going to live in another community for the last part of their programming if they wanted to do that. But the thing about colleges is they work really closely with industry, and they prepare students for current employment trends. The focus is our students here are gonna graduate and they’re gonna go out to work and how do we make them successful there. Tuition fees are generally lower than at a university, instructors to work at the colleges almost always have to have work experience background in the topic and subject they are teaching. That is in a particular college here, and they’re teaching accounting, they have to have actually practiced accounting, they couldn’t just teach it from a textbook. There are other names, career college, vocational college, specialty college. But the government of Canada has a system for giving visas to people in something called designated learning institutions. That is, these are schools of all sorts that are recognized as valid educational opportunities for students. It gives you a level of assurance if you’re going to get a visa to be able to come and study in one of these institutions. Now in British Columbia, in addition, they have something called EQA, which is a designation where they looked a bit deeper into some of the schools and said, we really can guarantee that this will be a good experience for you and your money will be safe and your student will be given the right kind of student support and, and services to have them come and enroll in our programs.

– Right. So for students, EQA stands for education, quality assurance. Yeah, and that’s a designation, as you said, that’s given by the government to only institutions that meet certain standards. So it’s a good indication of quality, and then the DLI, the designated learning institute, that’s another designation given by the federal government on the recommendation of the provinces, I believe.

– Yeah.

– And so an international student wouldn’t actually qualify to get a study permit if they were not planning to attend a DLI. I think-

– That’s right.

– To get a study permit, it’s necessary that you have a letter of acceptance from a DLI, to get a study permit. International students can attend institutions that don’t have a DLI as a tourist if they’re setting less than six months. But if they want a study permit, and they want to study something longer than six months or something that includes work, regardless of the duration, then the institution they choose has to have a DLI. So I guess the message is make sure you choose a school with the DLI, and if you want extra quality or extra assurance of quality, ask if they have the EQA as well.

– Yes, I think DLI, the three letters, you need to remember that. I think I would be a bit reluctant to send one of my children to a school overseas that didn’t have some kind of government assurance like that. I think you should be very careful, even if they’re gonna go for a two month program to improve their French or my grandson is learning Mandarin, and so maybe they’d like to send him as he gets a bit older into a program in China, I wouldn’t like to just send them anywhere, I’d like to have some kind of government assurance that that’s an organization that has been looked at carefully.

– Yeah, and I know Tamwood has both of those designations, EQA and DLI, and it’s a rigorous process to maintain those designations. And it’s a very rigorous process. There are an extensive number of standards that we have to meet in terms of operational and academic quality in order to continue as a DLI.

– So let me talk a little bit about universities now. So I’ve talked about colleges and the deep connection between colleges and outcomes that are related to work. And universities across the country grant undergraduate, master’s degrees and PhD degrees. Now, the large provincial universities primarily require faculty to do research as well as teach. Their teaching loads are less, and they have to do a lot of research. There are some teaching focused universities, for example, the university that I was at, where teaching is what their real focus is. But for the most part, with the name university, there are other responsibilities for faculty members besides teaching. Now, as opposed to other countries, universities in Canada are really broad and comprehensive. That is, not only do they include the arts and humanities, literature, history, archaeology, political science, the sciences, chemistry, math, physics, whatever, but they do have the professional schools in the universities as well. And that’s not the case around the world. So the professional schools such as medicine, engineering, business, law, all of those are included in a Canadian university. Now, every university doesn’t have all of those, but that’s where you will find them if you are looking to go to an engineering school, for example, they would be in one of the general universities. The universities have, they have higher admission standards for the most part, and much stricter language requirements. But I’m gonna come back to that in a little while.

– You mean higher than the college level, you mean?

– Higher than the college level.

– Yeah.

– Yeah, that’s right. Okay, another benefit in Canada besides having a wide variety of institutions to choose from, is that if you have studied full time at least eight months in a public institution or private university, you’re eligible for a postgraduate work permit. But if you have a two year diploma, you can work for up to three years in your field. Now, some of this is a bit confusing, but both are pathways to immigration in Canada. And they certainly give people an opportunity to see more thoroughly if this might be a country that they might like to emigrate to. So what happens if you’re in a program in a private institution, the thing about Canada is it’s quite easy to transfer between institutions, particularly in some parts of Canada, like British Columbia. I think it started because we had people all over the province so far away and finishing some work in one area, or their parents are moved from one place to another because of their work opportunities and they didn’t want their children to not have the academic work they’ve done in one area not be recognized when they came to a new college, or university. So they develop systems to make it really quite easy for people to transfer between institutions. So as a result, many private colleges across Canada have transfer agreements with public institutions. So if students want to continue, if say they’ve started and done a two year diploma in something like entrepreneurship or some other kind of field, and they decide actually, they’d really like to study some more, they can transfer. If their institution has an agreement with a public institution, they can transfer there, finish some time there and have access to the the work permits. The other good thing that’s happened here in Canada is that when you transfer from one place to another, you can maintain your ability to work and your status as a student for up to five months as this kind of transfer takes place. So you don’t have to leave Canada and come back. You can stay and support yourself while you’re making a transfer and doing the transition between one school and another. So I want to talk a little bit about why you might start at a private school or a private college and then transfer. Now, I did say before about the universities having a fairly significantly high language standard before they allow students to come. And in addition to that, in most of the institutions, if your language is a bit deficient, you can be really close to a standard that they want, you are only allowed to study the language, you have to fully meet the English language requirement before you can start doing credit programming. So two things about starting in some of the private institutions. What they have done is develop curriculum where if you’re at a certain level, you can continue to do English language education at the same time, you can do some credit programming so that you can take credits at the same time. Now, how do they do that? Well, first of all, they build into the curriculum much more English language support, support for speaking, listening and writing, they work in smaller class sizes so that you can take your credit course while your English is also improving, and not make you just study English. The other thing that we know, it’s always a surprise to me that the universities haven’t embraced this because one of the things we know is after someone has studied English in an English only environment, English as a second language environment, they reach a plateau and they don’t really expand their ability in the language until they start doing it in an area that is really of specific interest to them. So that means that I can teach you in a classroom how to write and how to speak and listen and that, but when I start teaching you how to write and listen and speak because you’re there for a business program and I start talking about business language, and we start reading the business newspapers, and we start looking at all kinds of business opportunities, and in fact, even visiting businesses and having business leaders come and talk to you, that’s when your English really starts to soar. So this ability to study at the same time and get credit at the same time while you’re improving your language and you start to feel more comfortable in your language is a huge benefit. Another thing, the thing about a number of private institutions is they have a way more flexible start date, which means that you don’t have to wait until the typical terms in the northern hemisphere, you start in September, another semester starts in January, and sometimes a semester, but most of the time not a full semester starts in the late spring, May, June area. But if you’re from a part of the world, let’s say you’re from Australia and you graduated from your degree program in Australia, you graduated in January, you have to wait around till September to be able to come, by coming to a private institution, you can start. Some of them have starts every week, some of them have every month, but they are way more frequent. So you have more flexibility in planning when you want to come and when you want to get started.

– I think the other thing about privates is they’ve been set up to really handle and support international students, helping you adjust to being in Canada. The way we teach is quite different than in an awful lot of institutions around the world, it’s very participatory. Faculty members expect you to talk with them, to challenge them there. It’s a very different kind of environment than a lot of places that I have visited.

– The other thing that we know for sure is that the students who are coming out of the programs in these private institutions that are really dedicated to supporting those international students is those graduates have graduated at a higher level, and they are much more successful in getting employment. And then lastly, it’s a lot less expensive. So that’s another reason for thinking about why would I come to a private and then transferred to a public? A lot of people think well, but shouldn’t you just start in one place and stay in the same place? Yeah, you can think that but I think it’s way more important to be somewhere that’s very supportive. When you initially come and when you have to do all the adjusting to being in a different culture, a different environment, you don’t know how anything works, you certainly don’t know the colloquial language. I’ll just tell you a little story here. I remember having two international students come to me and said something has happened. And we just don’t understand what it is. When we go to order our lunch at the cafeteria, the person looks at me and says, will that be here or to go? Here or to go. You here that? You know what that is? Here or to go. What the employee is asking the students is, do you want to eat your lunch here or should I give it to you in a bag so you can take it somewhere else? For the international students that was totally confusing. And for about four days they didn’t have any lunch at all because they didn’t know how to answer. These are the kinds of things that that faculty who are dealing all the time with international students know how to help you, know how do you fit in.

– And that’s true. I mean, our college is 100% International. We set up a business specifically to serve the international market. We didn’t start with domestic students and look at bringing in internationals, we actually established the business for the sole purpose of teaching internationals. And so everything is designed to be supportive to an international student and we recognize that culture shock, jetlag, all of those things impact people in their first weeks and months in Canada, and we have to be sort of extra forgiving and extra supportive to those students. But at a public institution where there might be 1000s, and 1000s of students starting at a new semester start, there just isn’t that awareness and support necessarily in place to support students going through that, yeah.

– So my advice, even with my own children was always when you first start in this big changed environment, post secondary environment, choose small. Choose small because the likelihood is you will not get lost in the crowd, you will get individual support. And you will adjust to that big change because even for Canadian kids, the change from high school to university is profound. So go to a smaller institution where the faculty members will be more aware of what’s going on with you and how to give you the support that you need. And I think this is doubly true when you make a change from one culture to another. So it’s quite easy to transfer. You don’t have to worry about that and your school will have lots of information and support to help you do that. But I’d like to just end by talking about why should you think about Canada anyway? Because certainly, if you want education in English, you can go to Australia and New Zealand, the United States, Great Britain, all have lots of programs to go. But I think there’s some reasons to come to Canada. First of all, you have many choices of institutions, but all of them have some guarantee of quality through the government standards system. So if you come to a school that has got a DLI or an EQA standard, you know that you’re not gonna get cheated, that you’re gonna be taken care of. Canada has been very proactive in allowing students to work while they go to school. For a number of years now, you can work up to 20 hours a week when you’re in full time study. And there’s lots of jobs for students. Now, are they the president of company jobs? Absolutely not, but there’s lots of jobs, especially in the service industry, where you get to meet and talk with people, you improve your English, you learn a lot, and you get paid to help support you while you’re here. This is a really big advantage for students and you don’t have to work as many as 20 hours, there’s lots of work where you might work eight hours a week or something like that. And of course, you’re protected by all the employment standards that we have in the country. Canada is a quite a welcoming community. As I mentioned in the beginning, the number of people who have come here from other places is extremely high. So people are really accustomed to meeting new people with different language abilities, with different expectations. And they’re on the whole are really quite welcoming of those differences. I can only tell you that in my own family, my daughter went on study abroad and she went to a European country that isn’t very multicultural. And when I went to visit her there, she called me before and she said, mom, I need you to bring me three things because I’m really missing home and I’m really missing all the kinds of people we have in Vancouver. You know what she asked me to bring her? She asked me to bring her a special kind of Chinese eggplant, Sichuan Chinese eggplant, she asked me to bring her a certain kind of sushi, and she asked me to bring her some tamales from Mexico that she could reheat in her microwave when I got there, because she was so used to living an environment where a whole bunch of cultures are totally embraced. The only thing she was missing there was a curry. So I think it’s just an example of how accustomed people are to have individuals around them that speak with accents, look different, all different things, we’re just way more tolerant of that because we see it all the time. You can’t tell who is a Canadian by looking at people because everybody is welcome here. And just maybe it’s a good way for you to figure out if maybe you would like to stay, because Canada is a country that needs immigrants. So thanks for your time and anything else you would like me to talk about, Tamsin?

– Oh, Catherine, no, thank you for your time. I mean, you’ve really done a great job of putting into sort of very basic plain English, I would say, and very succinctly, what is the Canadian education system and how can international students integrate into that system. And I think the main point is that I think a lot of people overlook the value of an education at a private college, they don’t understand where it fits, and you’ve done a good job of pointing out that there’s a lot of advantages to starting in a private institution. You mentioned lower costs, lower admission requirements, more flexible intake dates, and then of course, it doesn’t limit you if you start in private because you can transfer your credits to a public institution, if you choose to go on further. And if you want access to the post grad work permit, then you would transfer from a private institution to a public, either a public college or public university, complete another degree or diploma and then finish with two diplomas or degrees or a degree and diploma and qualify for post grad work permit. So it’s very much part of the landscape and part of the pathway for international students. I think the private education system here. Yeah.

– Well, I wish you the best and it’s always a pleasure to welcome new students, especially in my city in Vancouver, but across the country too for everywhere in Canada.

– Well, thanks for sharing your wisdom, your insights and your time. Great to see you.

– Very welcomed.

– That’s all for this week’s episode of Work and Study in Canada, brought to you by Tamwood Careers. Tamwood is a private education company operating career colleges in Toronto, Vancouver and Whistler Canada. Tamwood offers popular work and study programs in fields like business, hospitality and tourism, digital marketing, web design, UX, UI, and entrepreneurship. International students who study with Tamwood gain valuable work experience in Canada and start on a pathway to a successful career and immigration in Canada. If you’d like more information about Tamwood and its programs, visit our website, You can also check out our videos on YouTube and connect with us on social at Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.