By Laura Servage

Most of the public-facing work on educational pathways is student-focused. The success of students, after all, is the “bottom line;” few would argue otherwise. As a result, we think of “pathways” in terms of helping students to transfer between programs and institutions, or to pursue higher levels of qualifications – perhaps by “laddering” a two year diploma in to a degree. Post-secondary institutions (PSEs) market to students on this basis, and there are increasing efforts all around to make pathways clear and transparent for students. These efforts include educating students about what further education they will be able to pursue with their credentials, and what kinds of jobs they can expect to garner in the labour market.

Such information, critical to creating a more equitable post-secondary system, is often hard won. It requires complex coordination and negotiation among what PEW refers to as “social partners,” or the many stakeholders who must be consulted and brought on board to create and maintain successful pathways.

Dr. Leesa Wheelahan got her first taste of this complexity in 1994. After several years of teaching in a community development diploma program at one of Australia’s Technical and Further Education Institutes or “TAFEs,” Leesa took a position with the Victoria University provost. A key task in this new position was developing a framework that would improve transitions for students from the TAFE division to the higher education division. Although the divisions were technically part of the same “dual-sector” university, they were characterized by deep cultural and governance divides, as well as different funding models.

The TAFE Community Development program in which Leesa had taught was well connected to the larger community, the labour market, and to degree options for students who wished to transfer to them. She quickly learned, however, that this setting was “an exception to the rule.” Instead, most of the pathways she began to study were fraught with barriers. Pathways were further wildly disparate in the extent to which they “worked” to provide students with future learning opportunities and relevant employment.

The experience marked a turning point in Leesa’s pursuits, and a strong commitment to improving cross-sector collaboration in post-secondary education. Although institutions, governments and employer organizations share a commitment to effective pathways, and school-to-work transitions, it is easy for stakeholders, in the throes of complex negotiations, to lose sight of the fact that their ability to partner has “real consequences for people.”

Throughout her graduate work, Leesa continued to examine the structural conditions and institutional relationships that shaped pathways. This required examining not only post-secondary sectors, but the occupational sectors with which programs of study are more or less aligned. In Australia, Leesa and her colleagues observed that nursing, as one of the strongest and clearest pathways, could yield some lessons in overcoming the kind of sectoral fragmentation that can lead to dead-end credentials and poor labour market outcomes for students. Nursing also served as a benchmark for evaluating alignments between earned credentials and labour market outcomes in other occupational sectors.

For Leesa, the key insight to be drawn is that it is not sufficient to study pathways in the post-secondary system in isolation of examining their ultimate outcomes for students in the labour market. Her research has thus evolved, over the past decade, to incorporate a stronger focus on labour markets. Pathways may look good on paper, but if they are not being pursued by students, there is a good chance that the credentials they link are ineffectual, or create barriers to social mobility through work and further studies.

Ontario’s post-secondary system has undergone significant change over the past two decades, particularly with respect to the roles of colleges. For Leesa, it is a dynamic environment for research, similar enough to Australia for her to transition her work to Canadian contexts. As new programs emerge and new alliances are sought, Leesa and the PEW research team will continue to take on projects that generate empirical evidence that will inform initiatives to improve pathways and labour market outcomes for students in Ontario, and across Canada.

By Amanda Brijmohan

This past year, the Pathways to Education and Work (PEW) research group has been funded by the Ontario Council for Articulation and Transfer (ONCAT) to research where effort should be invested in developing and maintaining educational pathways between colleges and universities. Findings from the project suggest that only 23% of universities’ pathway agreements are with colleges within commuting distance of the university, whereas 66% of students who transfer from a college to a university do so from a college within commuting distance of the university. These findings provided the basis for developing a decision-making tool, principles and framework to help policy makers, educational institutions and faculties/departments in guiding college-university pathway development.

Recognizing that the tool could be further enhanced by listening to the expert insights of interest groups, the PEW research group held a policy consultation symposium on April 5th, 2016. Attendees included pathways developers, administrators from both the college and university sectors, as well as policy-makers from multiple levels of government.

After providing the research base for the findings, and introducing the decision-tool, principles and framework, the team posed the following questions to the audience:

  • Overall, is a tool like this helpful? Why or why not?
  • What are your overall thoughts on the tool (content, structure, focus, language etc.)?
  • Are there any specific changes we should make?
  • Is there anything that is missing?
  • What are your suggestions on what we can do to make sure it is used?

Expert feedback was first provided by Dr. David Trick, President of David Trick and Associates, and by Cindy Dundon Hazell, Professor Emeritus at Seneca College. Dr Trick observed that there are 3 dimensions of policy:

  1. strategic
  2. programmatic
  3. operational

Dr Trick argued that governments tended not to be very good at setting strategic goals, and that this limited the effectiveness of its encouragement of student transfer.

Professor Hazell observed that 47% of all transfer students do not complete their first qualification, and that many transfer students do not follow established pathways. Professor Hazell argued for moving from pathways to principles and frameworks supporting student transfer.

Participants also provided feedback on the decision-making tool through a mixture of open forum Q & A, and breakout discussions. In the plenary after the breakout sessions, participants supported the general principles of student transfer and thought that these could be extracted to a document separate from examples and success stories. Some participants sought specific attention to equity groups, and others sought variations in the language used in the decision tool.

The consultation was concluded by closing remarks made by Glenn Craney, Executive Director of ONCAT. Mr Craney welcomed the decision-making tool and supported the team’s collaborative approach to developing it. He supported the different layers of action to bring people together to support student transfer. Mr Craney noted that the tool ties together themes that ONCAT had been considering recently into a comprehensive package.

The team plans to revise the tool and its report in light of these and other feedback comments made through feedback forms, and during breakout discussions throughout the consultation.

By Gavin Moodie

Economists developed the concept of signalling and screening to deal with problems such as the market for lemons – cars that turn out to be clunkers rather than high quality cars (peaches).

In economics signalling is what sellers do to indicate that their product or service is of high quality, whereas screening is what buyers do to ensure that they don’t end up with a lemon. We have used the concept of signalling and screening to refer to different roles of qualifications in the labour market.

Sometimes employers use qualifications to signal that graduates have specific knowledge and skills needed for a job they want to fill. Examples are nursing diplomas, engineering degrees and welding certificates. Other times employers use qualifications to screen applicants for general intellectual ability or skills. Examples are high school diplomas and diplomas and degrees in general arts and sciences.

A qualification can be both a signal and a screen. Common examples are law degrees and qualifications in commerce and mathematics. Law firms use a law degree as a signal when hiring 1st year associates but many other employers use law and often other degrees to screen for graduates with high intellectual ability. Some employers use commerce and mathematics qualifications to signal a specific ability, but many employers use these qualifications to screen for applicants with general business or quantitative skills.

We have been annoying economists by using ‘their’ terms ‘signalling’ and ‘screening’ but not carefully defining their non economic meaning we intend. We have also failed to convince some colleagues in postsecondary education who observe that some employers use qualifications concurrently as both a screen and a signal, for example, insisting on recruiting their actuarial graduates from Lady Bracknell University rather than Eliza Doolittle Academy.

So soon I plan to start developing our analysis of employers’ use of qualifications as signals and screens.


By Jacquie Beaulieu

The OISE Pathways to Education and Work research team would like to introduce you to our research, which investigates the nature of pathways within postsecondary education and between postsecondary education and the labour market. Since our formation as a research team, we have been occupied with several substantial research projects, which we’ve outlined below.

1) Pathways to Education and Work in Ontario and Canada

With funding from the Ontario Ministry for Training, Colleges and Universities through the Ontario Human Capital Research and Innovation Fund (OHCRIF), our first research project examined the extent to which students stay within the same field of education when they undertake a second postsecondary education qualification, and the links between fields of education and occupations. Using data collected from the 2013 National Graduates Survey (NGS), the project compared similarities and differences between Ontario and all of Canada.

Our results suggest that links between qualifications within the same field of education are weak, as are links between fields of education and occupations. Most students change their field of study when pursuing a second postsecondary education qualification; second field choice also varied depending on whether pathways were within or between colleges and universities. Similarly, the links between fields of education and occupations were quite weak. This varied between fields of education; while the links between fields of education and occupations were weak overall, they were tighter for fields of education comprising regulated occupations, such as Health. We considered the implications for policy, the role and purpose of qualifications, and design principles for pathways.

We have now completed this research and you can browse the full report here.

2) A Decision-Making Tool and Framework for Ontario’s Credit Transfer System

With funding from the Ontario Council on Articulation and Transfer (ONCAT), one of our current projects investigates the extent to which students use current articulated transfer pathway policies across Ontario’s postsecondary institutions. The project analyzes and compares transfer pathway data sets which includes ONCAT data; student transfer rates from the 2013 NGS; and, the 2013/2014 College Graduate Satisfaction Survey.

Our results suggest that students underuse most articulation agreements between institutions. For students who do transfer, the largest share come from institutions within commuting distance. The findings from this project are informing the development of a ‘decision-making tool’ for Ontario postsecondary institutions. The tool is designed for the following purposes: 1) to support decisions on the nature and type of educational pathways that are needed, 2) whether pathways should be in the same or different fields of education, 3) how to determine priorities in developing pathways, and 4) the types of policies and practices that will support student access, transfer, transition and success.

We continue to refine this research; the first draft of our report has been submitted to ONCAT and we are currently organizing a seminar with critical stakeholders in the province to receive feedback on the decision-making tool.

3) Qualifications: The Link Between Educational and Occupational Pathways and Labour Market Outcomes

With funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada this research investigates the nature of pathways within postsecondary education and between postsecondary education and the labour market. This research builds upon our previous OHCRIF project by scaling up our examination to include more detailed provincial analyses. We are also exploring implications for the purpose and design of qualifications, educational pathways, policy and relationships between educational institutions and social partners (employers, unions, professional and occupational bodies including regulatory authorities, and government).

This research contributes to an emerging theoretical framework on the relation between qualifications and the labour market. It has implications for governments’ and institutions’ policies and practices, for the design and structure of qualifications and educational pathways, for improving connections between qualifications and the labour market, and for building stronger links between education and its social partners in the labour market. It will provide a new framework for considering matches between qualifications, skills and jobs by theorizing the nature and purpose of qualifications, educational pathways and their links to the labour market.

We are currently working on the first two phases of this larger four-phase research project. In the first phase of this project we are developing case studies for each of Canada’s provinces regarding the history and structure of educational pathways, qualifications and labour markets to facilitate national comparisons.

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