Responsibility for assessing the substantial equivalence of foreign credentials

Registration committees must, in assessing the substantial equivalence of foreign credentials, be transparent, objective, impartial and fair. Indeed, such duties are explicit under Ontario’s Health Professions Procedural Code (s.22.2; s. 22.4(2)). If the substantial equivalence of a foreign credential to a Canadian degree is not wholly determined by a credential assessment service, a registration committee must perform its own assessment. A committee cannot reject an application for lack of equivalence because an assessment service has declined to conclude equivalence due to its own lack of expertise.

The need for a registration committee to meaningfully and transparently assess the equivalence of a foreign credential is illustrated in the HPARB decision of Malik v. College of Psychologists of Ontario, 2012 CanLII 8657 (Ont. HPARB), where the HPARB overrode, for a second time, a college’s refusal to admit an applicant for the asserted lack of a required master’s degree.

The facts: In Malik, a foreign trained psychologist, Tahir Malik, applied to register as a psychological associate with the College of Psychologists of Ontario. In addition to a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Science (Psychology) from the University of the Punjab, the applicant obtained an Advanced Diploma in Clinical Psychology (the credential in dispute) and completed one year of doctoral level course work at the University of Education in Lahore, Pakistan. The issue is whether his “Advanced Diploma” was equivalent to a master’s degree in Canada.

The first registration decision: Malik applied for registration in June 2009. A master’s degree was a non-exemptible registration requirement. The Committee relied on an assessment by World Education Services (WES), an institution dedicated to assessing internationally obtained educational credentials. WES considered Malik’s Bachelor and Master’s degrees equivalent to a Canadian bachelor’s degree, and his Advanced Diploma equivalent to one and one-half years of graduate study in Canada, but it did not explicitly say it was equivalent to a master’s degree from a Canadian university. The Registration Committee refused his application, based on the Advanced Diploma not being equivalent to a master’s degree from a Canadian university.

Malik appealed to the Health Professions Appeal and Review Board (HPARB). The Board remitted the matter back to the Committee. When faced with an ambiguous assessment, the College should have sought clarification, rather than inferring the Advanced Diploma was not equivalent to a Canadian master’s degree. [13] The Board noted equivalence to 1.5 years of graduate study at a Canadian university did not necessarily mean the Advanced Diploma lacked equivalence, since “in Canada and abroad, master’s degrees in many disciplines are less than 24 months in length and there is variation in terms of length and intensity in Canadian master’s degrees.” [12]

The second registration decision: The Committee sought clarification from WES about its credential evaluation methodology. WES stated that the Advanced Diploma Degree “might approach in scope and level a master’s degree.” [16] But WES expressly refrained from opining as to the Advanced Diploma’s equivalency to any specific degree, stating that “only academics and/or professionals in the field, upon examination of the curriculum, may consider the Advanced Diploma in clinical psychology to be comparable to a master’s degree in clinical psychology in Canada.” [16]

The Committee issued a new decision, finding Malik did not meet the requirement of a master’s degree, and refusing his application.

A failure of the committee to assess the Advanced Diploma program: The Applicant submitted on review that while the Advanced Diploma had been replaced by a Master of Philosophy program equivalent to a Canadian master’s degree, no master’s degree was available when he obtained the Advanced Diploma. The Advanced Diploma in fact allowed him to pursue doctoral studies. [38]

The College submitted that the Committee included three members of the profession, one being an academic member in the department of psychology in an Ontario university, and that the panel was able to assess the Advanced Diploma program. [24] The Board decided, however, that the Committee had concluded against equivalency based on WES stating it “might approach in scope and level a master’s degree.” No actual assessment occurred. [40]

The Advanced Diploma was the highest program offered at the time. [38] No evidence showed that the Advanced Diploma would not have been an acceptable basis for entry into doctoral studies. [37] Rejecting the applicant’s post-graduate studies without an actual assessment of the level of the studies was unfair. [41] Accordingly the Board declined to confirm the Committee’s refusal. [43] The applicant was “entitled to a transparent, objective, impartial and fair assessment of the level of the Advanced Diploma….” [43]

Commentary: This decision does not prevent a registration committee from relying on a credential assessment service. In this case, however, the service only assessed equivalence to graduate studies in Canada, while declining to assess its equivalence to a master’s degree in clinical psychology in Canada, due to a lack of expertise in the field. Section 22.4(3) of the Procedural Code stipulates that if a College relies on a third party to assess qualifications, “it shall take reasonable measures to ensure that the third party makes the assessment in a way that is transparent, objective, impartial and fair.” In this case, the service had declined to perform a key aspect of the assessment. No proper assessment had been done on which the Registration Committee could rely, and the Board found that the committee itself did not perform its own assessment.

Malik and College of Psychologists of Ontario, 2012 CanLII 8657 (Ont. HPARB) (February 15, 2012)

Lisa Fong and Michael Ng