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ONCAT’s Student-Centred Approach: Privileging Student Perspectives on the Ontario Transfer System

December 2, 2020

The development of effective and efficient transfer pathways between institutions—and across the system—requires an understanding of student transfer behaviours and trends, as well as the current and emerging needs and interests of students, communities, and Ontario’s workforce. Transfer pathways, developed among and between Ontario’s public colleges, universities, and Indigenous Institutes, should ensure high-quality academic programming and curricular alignment that meets the needs and interests of transfer students—and prepares them for future success. In this article, ONCAT’s Carolyn Poplak explores several critical ways our organization works with, and for, students across the province.


At ONCAT, postsecondary students are at the centre of our work. While most of our collaborations are with the institutions that serve these students, we recognize and commit to transfer students as a key focus of our sector engagement activities.

ONCAT engages transfer students in a variety of ways, as their voices are integral to everything we do. For example, ONCAT coordinates a Student Transfer Expert Panel (STEP), which is a working group of transfer students who provide insights and support on various ONCAT activities. One of the key contributions of STEP participants is serving as part of the external review process on our funded projects. This unique opportunity ensures that we have a student lens on our grant-making process — and provides STEP members with an opportunity to build their skills and understanding of how funding works and decisions are made within a committee structure.

ONCAT also provides grants to students through our Transfer Student Action Fund, which funds short-term projects exploring key areas that support activities for transfer students. These may include projects that focus on building community, tools, and resources, and raising awareness about transfer-related issues. In the summer of 2020, ONCAT had the opportunity to fund three transfer student-led projects that will highlight the diverse and varied experiences of transfer students as they navigate Ontario’s postsecondary system. We will be sharing these project findings in the new year.

Furthermore, ONCAT leads the Transfer Experience Student Survey and we will be launching our second survey in 2021.

picture 1One of the student-led projects I want to highlight is The Student Mobility Final Report (ONCAT, April 2019): a highly creative and student-centred initiative ONCAT supported in 2018/2019. This was a collaboration we implemented with eCampusOntario that focused on transfer student journeys in Ontario. Authors Nikole Hidalgo McGregor, Roya Matsui, Angelina Pletneva, and Christina Park provided key insights into the transfer experience that have since formed the basis of student engagement and inquiry for ONCAT. What will follow is a brief overview of the project, its approach, and a summary of recommendations. A full summary of the research findings is available in the Report itself in Appendix D: User Research Findings: Full Report (p. 30).

The Student Mobility Team started with a key problem statement: How might we ensure students’ timely access to essential information while aligning their needs to the existing transfer process? A complex question, to be sure. They acknowledged that student experiences are varied and unique and that navigating the postsecondary landscape is challenging enough without the additional complexities of the transfer process. The study identified the challenges in meeting current transfer student needs for those “who consume information in a more dynamic, synthesized and responsible manner in this data-intensive society” (p. 3). 

The team took a user-centred design approach and conducted journey-mapping sessions with 23 students from 20 Ontario postsecondary institutions. Chiefly, students were asked about their transfer experiences; but more specifically, they were asked what worked smoothly, where they faced challenges, and what resources and tools they used that might have further supported or impeded their transfer journey. The team also asked the students what could help improve the experience for future transfer students.

The insights from the Report echoed some of the challenges ONCAT has heard about from those working most closely with transfer students at their institutions. Studies like these offer a valuable contribution: they turn anecdotal narratives into documented experiences that help anchor the student voice in ONCAT’s work.

picture 2

The key recommendation from the Report was the design and development of an Ontario-specific transfer digital app (ONTrack — we love the name). However, ONCAT recognizes that a great deal of preliminary work is required before we get to the development of a mobile app of this type. We are working diligently on the development of the next phase of our website, increasing the relevance and impact of our funded pathways, and enhancing the rigour and capacity of our research activities. Furthermore, we are working on initiatives to support the improvement of processes at the institutions themselves, including detailed documentation of institutional transfer processes (through the MapIT Project), improving capacity to monitor and report on pathway traffic and associated student outcomes (through the Transfer Pathways DataPilot) and focused engagement of faculty to support credit assessment and decision making (through the Transfer Faculty Advisor Committee). So, while this app is not an immediate priority for ONCAT, the team suggested some key recommendations (21) to enhance the transfer system from a student perspective. Many of these recommendations have been incorporated into our Strategic Plan.

A summary of these recommendations is included below:

  • A portal or system to track student transfer flow (e.g., providing documents and processes) from one institution to another
  • An accessible online guide for how to navigate the transfer process
  • Clarification from academic advisors at receiving institutions on topics such as timely registration, credit assessment, and acceptance
  • Enhanced communication and follow-up on applications, including deadlines and other requirements
  • Enhanced focus on the credit assessment process across and between institutions
  • Greater support from the receiving institution (Appendix H, 43)
  • Improved post-transfer support on issues such as housing and financial assistance
  • Increased access to knowledgeable transfer advisors in both sending and receiving institutions
  • Increased formalized pathways that serve all types of students, including part-time and virtual learners
  • Integration with OUAC/OCAS to standardize processes and reduce redundancies
  • More university recognition for college courses
  • Updated and accessible information on
  • Updated information and search functionality on institution websites

It is more important than ever to continue to engage transfer students as processes, communications, and opportunities may change and evolve in ways we had not anticipated prior to COVID-19. ONCAT is excited to continue to share the insights and experiences from our most crucial stakeholder group: transfer students.

At ONCAT, we recognize the diversity of stakeholders in Ontario’s postsecondary system. To ensure credit transfer and student mobility is developed in a way that serves and represents all these various parties, we bring together stakeholders in facilitated groups and communities of practice. For more information on how we engage multiple parties across the sector, please contact the author of this article, Carolyn Poplak, Manager, Sector Engagement, at

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