Quality Assurance Practices for Postsecondary Institutions in Canada

Fact Sheet No 5

top of page Introduction

In Canada, postsecondary education is the responsibility of provincial and territorial governments, and in each province and territory there are laws, policies, and procedures that govern the operation of postsecondary institutions. Each jurisdiction has its own quality assurance mechanisms that are used in combination to ensure quality in the country's wide range of postsecondary institutions.

The purpose of this fact sheet is to provide the international user with a brief overview of Canada's postsecondary institutions and the types of quality assurance mechanisms that are in place. Additional resources are also cited for individuals wishing further information.

Most public institutions are called universities, university colleges, colleges, institutes, colleges of applied arts and technology, community colleges, regional colleges, centres, cégeps, or schools. Most recently, Ontario added college institutes of technology and advanced learning to this list. Regardless of their titles, all of these public institutions have been established by public legislation and receive public funds to support their operations. Most private postsecondary institutions are called universities, colleges, institutes, schools, or academies. They are not established by public legislation and, for the most part, do not receive public funding. It is often difficult to identify the status of an institution simply by its title, since the names of public and private institutions may be quite similar. In reviewing a Canadian institution, it is important to be aware of its status and the range of quality assurance mechanisms that are brought to bear on its operation.

Public postsecondary institutions are given authority to grant degrees, diplomas, and certificates through specific legislation, and these institutions are therefore "recognized" institutions. A small number of private postsecondary institutions also have been given degree-granting authority, and these too are "recognized." However, most private postsecondary institutions are not recognized but "registered" or "licensed." "Registered" or "licensed" institutions in Canada (usually private sector training organizations) issue diplomas and certificates that are not authorized by specific legislation. Governments generally limit their authority over these institutions to consumer protection. Although these institutions are not "recognized," they may have programs and standards equal in quality to recognized institutions.

top of page 1. What are the mechanisms used to ensure the quality of Canadian postsecondary education?

The term "quality assurance" relates to the achievement of educational program standards established by institutions, professional organizations, government, and/or standard-setting bodies established by government. Quality assurance mechanisms are the processes by which the achievement of these standards is measured. The chief quality assurance mechanisms used in Canada are as follows:

Legislation. In each of Canada's ten provinces and three territories, legislation is used to some degree by governments to establish, govern, recognize, or ensure the quality of postsecondary educational programming. Through legislation, the use of the term "university" or "college" may be restricted. The power to establish universities or colleges may be the exclusive right of the respective legislature. Under specific legislation, programs and their standards may be established by government or require government approval. Government may be given the authority to investigate or take over any aspect of institutional operations. Legislation may require the establishment of committees or boards to assist in the setting of program standards or accountability procedures.

Affiliation and Federation. Affiliation agreements reflect formal arrangements between degree-granting institutions and non-degree-granting institutions, whereby the latter delivers degree programs, but graduates are granted degrees by the former. Colleges may also be part of a federation of colleges and universities in which courses may be taken by students at more than one institution but applied to the same university program.

Credit Transfer and Articulation. Credit transfer involves an equivalency comparison of courses that have been taken by a student at one institution to courses offered at another institution. Articulation involves formal agreements between institutions of mutually acceptable program delivery and credit awards in specific programs in advance of their delivery. In the cases of both individual course credit transfer and systematic articulation, reviews are designed to ensure student achievement of standards set by receiving institutions. In a few provinces where extensive credit transfer and articulation systems exist, comprehensive transfer guides are made publicly available.

External and Internal Review. External review procedures may involve accreditation visits conducted by external committees of quality assessors, usually composed of academic peers from outside institutions or representatives from relevant professions or industry. Most institutions also use self-assessment methods to conduct internal reviews of quality of specific programs and of their institutions as a whole. The results of such internal reviews are often provided to government and may be considered in determining eligibility for direct (e.g., grants) or indirect (e.g., government-based student loan revenues) public funding.

Provincial/Territorial Registration/Licensing. Private postsecondary education and training providers may be required to register or license their institutions, programs, or instructors with provincial or territorial government authorities. Most registration processes focus primarily on consumer protection, but, in some provinces, specific requirements must be met respecting program quality, curriculum, and instructor qualifications.

Accreditation of Professional Programs. At the provincial/territorial and national levels, Canadian professional regulatory bodies (for example, in the fields of nursing, architecture, and engineering) participate in the establishment and review of postsecondary curriculum standards and consult on other professional issues governing students' preparations for entry into professions. This type of review leads to professional accreditation of specific programs.

Some countries have national accreditation systems that are used to identify the quality of their postsecondary institutions. The term "accreditation" refers to the approval of a postsecondary institution or program that has been found by an accreditation body to meet predetermined standards through a recognized process of validation. Canada does not have a national accreditation system. Accreditation is used mostly by professional bodies to evaluate specific university and college programs. The term may also be used in a few instances by governments in validating private sector education and training organizations. Very few other organizations use the term, although the other quality assurance methods they employ may achieve similar outcomes.

top of page 2. Are there any national organizations that contribute to ensuring quality of Canada's postsecondary institutions?

There are a number of national organizations in Canada that promote quality and the use of high academic standards in postsecondary programs. The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) does not have an accreditation role but funds several quality-assurance-related activities. A university or degree-granting college will be admitted to AUCC only if it meets several requirements. For example, member institutions must be degree-granting institutions through legislative authority; their primary mission is the provision of university degree programs; they must satisfy AUCC, after receiving a report by an AUCC-appointed visiting committee, that it is providing education of a university standard.

The Colleges and Institutes Canada (ACCC) is another important national organization that supports maintenance of high-quality programming in colleges. ACCC requires that members deliver postsecondary programs that meet the academic standards for diploma and certificate qualifications as set out by the appropriate jurisdictional authorities and operate as an integral part of a provincial or territorial government's educational activities and are funded primarily through that government.

The Association of Accrediting Agencies of Canada (AAAC) is a national organization of professional associations involved in promoting good practices by its members in accreditation of educational programs.

top of page 3. How can one identify the status of postsecondary institutions in Canada?

The government authorities responsible for postsecondary education in each province and territory can provide lists of "recognized," "registered," and "licensed" institutions within their jurisdiction. These are usually ministries or departments of education. The Web site of the Canadian Information Centre for International Credentials provides lists of the relevant provincial and territorial contacts and links, as well as continuously updated lists of all recognized institutions in Canada.

top of page 4. How can one identify the quality assurance mechanisms used to ensure a particular institution's program quality?

The Web site of the Canadian Information Centre for International Credentials provides a document entitled Quality Assurance Practices for Postsecondary Institutions in Canada, which provides a summary of the types of postsecondary institutions and the quality assurance mechanisms used in each province and territory. Legislation references and contact information for additional details are also listed.

Further details about quality assurance mechanisms for specific institutions can be obtained from the institutions themselves or from one of the national bodies mentioned earlier in this fact sheet.

top of page 5. What about quality assurance for institutions or programs offered by non-Canadian authorities?

The quality assurance and recognition procedures and organizations mentioned in this fact sheet concern primarily Canadian postsecondary institutions. There are only a few exceptions in which non-Canadian institutions have been recognized. There are, in addition, many private postsecondary and distance learning programs offered by non-Canadian authorities that may claim to offer degrees, diplomas, and certificates. At present, there is no system in place in Canada for accrediting or otherwise recognizing the quality of these institutions and programs or the value of their degrees, diplomas, or certificates. Since these private institutions and programs are not regulated in Canada, there is no guarantee that their activities will be recognized.

For more information on how to verify the status of foreign institutions and their programs and how to compare credentials obtained abroad with credentials obtained in a Canadian province or territory, please refer to Fact Sheet No. 4, entitled Information for Canadian Students Planning to Study Abroad .

top of page 6. Current policy issues on quality assurance in Canada

The absence of a formal, national system of accreditation for postsecondary education providers in Canada makes it challenging to obtain a clear picture of how quality is assured at both the institutional and program levels. Evaluation of Canadian postsecondary credentials must take into account the context in which quality assurance is addressed in each province and territory, institutions' "recognition" status, and the monitoring mechanisms put in place by individual institutions.

Whether Canada should have broader, more systematic mechanisms for ensuring postsecondary program quality and how these mechanisms might be achieved within the context of exclusive provincial/territorial jurisdiction over education are longstanding questions with no simple answers.

Given the legislative and public policy frameworks in which postsecondary education operates in Canada, factors that contribute to the need to demonstrate program quality and ensure recognition of qualifications include

  • Recent decisions to give degree-granting authority to some private, for-profit colleges and limited degree-granting authority to some public colleges
  • Diminished distinction between some universities and colleges owing to increases in shared program delivery, joint credentials, and the establishment of formal university?college partnerships
  • Increased student and graduate mobility
  • The absence of provincial accreditation systems for public education providers
  • Expansion of Internet-based education programs
  • Increased use of prior learning assessment and recognition (PLAR) for academic credit
  • Introduction of transnational, Internet-based program providers without provincial/territorial or inter-institutional standards or accountability mechanisms for Web-based programming
  • Lack of information on quality assurance mechanisms used by institutions in other countries, private corporations, and professional organizations

As the mobility of people and programs increases and the use of information technology expands, mechanisms for maintaining quality will become increasingly important. The complex array of current mechanisms, the lack of national and provincial/territorial accreditation bodies, the absence of evaluation mechanisms to assess Canada's systems of quality assurance or evaluate transnational education providers/programs, and the absence of information on how Canadian education systems align with those of other countries and how Canadian credentials are received in other countries make the assessment of Canada's quality assurance mechanisms a considerable but not insurmountable challenge.

top of page 7. For Further Information

For further information on quality assurance issues addressed in this fact sheet, go to the CICIC Web site and review the comprehensive report, Quality Assurance Practices for Postsecondary Institutions in Canada. For information on Canada's postsecondary education systems, review Postsecondary Education Systems in Canada, An Overview and Postsecondary Education Systems in Canada, Provinces and Territories.

You may also contact us at

Canadian Information Centre for International Credentials
95 St. Clair Avenue West, Suite 1106
Toronto, Ontario M4V 1N6     Canada
Phone: (416) 962-9725
Fax: (416) 962-2800
Contact Us: http://www.cicic.ca/691/ask-us.canada

Other Sources of Information
Colleges and Institutes Canada (ACCC)
1223 Michael Street North, Suite 200
Ottawa, Ontario
Canada K1J 7T2
Telephone: (613) 746-2222 Fax: (613) 746-6721
Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC)
350 Albert Street, Suite 600
Ottawa, Ontario
Canada K1R 1B1
Telephone: (613) 563-1236 Fax: (613) 563-9745
Canada Student Loans Program
General Information
P. O. Box 2090, Station "D"
Ottawa, Ontario
Canada K1P 6C6
Tel: 1-888-432-7377 Fax: (819) 953-6057
Canadian Network for Innovation in Education
260 Dalhousie Street, Suite 204
Ottawa, Ontario
Canada K1N 7E4
Tel: (613) 241-0018 Fax: (613) 241-0019
Council of Ministers of Education, Canada
Coordinator, Postsecondary Education
95 St. Clair Avenue West, Suite 1106
Toronto, Ontario
Canada M4V 1N6
Tel: (416) 962-8100 Fax: (416) 962-2800

The Canadian Information Centre for International Credentials (CICIC),
a unit of the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC).

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