Canada is a country with a wide range of universities, colleges, and other types of institutions that offer a variety of educational programs to individuals who have completed secondary education. This system of education is most commonly referred to as “postsecondary education.” In Canada, as in many countries throughout the world, postsecondary education plays an important role in contributing to social and economic prosperity, developing the country's workforce, and producing academic and applied research. Postsecondary education constantly evolves as governments and education authorities identify new priorities and develop strategies to respond to the needs of a changing world.
This section presents an overview of provincial and territorial postsecondary education systems in Canada. It begins with an overview of our system of governance, culture, geography, economy, and the broader education system to contextualize the country's postsecondary education systems. It then provides a historical overview of the development and evolution of postsecondary education in Canada, as well as a detailed description of the system's main features. It pays special attention to the distinctions between institutions that grant degrees, and institutions that grant other types of postsecondary credentials, such as certificates or diplomas. The section concludes with information on some of the current issues and trends in postsecondary education in Canada.
Locate province- or territory-specific information
In Canada, education is under the exclusive jurisdiction of the country's ten provinces and three territories. As a result, each province's and territory's postsecondary education system has distinct policies and aspects that are more detailed than this section can cover.
For more details about individual provincial and territorial systems, visit the Provinces and Territories of Canada section and select a specific province or territory.
Canada is made up of ten provinces and three territories, each with significant differences in population, size, culture, and language within and across them. Provinces and territories are responsible for all levels of education, including postsecondary education. Canada's constitution confers upon the provinces exclusive jurisdiction over education and stipulates that the power to make laws in relation to education and the right to develop and implement educational policies are exclusively held by the provincial governments. By virtue of the federal acts that created them, Canada's three territories (Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Nunavut) have comparable delegated powers. Provinces and territories convene under the aegis of the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC), to provide leadership in education at the pan-Canadian and international levels. There is no federal ministry or department of education in Canada.
Each province and territory has one or two departments/ministries that are responsible for education, headed by a minister who is an elected member of the legislature and appointed to the position by the provincial or territorial government leader. Deputy ministers of education, who are part of the provincial or territorial public service, are responsible for implementing the government's mandate and operating the department/ministry. The departments/ministries provide educational, administrative, and financial management functions and they define the policy and legislative frameworks that educational institutions operate within.
Canada is a culturally diverse country. In the 2016 census, the country's population was approximately 35.1 million people who reported over 250 ethnic origins or ancestries, with four in ten people reporting more than one origin, and 6.2 percent of the population reporting an Indigenous ancestry.1 Immigration is a large contributor to this diversity. In 2016, 21.9 percent of the population was born outside of Canada, an increase from 20.6 percent in 2011 and the largest proportion of the population born outside Canada since 1931.2
Canada's two official languages are English and French. In 2016, 57 percent of the population reported English as their mother tongue and 21 percent reported French.3 Canada also has a significant and growing amount of linguistic diversity. In 2016, 22 percent of the population reported a language other than English or French as their mother tongue, an increase of 13.3 percent from when this information was previously collected in 2011. This includes individuals who speak an Indigenous language as their mother tongue (213,225 people in 2016).4
At 9,984,670 square kilometres, Canada is the second largest country in the world. The country has an almost 9,000-kilometre border with the United States — the longest international border in the world.5 Most of Canada's population lives in urbanized centres in the south of the country within 300 kilometers of this border.
Canada has a large, diversified economy, with a range of different industries and numerous local, regional, and national economic conditions. In 2020, approximately 70 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) was concentrated in service-producing industries, such as real estate (13% of total GDP), finance and insurance (7% of total GDP), and public administration (7% of total GDP). The 30 percent of Canada's GDP concentrated in goods-producing industries was found mostly in manufacturing (9% of total GDP), mining, quarrying, oil, and gas extraction (7% of total GDP), and construction (7% of total GDP).6
In January 2021, Canada's labour force participation rate was 64.7 percent.7 Canada's labour force participation is expected to decrease in the coming years, primarily as the cohort of people born during the baby boom era age.8
Canada's economy, like many countries' economies, has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. In December 2019, Canada's unemployment rate was 5.7 percent; one year later, in December 2020, it was 8.7 percent.9 This decline was concentrated in industries such as accommodation and food services, retail trade, and information, culture, and recreation, that were affected by COVID-19 public health measures.10
Education in Canada
Because education in Canada is under the exclusive jurisdiction of the country's 13 provinces and territories, there are many similarities in the provincial and territorial education systems. But there are also differences in legislation, policies, and programs that reflect the geography, history, language, culture, and unique needs of the population. The comprehensive, diversified, and widely accessible nature of Canada's education systems reflects a collective belief in the importance of education.
The basic structures of provincial and territorial education systems across Canada are similar. Each has three tiers — elementary, secondary, and postsecondary — although the grades at which each level begins and ends vary. At the elementary and secondary level, public education is free to all Canadians who meet the relevant age and residence requirements. While the ages for compulsory schooling vary from one province or territory to another, in most provinces and territories, children enter primary education at age six and complete secondary education at age 17 or 18. In each province and territory, departments or ministries of education work with schools and school boards to organize, deliver, and assess education at the elementary and secondary education levels.
At the postsecondary level, there is a mix of public and private institutions offering a range of different educational programs and academic credentials. Most institutions receive a mix of public operating funding and student tuition funding. The amount of each varies depending on the province/territory, institution, and program. Postsecondary institutions, particularly public universities, are relatively autonomous, and set their own admission standards and program curriculum. Many students entering postsecondary education immediately after completing secondary education do so at age 17 to 18, though postsecondary institutions also accept mature learners and are composed of students from all age groups. Departments or ministries of postsecondary education in Canada are primarily focused on regulating funding, fee structures, and institutional accountability.
Postsecondary education in Quebec
The province of Quebec has a distinct level of education known as cégep (Collège d'enseignement général et professionnel). Students there typically finish secondary education a year earlier than in other provinces or territories, at age 16 or 17. A typical pathway then enables them to enrol in a cégep, which is the province's network of publicly funded colleges. Cégeps offer two different types of programs, either:
- a three-year technical program that typically leads students to seek employment in the labour market, or
- a two-year university preparation program that typically leads students to enrol in a university afterwards.
Bachelor degree programs in Quebec for graduates of the two-year university preparatory cégep program are typically only three years in length, instead of four. Students in Quebec who go directly from elementary and secondary school (11 years), to cégep (two years), and then to university (three years) typically graduate from university at around the same age as students in other provinces/territories, who go directly from elementary and secondary school (12 years) to university (four years).
Consult the diagram of Canada's Education Systems for a visual overview of the provincial and territorial education systems.
Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC)
While there are 13 education systems in Canada, provinces and territories collaborate on several pan-Canadian issues through CMEC. Canada's provincial and territorial ministers responsible for all levels of education convene through CMEC to discuss common policy concerns and undertake joint projects and initiatives. CMEC also monitors international developments in higher education through an agreement with Global Affairs Canada (GAC) to ensure Canadian representation at international discussions on education. Through CMEC, provinces and territories collaborate with Statistics Canada on the Canadian Education Statistics Council (CESC) to ensure the collection, coordination, and publication of pan-Canadian education statistics.
Comprehensive review of this information: March 2021
“Ethnic and cultural origins of Canadians: Portrait of a rich heritage,” Statistics Canada, 2017. Retrieved from https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/as-sa/98-200-x/2016016/98-200-x2016016-eng.cfm
“Focus on Geography Series, 2016 Census,” Statistics Canada, 2017. Retrieved from https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/as-sa/fogs-spg/Facts-can-eng.cfm?Lang=Eng&GK=CAN&GC=01&TOPIC=7
“Statistics on official languages in Canada,” Canadian Heritage, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/services/official-languages-bilingualism/publications/statistics.html
“Linguistic diversity and multilingualism in Canadian homes,” Statistics Canada, 2017. Retrieved from https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/as-sa/98-200-x/2016010/98-200-x2016010-eng.cfm
Canada Year Book, 2012 (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2012). Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-402-x/11-402-x2012000-eng.htm
“Table 36-10-0434-06: Gross domestic product (GDP) at basic prices, by industry, annual average, industry detail (x 1,000,000),” Statistics Canada, 2021. Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/cv.action?pid=3610043406
“Table 14-10-0287-02: Labour force characteristics by age group, monthly, seasonally adjusted,” Statistics Canada, 2021. Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/cv.action?pid=1410028702
The labour force in Canada and its regions: Projections to 2036,” Statistics Canada, 2019. Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/75-006-x/2019001/article/00004-eng.htm
“Table 14-10-0294-02: Labour force characteristics by census metropolitan area, three-month moving average, seasonally adjusted, inactive (x 1,000),” Statistics Canada, 2021. Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/cv.action?pid=1410029402
“Labour Force Survey, January 2021,” Statistics Canada, 2021. Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/210205/dq210205a-eng.htm