Because education in Canada is under the provinces' and territories' exclusive jurisdiction, and because each province and territory has a unique history and context that has guided the development of its postsecondary institutions, there is a wide range of different types of postsecondary institutions and programs across Canada. These different institutions issue various academic credentials.
Postsecondary education institutions generally include public universities, colleges, community colleges, polytechnics, institutes, university colleges, and others. There is also a system of apprenticeship, which varies by province or territory but generally consists of a vocationally oriented training program that mostly takes place on the job and leads an individual to be a certified practitioner in a specific skilled trade. Beyond this pan-Canadian list of common institutions, many provinces and territories have their own unique classification system for their institutions.
Public and private institutions provide postsecondary education. They may be “recognized,” “authorized,” or “registered or licensed” by provincial and territorial governments, or they may not be regulated in any way. If an institution is “recognized” or “authorized,” it means that the institution receives their authority to grant academic credentials through legislation adopted by the provincial or territorial legislature. This is a common arrangement for public institutions in Canada. For example, many public universities have their own act of the respective provincial or territorial legislature that enables them to grant academic credentials (e.g., bachelor's degrees) in a wide range of disciplines. In some provinces and territories, a ministerial consent is granted for issuing degrees within a specific time frame, after satisfactory evidence that the “authorized” institution's academic program has undergone a quality assessment process and met the criteria established by the legislation. In some cases, such as public colleges in some provinces and territories, the legislation that provides recognition may apply to an entire sector of institutions, rather than only to an individual institution.
If an institution is “registered or licensed,” it means that a provincial or territorial government must review and approve the institution to offer postsecondary programming (typically a short-cycle academic credential). This is a common arrangement for private institutions in Canada. Registered or licensed institutions are monitored by the respective provincial or territorial government primarily for consumer protection, rather than for institutional or program quality. In some provinces and territories, there are processes for program approval or for voluntary accreditation for private colleges.
You can read more information about the Directory of Educational Institutions in Canada to learn about terminology associated with the legislative status.
Distinction between degree-granting and non-degree-granting institutions
Historically, universities normally offered degree programs at the undergraduate (bachelor's degree) or graduate (master's degree, doctoral degree) levels, whereas colleges, institutes, and polytechnics traditionally provided programs that were shorter in duration and focused on practical, technical, or occupational skills for direct entry into the labour market (short-cycle academic credentials such as “diploma” or “certificate” programs). In recent years, this distinction has become less prevalent because there has been an increase in the range of colleges that now offer authorized degree-level programs, and an increase in the number of universities offering shorter-duration programs. Beyond universities and colleges, there are also a number of additional types of postsecondary institutions, such as affiliated or stand-alone theological institutions, and out-of-country institutions with satellite campuses in Canada.
There are a number of Indigenous Postsecondary Education Institutes (IPSIs) in Canada that offer programs leading to academic credentials. The legislative framework and program delivery arrangements for these institutions vary by province and territory. In some cases, IPSIs are recognized in legislation as independent postsecondary institutions and have their own quality assurance process to offer independent academic credentials. In others, they offer academic credentials primarily through partnership with a non-Indigenous postsecondary institution. The mandate, structure, and program offerings of IPSIs tend to be developed in response to the local needs and context of the institution's community.
Further details on the nature of educational programming at universities and colleges is provided in the sections on “degree-granting“ and “non-degree-granting“ institutions hyperlinked above.
An international perspective
Given the broad use of some institutional titles (e.g., college, institute, polytechnic) and of some academic credentials (e.g., degree, diploma, certificate), provinces and territories often regulate the permissible nomenclature that institutions can use to describe themselves and their programs. In Canada, the term “postsecondary education” encompasses all types of formal instructional programs beyond secondary school, and is roughly analogous to the terms “higher education” and “tertiary education” that are used internationally. This is particularly true for bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in Canada, which are relatively comparable to levels six, seven, and eight of the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED). Short-cycle tertiary education (ISCED level 5) bears some resemblance to the programs offered at colleges in Canada. However, postsecondary programming in Canada is diverse, and the ISCED framework should be used only as a reference point for understanding the postsecondary system in Canada as a whole, rather than as a tool to assign a level to a specific academic credential from an institution in Canada.
Canada has 223 public and private universities, and 213 public colleges and institutes. Consult the Directory of Educational Institutions in Canada for a complete list of institutions, as well as Appendix A, The Status of Postsecondary Institutions in Canada, to further understand the variety and complexity of institutional structures and the academic credentials they offer.
Sectorial cooperation in and outside Canada
Canadian institutions may choose to be represented through provincial or territorial stakeholder associations, as well as through pan-Canadian stakeholder associations such as:
Students, faculty, and other postsecondary stakeholders in Canada may also choose to be represented through pan-Canadian associations, such as the Canadian Federation of Students and the Canadian Association of University Teachers, and through provincial or territorial associations.
Colleges and universities in Canada also participate in international higher education networks, such as the UNESCO Chairs program, or the International Association of Universities (IAU).
Postsecondary education in Canada dates from 1663, when the Grand Séminaire de Québec — a forerunner of Laval University — was established. At the time of Confederation in 1867, there were 18 universities and a number of classical colleges in Canada.
1950s, '60s, and '70s
At the end of World War II, a federally funded veterans' rehabilitation program brought an influx of veterans to university campuses. New institutions were established and universities continued to expand throughout the 1950s, '60s, and '70s.
While some public colleges date back to the 1920s, most were established in the 1960s. These institutions were created by provincial governments in response to a need for vocational and technical training to complement the education offered at universities. Open access was a key objective for the new institutions. Perhaps the most sweeping changes were made in Quebec, where the province reconstituted some 200 classical colleges, instituts familiaux, and several technical institutes into the cégep system.
The 1990s again saw significant changes in postsecondary education systems in Canada. Some public colleges and institutes were given degree-granting authority by provincial governments, and mechanisms were established to expand college–university credit transfer. A small number of private postsecondary institutions also obtained permission (through ministerial consent under provincial legislation) to offer degree programs. Information technology became readily available and increasingly blended with more traditional delivery systems.
The 2000s saw efforts from provinces and territories to significantly increase access to postsecondary education, and enrolment grew steadily during this period. Certain governments established policies and processes for permitting a wider range of organizations to offer programs labeled “degrees,” so long as they adhered to provincial or territorial program quality assurance standards. Provinces and territories also established a Canadian Degree Qualifications Framework in the 2000s to effectively coordinate and ensure comparability of degree level in respect of quality assurance principles.
In the 2010s, there was a heightened focus on ensuring the sustainability of postsecondary education, as well as ensuring that students achieve strong learning outcomes from participating in postsecondary education. Institutions and governments also increased their efforts to ensure that students were able to smoothly transition into employment following completion of their academic credential. This period also saw an increased focus on not only increasing but also widening access, and supporting the enrolment of underrepresented groups. Many provinces and territories experimented with providing more grant-based student financial aid targeted toward lower-income students. Provinces and territories also increased their efforts to recognize the programming provided by Indigenous Postsecondary Education Institutes (IPSIs) as a separate form of postsecondary education, and introduced mechanisms to establish these institutes as independent organizations offering distinct yet comparable postsecondary programming. International student enrolment also rose rapidly during the 2010s.
Finance and funding
In 2017–18, provincial, territorial, and federal governments in Canada together spent approximately 2.6 percent of GDP on non-IPSIs. On average, provincial, territorial, and federal governments spent $17,948 per student on students enrolled in community colleges and other non-degree-granting institutions, and $34,633 per student on students enrolled in universities and other degree-granting institutions, though there is considerable variation between provinces and territories.1
Public postsecondary education institutions in Canada derive the largest share of their direct funding from provincial and territorial governments. In 2018–19, public universities and other degree-granting institutions in Canada received $14.7 billion in provincial and territorial funding (35% of their $41.5 billion total revenue), with the remaining funding coming from tuition and other student fees ($12.2 billion, 29% of total revenue), donations, grants, and investment income ($6 billion, 14% of total revenue), federal government funding ($3.9 billion, 9% of total revenue), and other sources of revenue such as sales of goods and services ($4.2 billion, 10% of total revenue). The revenue sources of public universities and other degree-granting institutions have been changing over time: from 2008–09 to 2018–19, institutional revenue grew from $26.4 billion to $41.5 billion at an average annual growth rate of 5 percent, driven primarily by increases to tuition and other student fees, which grew from $5.8 billion in 2008–09 to $12.2 billion in 2018–19 at an average annual growth rate of 8 percent.2
In 2018–19, colleges and other non-degree-granting institutions received $7.1 billion in provincial and territorial funding (53% of their $13.2 billion total revenue), with the remaining funding coming from tuition and other student fees ($4.2 billion, 32% of total revenue), donations, grants, and investment income ($284 million, 2% of their total revenue), federal government funding ($251 million, 2% of their total revenue), and other sources of revenue such as ancillary enterprises ($1.2 billion, 9% of their total revenue). Similar to public universities and other degree-granting institutions, the revenue sources of community colleges and other non-degree-granting institutions have been changing over time: from 2008–09 to 2018–19, institutional revenue grew from $9.2 billion to $13.2 billion at an average annual growth rate of 4 percent, driven primarily by increases to tuition and other student fees, which grew from $1.8 billion in 2008–09 to $4.2 billion in 2018–19 at an average annual growth rate of 9 percent.3
Provincial and territorial transfers to institutions are primarily provided as general operating funds, which institutions use for a wide range of purposes such as teaching, student services, program development, and administration. Provincial and territorial governments also provide transfers to students in the form of needs-based student financial aid to support students to pay for postsecondary education. Provincial and territorial governments also provide additional funding or earmark specific funds to be used for certain purposes, such as increasing the postsecondary participation of a specific underrepresented groups of students, or increasing the availability of work placement opportunities for enrolled students.
The federal government also provides some funding for postsecondary education through a variety of federal departments. Canada's federal Department of Finance oversees transfer payments to the provinces and territories which, at their own discretion, use a portion of this funding for postsecondary education. There are several federal agencies that provide sponsored research funding to faculty at Canadian institutions (primarily universities). The Department of Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), alongside provinces and territories, provides student financial aid funding through a mix of grants and loans that are administered by the provinces and territories. Indigenous Services Canada provides some funding to IPSIs and to certain Indigenous students attending postsecondary education. The Department of Canadian Heritage provides funding for eligible postsecondary students to pursue academic credit for a course in their second official language in an immersive environment.
Admission Requirements and Application Cycle
Because individual institutions set admission requirements, the criteria for entering undergraduate college and university programs vary from institution to institution, from academic credential to academic credential, and from program to program.
Graduation from secondary school, or in Quebec, from a two-year cégep program, is typically the minimum requirement for admission to most postsecondary programs. However, requirements for certain programs (e.g., high-demand programs, professional programs leading to licensure in a regulated occupation) or academic credentials may be more rigorous, and may include specific prerequisite courses or high secondary-school grade-point averages. Conversely, some institutions may offer more flexible admissions options for students in specific circumstances (e.g., mature students generally over age 21 or out of school for at least a year). This is particularly true of colleges because accessibility tends to be a core part of their mandate, though many universities have also created more flexible admissions pathways for certain students, such as through bridging or transitional programs that accept a student into a preparatory program that leads to enrolment in a degree program.
As with admission requirements, the application, intake, and semester cycles at institutions vary based on the program, academic credential, institution, and province or territory.
While the majority of students begin their postsecondary program in September, there are also significant intake periods in January and May. Often, students must apply for admission one full calendar year prior to when they seek to begin their studies.
Most institutions in Canada operate on a two-semester system, with the first semester running between September and December, and the second semester running from January to April. Institutions typically also offer programming between May and August, either as a four-month semester or as two sets of two-month semesters.
The Canadian Degree Qualifications Framework was adopted in 2007.
Qualifications frameworks are publicly available documents that contain consistent nomenclature and descriptions for different academic credentials levels, which institutions can use to design and offer programs that are roughly comparable to those offered at other institutions.
Institutions offer a wide range of programs leading to different types of academic credentials, based on the discipline, province or territory, and other factors. Some provinces have established their own qualifications frameworks to articulate the learning standards and outcomes of academic credentials in a consistent and comparable manner.
Consult Qualifications frameworks in Canada for more information.
Postsecondary Education Participation
Enrolment in postsecondary education has been steadily increasing in Canada for many years. In 2018–19, there were 2.1 million students enrolled in postsecondary education. Over half of these students were enrolled in degree-level programs, with the majority of remaining students enrolled in either diploma or certificate programs. Over half of enrolled students identified as female, though with significant variation based on field of study (the majority of students enrolled in disciplines such as mathematics, computer science, and engineering identified as male). The majority of students (1.6 million) enrol full time, though there were 500,000 part-time students in 2018–19. In 2018–19, 1.3 million of Canada's postsecondary students were enrolled in a university, and 800,000 were enrolled in a college. Over the past decade, enrolment has grown the most steadily in fields of study related to physical and life sciences; mathematics, computer and information sciences; and architecture, engineering, and related technologies.4
Canada's high levels of participation in postsecondary education are predictably correlated with a high educational attainment rate. In 2019, 59 percent of Canadians aged 25 to 64 had attained either a college or university academic credential, the highest among OECD countries.5
Tuition Fees and Student Financial Assistance
In 2020–21, the average non-Indigenous Postsecondary Education Institutes (IPSIs) undergraduate tuition for Canadian students at universities and degree-granting institutions was $6,580 across all fields of study, though this varies based on the province or territory. It also varies based on the field of study, from a low of $4,761 for education to a high of $22,562 for dentistry. In 2020–21, international students paid $32,019 on average for undergraduate programs, again with variance by province or territory and by field of study. Tuition for Canadian students is lower than the tuition that international students pay because tuition for Canadian students is typically regulated by the province or territory. Canadian students have their tuition regulated by the government because Canadian students and their families pay domestic taxes that are partially used to provide operating support for social programs in Canada, including postsecondary education.
In 2020–21, the average tuition for Canadian graduate students was $7,304,6 and for international graduate students it was $19,252.7 Tuition at public degree-granting institutions tends to be higher than at public non-degree-granting institutions, and tuition at private institutions tends to be the highest.
Student Financial Assistance
To offset the cost of tuition and living expenses while attending postsecondary education, there is a system of student financial aid in Canada. This system is composed of a mix of provincial, territorial, and federal funding provided directly to students, typically through a mix of grants and loans. The Canada Student Loans Program provides the federal portion of funding which, in 2018–19, was approximately $5 billion in grants and loans to students across Canada.8 Provinces and territories also contribute a significant amount of funding toward student financial aid, either in partnership with the federal government, or through a separate student financial aid system. Student financial aid in Canada is typically needs based and proportional to a student's financial situation, with some additional funds for students from particular backgrounds (e.g., students with disabilities, crown wards). The majority of the student financial aid provided through these provincial, territorial, and federal programs is available only to Canadian students.
Beyond government-issued student financial aid, there is also a range of institutional and private financial supports available, such as scholarships and bursaries, which may be based on need or on merit.
In 2018–19, there were 313,395 international students in Canadian universities and colleges, constituting 16.2 percent of the total enrolment. These international students enrolled predominantly in disciplines such as business, engineering, and social sciences. International students come from 225 different countries.9
International students enrolling in postsecondary programs longer than six months are required to obtain a study permit before entering Canada. To apply for a study permit, individuals must provide proof of acceptance, proof of identity, and proof of financial support. Students who plan to study in Quebec must also obtain the Certificat d'acceptation du Québec.
Proof of acceptance must be an acceptance letter from a designated learning institution (DLI). DLIs are institutions that provinces or territories have designated as eligible to host international students in Canada. The designated learning institutions (DLI) list is accessible on the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) website.
Institutions set their own admission requirements for international students. In general, the equivalent to secondary school graduation in Canada and evidence of proficiency in either English or French are required for most programs. International students are encouraged to locate information through the institutions' websites, including the yearly academic calendar.
Many universities and colleges have sizable international student populations, as well as specialized services for them, including orientation programs, counselling, and international student clubs.
Provinces and territories, through CMEC, work with Global Affairs Canada (GAC) to maintain the EduCanada brand, which supports the international education offerings of provinces and territories in Canada. GAC and its network of embassies use the EduCanada brand to enhance Canada's profile abroad and attract international students to Canadian education institutions (e.g., universities, colleges, language schools, elementary and secondary schools) by:
- promoting Canada as a study destination or education partner to international audiences;
- facilitating relations and services between the provincial, territorial, and federal governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and Canadian missions abroad in education promotion; and
- coordinating education promotion efforts by Canadian missions abroad.
Information for international students considering studying in Canada is available from various websites (e.g., CICIC, provincial/territorial governments, IRCC, Canadian missions abroad).
Credit Transfer and Student Mobility
Students in Canada will sometimes enrol in one institution, and then mid-way through their program decide to change to another institution. To support student mobility and ensure students can count the courses that they completed toward program completion at another institution, postsecondary institutions in Canada have established a number of bilateral articulation agreements with other institutions to describe how to assess and transfer prior learning. In addition to these institution-to-institution agreements to recognize and accept previous course completion in a specific way, provinces and territories have also established provincial, territorial, and pan-Canadian credit-transfer systems. Many universities and colleges also participate in systems of prior learning assessment and recognition (PLAR), providing credit for learning obtained outside of formal educational programming.
Consult the credit transfer and articulation in Canada section for additional information.
The majority of public universities and colleges in Canada have the authority to grant academic credentials (extended by the relevant provincial or territorial legislature). However, most provinces and territories also have systems of quality assurance to review and confirm that college and university programs meet externally set quality standards. These quality assurance systems typically apply to an entire sector (e.g., university quality assurance, college quality assurance), and may be linked to the sector's legislative status. Some provinces have also established quality assurance processes for all organizations that are not covered by legislation but that are seeking to offer a postsecondary program within their province, such as out-of-country institutions with a satellite campus. Quality assurance systems may be administered by institutions themselves, by arms-length organizations, or by the provincial or territorial government. Since the 2000s, there has been an increasing amount of oversight by provincial and territorial governments.
Consult quality assurance in postsecondary education in Canada for additional information.
Outside of academic programs, colleges and universities offer students a range of services and resources to provide them with a more enriching and supportive student experience. These may include mental health and general counselling, study-skills workshops to build academic success, career-placement and advisory centres, athletics, and other services. Many of these services (e.g., housing, daycare, English or French language instruction, anti-discrimination counselling, health services, tutoring) are intended to make the institution more accessible to a wider range of students who would otherwise face barriers to participating in postsecondary education. Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of these services required students to be physically present on campus to access them. However, since the pandemic caused widespread campus shutdowns, many institutions have adapted these services to be provided to students virtually.
Many universities and colleges also have special services for students with specific needs, including those with physical, sensory, or learning disabilities. Many also offer targeted services for students from specific underrepresented groups (e.g., Indigenous students, LGBTQ students). Some of these services are provided by the institution itself, while others may be provided by the institution's student associations.
Comprehensive review of this information: March 2021
Statistics Canada & The Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, Education Indicators in Canada: An International Perspective. (Ottawa: Statistics Canada 2020). Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/81-604-x/81-604-x2020001-eng.htm
“Table 37-10-0026-01: Revenues of universities and degree-granting colleges (x 1,000),” Statistics Canada, 2021. Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/cv.action?pid=3710002601
“Table 37-10-0028-01: Revenues of community colleges and vocational schools (x 1,000),” Statistics Canada, 2021). Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/cv.action?pid=3710002801
“Table 37-10-0011-01: Postsecondary enrolments, by field of study, registration status, program type, credential type and gender,” Statistics Canada, 2021. Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/cv.action?pid=3710001101
Statistics Canada and The Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, Education Indicators in Canada: An International Perspective (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2020). Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/81-604-x/81-604-x2020001-eng.htm
“Table 37-10-0003-01: Canadian undergraduate tuition fees by field of study,” Statistics Canada, 2021. Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/tv.action?pid=3710000301
“Table 37-10-0045-01: Canadian and international tuition fees by level of study,” Statistics Canada, 2021. Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/tv.action?pid=3710004501
“2018 to 2019 Canada Student Loans Program statistical review,” Employment and Social Development Canada, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/programs/canada-student-loans-grants/reports/cslp-statistical-2018-2019.html
“International students accounted for all of the growth in postsecondary enrolments in 2018/2019,” The Daily, November 25, 2020, Statistics Canada. Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/201125/dq201125e-eng.htm