More than 300 public and private postsecondary institutions in Canada are able to grant degrees, according to the CICIC Directory of Educational Institutions in Canada. An institution's ability to grant degrees is typically dependent on either an act of the provincial or territorial legislature, or another form of consent from the responsible public official (e.g., ministerial consent). As a result, types of degree-granting institutions vary across the provinces and territories, and may include universities, university colleges, colleges, Indigenous Postsecondary Education Institutes (IPSIs), polytechnics, institutes of technology, and specialized institutes.
Historically, independent universities were the most common degree-granting institution, though some were constituent, federated, or affiliated with another parent institution. But in the past twenty years, a wider range of institutions in Canada have begun offering academic programs leading to a degree. A prominent example is public colleges which, in the past in many provinces and territories, were permitted to offer “applied bachelor's degrees” in technical disciplines that reflected their unique mandates. More recently, the trend has been for these colleges to offer programs simply titled “bachelor's degrees,” removing the word applied to reflect the fact that degrees offered by colleges were equivalent in rigour and learning outcomes to the degrees that universities offered. This trend has occurred alongside changing student pathways in Canada,1 where students can transfer from a university program to one offered at a college (as opposed to the previously common transfer pathway from a college to university program).
Most degree-granting institutions are entirely located in the province or territory where the degree is being offered. However, there is a small number of institutions that are based outside the main province or territory location, where a ministerial consent was granted by the other province or territory to offer a specific degree program. Examples include:
- Athabasca University, an online-based university in Alberta which has ministerial consent to offer specific degree programs in British Columbia and Ontario;
- Northeastern University, which was originally established in Boston, Massachusetts (United States), but has a satellite campus offering several master's programs in Ontario.
More than half of universities in Canada are located in the two most heavily populated provinces: Ontario and Quebec. Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, and the Yukon each have one public university. Public colleges in the Northwest Territories and in Nunavut deliver some degree programs under articulation agreements with universities from other provinces. Outside Quebec, many provinces have at least one French-language institution that provides degree programs in French. In Quebec, there are a number of English-language institutions that provide degree programs in English. In British Columbia, several institutions offer “associate degrees” in various disciplines (commonly referred to as “Associate of Arts” and “Associate of Sciences”), which require two years of university-level study.2
Degree-granting institutions range in size from small liberal-arts campuses to large, comprehensive research universities with a wide range of undergraduate, graduate, and professional degree programs.
Mandate and Focus
Degree-granting institutions in Canada typically have a dual mandate: teaching and research. This is particularly true of larger, comprehensive universities that employ tenured faculty across a wide range of disciplines. Within this dual mandate, many institutions in Canada choose to specialize, such as in a particular discipline (e.g., computer science) or a particular focus (e.g., small liberal-arts-focused programs).
With few exceptions, a doctoral degree is required of university faculty members for entry into tenure-track positions. In 2018–19, universities employed 46,440 full-time faculty members, 59 percent males and 41 percent female, most of whom were typically at the rank of full or associate professor.3
Universities conduct about one-third of all research activity in Canada. The federal government provides support for research activities. One such initiative is the Canada Foundation for Innovation, a nonprofit corporation established in 1997 to provide research infrastructure funding to Canadian institutions. Between 1997 and 2020, the foundation generated a total investment of $19.9 billion in research infrastructure funding through provincial, territorial, federal, and other partnerships.4
The federal government also funds three major research-granting councils: the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). For 2021–22, the budgets of the three councils are estimated to be approximately $3.6 billion.5 Sponsored research projects conducted by postsecondary institutions under contract for various federal government departments receive additional federal funding. Beyond sponsored research, the three federal research-granting councils provide support to the Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE), which link researchers from universities, industry, and governments across Canada.
While the majority of provincial and territorial funding goes toward general operating funding at postsecondary institutions, provinces and territories also support research at postsecondary institutions through direct funding. A number of universities have developed research parks to enhance research collaboration with industry. A number of institutions have set up spin-off companies to commercialize and market university technology. And in recent years, many institutions have established on-campus business incubators or accelerators, which are dedicated spaces for students to develop entrepreneurial business ideas with support from industry professionals.
Administration and Governance
Universities are highly autonomous. They set their own admission standards and degree requirements and have considerable flexibility in the management of their financial affairs and program offerings. Government intervention is generally limited to finances, fee structures, and the introduction of new academic programs. Intermediary bodies, such as the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission (MPHEC) for the provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, play an advisory role.
A common university governance arrangement in Canada is known as “bicameral” governance, where a university has two entities responsible for the university's affairs:
- a governing board, largely responsible for financial matters and policy concerns and composed predominantly of government-appointed individuals; and
- a senate or faculty council composed of elected academics, largely responsible for programs, courses, admission requirements, qualifications, and academic planning.
Degree-granting institutions are typically led by a president, who may also fill the role of vice-chancellor (with the chancellor being an external individxual with a predominantly ceremonial role). Universities often have a provost or vice-president academic who is responsible for academic matters, and who oversees the deans of the various faculties and departments.
Degree-granting institutions offer a wide range of academic programs. Most universities typically offer degree programs at three successive levels — bachelor's, master's, and doctoral — with the completion of a degree from the lower level generally a prerequisite for admission to the next. Most degree-granting colleges tend to offer degree programs primarily at the bachelor's degree level.
Students at the bachelor's level (also known as baccalaureate) are identified as undergraduates. Completion of a secondary-school program, or the two-year cégep program in Quebec, is the normal prerequisite for admission to undergraduate study. Most universities also have special entrance requirements and paths for mature students. Some also have bridging or transition programs for students who are unable to meet standard admission criteria as a result of extenuating life circumstances.
Bachelor's degrees normally require three or four years of full-time study, depending on the province or territory. An honours bachelor's degree involves a higher degree of concentration in the major subject, as well as a higher level of academic achievement. Depending on the discipline, the program may be supplemented by required professional experience (e.g., supervised practicums, internships, and work terms), which may extend the total duration of the program. As previously noted, associate degrees are offered only in the province of British Columbia and are two years in length. If a student holds an associate degree and subsequently intends to seek admission to a master's degree program, they must first complete a full bachelor's degree.
A master's degree typically requires one to three years of study (1.5 to two years in Quebec) after completion of either a general or an honours baccalaureate program. Some master's degrees are designed to support students to go on to pursue a doctoral degree, and are generally known as a master of arts (MA) or a master of science (MSc). Others are intended to support advanced professional practice in a discipline, such as a master of education (MEd).
A minimum of three years of study and research, including the completion of a dissertation, are the normal requirements for a doctorate. While the degree is generally known as a PhD, doctoral degrees may also be granted in particular fields of study such as a doctor of music (DMus) or a doctor of laws (LL.D.).
The primary mandate of university colleges is to provide bachelor's degrees. A few also provide master's degrees with an applied focus.
Some public and private universities and university colleges have theological denominational affiliations and offer divinity programs and degrees for the specific purpose of preparing students for the profession of minister of faith. These institutions may also offer other degree programs, in accordance with a private act adopted by the provincial legislature, and in some cases, not subject to a program review process by provincial quality assurance authorities.
A number of degree-granting institutions are not universities, but rather colleges that historically offered shorter postsecondary programs. In more recent years they have expanded into offering bachelor's degrees as well. These bachelor's degrees offered by colleges are typically in applied disciplines or specializations.
While most degree programs are delivered on campus to full-time students, many institutions offer part-time study through day and evening courses. Many programs include cooperative education or work-study components, which alternate academic studies with full-time, off-campus employment related to the student's field of study.
Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, institutions across Canada had been expanding their remote or virtual learning opportunities for many years. Many programs are either fully online, or blended with online and in-person instruction. Instructors use a variety of media to provide a more engaging online experience for students, such as audio and videoconference, chat forums, message boards, and other digital tools to increase student engagement.
The academic year at most degree-granting institutions is divided into two semesters, from September to December and from January to April. Most institutions also offer spring and summer sessions. A few operate on a trimester basis.
Comprehensive review of this information: March 2021
“Study: Completion of a college certificate or diploma after a bachelor's degree,” The Daily, April 8, 2021, Statistics Canada. Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/210408/dq210408b-eng.htm
Associate Degree Requirements, British Columbia Council on Admissions and Transfer. Retrieved from https://www.bctransferguide.ca/associate/requirements#:~:text=The%20Associate%20of%20Arts%20and,solid%20foundation%20for%20further%20study.
“Table 37-10-0076-01: Number of full-time teaching staff at Canadian universities, by rank, sex,” Statistics Canada, 2021. Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/tv.action?pid=3710007601
“Research is my business partner: Annual report 2019–20,” Canada Foundation for Innovation, 2020. Retrieved from https://www.innovation.ca/sites/default/files/pdf/annual-report/2019-20/cfi_annualreport_2019-20-en-pdf-final.pdf
5 2021–22 Estimates
(Ottawa: Government of Canada, 2021). Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/content/dam/tbs-sct/documents/planned-government-spending/main-estimates/2021-22/2021-22-estimates-eng.pdf