At first glance, Canada’s education system can seem confusing. Here’s a quick breakdown to help you get to grips with the basics.
Provinces and territories
Canada is divided into 10 provinces and 3 territories. Rather than having a centralized federal higher education system, each province and territory has its own distinct education system. The most popular Canadian provinces for international students are Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec and between them they are home to many of the top universities in Canada.
Types of higher education providers
Canada has two basic types of post-secondary education providers:
In addition to offering a broad range of degrees, from undergraduate to doctorate, universities carry out research. Universities in Canada typically offer degrees that range from three to four years, such as French, Economics or History. Faculty members are actively engaged in research, alongside their teaching responsibilities.
Unlike universities, college professors are only expected to teach; they are not expected to carry out research. Some colleges can offer degrees, but many typically offer two- to four-year diplomas and degrees that are more career-focused, hands-on or technical. Colleges may offer vocational programs (such as aircraft mechanics), technical diplomas (such as graphic design) or the in-school portion of apprenticeship training programs.
As of 2017, there are 96 universities offering degrees, a small number of colleges offering degrees, and 135 publicly-funded colleges offering non-degree study.
Public vs private
While there are a handful of private career colleges throughout the country, Canada is home to predominantly public universities. These institutions are heavily supported by the Canadian government to the extent that the annual expenditure per student is one of the highest of all OECD and G20 countries. This makes them generally cheaper to attend than private institutions.
As public institutions they often have province-wide admissions requirements, whereas private institutions are owned and operated outside of the provincial government. To learn more about private school options you can explore the National Association of Career Colleges here.
There are slight variances across the different provinces, but most degrees are structured as follows:
In general, the year will be split into 3 semesters: Fall (end of August/start of September to December/January), Winter (January to April) and Summer (April/May to July). In most cases, students are not in school throughout the summer term.
Most students take around 5 courses per semester. A typical course is made up of 2 hours of lectures and a 1-hour tutorial each week.
Each course is assigned a number of credits and, to complete your degree, you must study a given number of credits. Each semester, you will select courses from a wide selection offered by your department of studies. International students are required to be enrolled in a full course load throughout the duration of their degree.
Some courses are more competitive than others and tend to fill up quickly, so it’s worth researching and signing up to your chosen courses quite early on to avoid disappointment.
For more details on the different types of degrees offered in Canada, together with advice on how to tailor your degree to your individual interests, check out our ‘Routes to graduation’ article.
Grades tend to be expressed in percentages and each percentage band corresponds to a letter from A+ to F. For instance, the percentage band corresponding to an A+ might be 90-100%, while the one corresponding to a B might be 72-75%.
For a course to be validated, students must usually obtain a minimum Grade Point Average of C.
What’s a Grade Point Average?
For each course you complete at university you'll be assigned a percentage and a letter grade, which you can use to look up its corresponding Grade Point Value. Grade Point Values range from 0.00 (usually 0-50% or an F) to 4.00 (usually 90-100% or an A+). To calculate your Grade Point Average, simply find the sum of your Grade Point Values and divide this by the number of courses. You can do this for all courses taken during a single semester to find your Term Grade Point Average (TGPA), or for all courses taken during your time at university to find your Cumulative Grade Point Average (GCPA).