Higher Education in Canada [fr]

A decentralized university system

In Canada, education, including higher education, falls under the provincial jurisdiction. Therefore, there is no federal ministry of education. Universities are autonomous, publicly funded and operate under provincial government charters. The University of Quebec and its regional branches are the only provincially run public university.

Universities with great autonomy

Universities in Canada are independent legal entities. They enjoy great political and organizational autonomy, despite substantial government funding. Universities set out their own admission and graduation requirements. Professors’ salaries are determined by university governing boards. Government intervention is generally limited to financial issues, such as the creation of research chairs or the structure of tuition fees. Intermediate organizations such the Higher Education Commissions of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island can serve as advisory bodies in this regard.

Organization of study programs and teaching

Universities offer Bachelor’s, Master’s and doctoral (usually a PhD) programs in a variety of disciplines such as business, astronomy, genetics, fine arts, etc. In addition to preparing students for a wide range of professions and careers, these programs offer unparalleled perspectives in theoretical knowledge.

University colleges: British Columbia and Nova Scotia have institutions which combine university and college traditions in order to allow students to obtain university degrees but also college diplomas and certificates which often give them access to these degrees. In Alberta, university colleges offer university-level coursework and are accredited by the Private Colleges Accreditation Board. In Ontario, a number of university-level colleges have recently adopted the designation “university college” in order to distinguish themselves from community colleges. The provincial government has recently authorized community colleges to grant diplomas in applied studies.

Community colleges: Canada has 175 community colleges which accept high-school graduates and which issue diplomas in professional training. These establishments offer programs which are expected to meet the training needs of different industry sectors.

Undergraduate education: Bachelor’s Degree: In general, undergraduate programs consist of three or four years of full-time coursework, depending on the province. Usually, specialized undergraduate programs are characterized by more advanced teaching and greater achievements in a given discipline and are sometimes awarded additional credits.

Master’s Degree: Normally, Master’s degrees are study programs which take at least one year of full-time studies to complete and where students are expected to write a “thesis” (a lengthy essay based on previously unpublished research), complete coursework or prepare a research project.

Doctoral studies (PhD): Doctoral programs require a minimum of three years of full-time studies (often four years) where students must spend at least one year in residence.

Other programs: Numerous universities also offer an extensive range of certificate courses, postgraduate courses and professional diploma courses.

Academic year

The academic year is typically divided into two semesters: from September to December, and from January to April. Some universities also offer spring and summer semesters. Others divide their academic year into trimesters and admit students at the beginning of each trimester. The Canadian and French structures of the course programs differ significantly. Canadian students do not necessarily base their academic program on the number of years to be completed, but rather on the diplomas they are to obtain. It is therefore not rare for Canadian students to interrupt their studies for a year or two and then return to the university.

Profile of Canadian universities

Geographic distribution

Canada has more than 250 technical colleges and 93 universities. These institutions are very unevenly distributed across the country. Canada consists of 10 provinces and three territories (Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut). None of the three territories has a university, given the low population levels. However, their public colleges offer a number of university programs based on ‘articulation agreements’ signed with universities from other Canadian regions or Alaska. The provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island each have one university. For demographic reasons, more than half of Canadian universities are located in the most densely populated provinces, such as Ontario and Quebec, as well as Nova Scotia, for primarily historical reasons.

Les langues d’étude

English and French are the two official languages in Canada. In most universities and colleges, teaching is conducted in the two languages. Some institutions teach in both English and French.
The Association of Universities of Canadian Francophonie (L’Association des universités de la francophonie canadienne (AUFC)) is made up of the following French-language or bilingual higher education institutions outside Quebec:

Campus Saint-Jean, University of AlbertaInstitut français, University of Regina
Royal Military College of CanadaUniversité de Hearst
Collège universitaire de Saint-BonifaceUniversité de Moncton
Collège universitaire de Saint-BonifaceUniversity of Sudbury
Dominican University CollegeLaurentian University
Glendon College, York UniversityUniversity of Western Ontario
Université d’OttawaUniversité Saint-Paul

University ranking

Each year, since 1991, Canadian weekly magazine MacLean’s assesses and ranks Canadian universities. Designed to serve as a guide to prospective students, the magazine’s rankings are also used by university officials to attract students and funding for their university, in their effort to maintain or improve their ranking position, given the strong competition between universities. The rankings are based on a number of different series of criteria. An example from the 2009 ranking:

# Medical Doctoral # Comprehensive # Primarily undergraduate
1 Mc Gill 1 Simon Fraser University 1 Mount Alison
2 U. Toronto 2 U. Victoria 2 Acadia
3 Queen’s 3 U. Waterloo 3 UNBC
4 UBC 4 U. Guelph 4 St Francis Xavier
5 U. Alberta 5 Memorial 5 Wilfrid Laurier
6 Mc Master 6 U. New Brunswick 6 Lethbridge
7 U. Calgary 7 Carleton 7 Trent
8 U. Dalhousie 8 U. Windsor 8 UPEI
9 U. Ottawa 9 U. Regina 9 Saint Mary’s
10 U. Saskatchewan 10 U. York 10 U. Winnipeg

Number of Students per year per University - Source : McLean’s (16/11/2009)

University categories:

  • Undergraduate: smaller universities largely focused on undergraduate education.
  • Comprehensive: universities with a wide range of undergraduate and graduate programs and a significant amount of research activity.
  • Medical doctoral: universities with a broad range of Master’s and PhD programs as well as an important amount of research.

2009 Shanghai Rankings:

Twenty-two Canadian universities were included in the 2009 Shanghai rankings (23 French universities) and four (3 French) were listed among the top 100: University of Toronto (27th), University of British Columbia (36th), McGill University (65th) and McMaster University (91st). However, the rankings of all these universities are lower than in 2008, specifically McGill as it moved down five positions. The rankings of other Canadian universities remain stable, and York University has reappeared on the list.

International students

Canada ranks sixth in terms of the number of international students, behind the United States, the UK, France, Australia and Germany:

Host Country20062007
United States584 719595874
UK330 078351 470
France247 510246 612
Australia184 710211 526
Germany207 994206 875
Canada170 146176 077
Japan130 124125 877

Source : UNESCO UIS database et Statistics Canada

These students originated from the following countries (in 2008):

  • South Korea (17.5%)
  • China (17%)
  • France (6%)
  • United States (6%)
  • Japan (4,5%)

Source: Citizenship and Immigration Canada

International students represent an important economic interest for Canada in the short as well as the long term. A full-time student spends approximately C$25,000 per year, not counting tuition fees. The presence of these international students on Canadian campuses produces an important economic impact equivalent to $6.5 billion dollars per year.
Canada has the highest percentage of post-secondary graduates in the world (53%), but it sends only 6% of its students abroad.

For more information, see the “Fiche Curie Enseignement Supérieur Canada” .


Noveber 28, 2011

Last modified on 29/11/2011

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