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The basics
Canada: Applying to University - Must read

Understanding the Canadian higher education system

Learn everything about the higher education system in Canada. From the types of institutions to university culture.

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If you're considering going to university in Canada, it might be helpful to understand what the higher education system is like, what institutions there are and what university culture is like for international students. This brief guide covers these main points and hopefully will help you decide to take your first step to study in this amazing country.


Structure of higher education in Canada


Higher education in Canada is relatively similar to the USA, though there are influences of the British system too.


In Canada, each province and territory is responsible for education at all levels, including universities. There is no federal or country-wide system. This means that each province and territory regulates the standards of education which keeps the standard and quality of education high.


An academic year is divided into three semesters:


  • Fall (end of August / start of September to December / January)
  • Winter (January to April)
  • Summer (April / May to July).


Differences between Quebec & rest of Canada


There are some differences between how things are structured or referred to in Quebec compared to the rest of Canada. In Quebec, ‘college’ means either a two-year pre-university programme or a three-year professional programme. After students have completed one of these they can go on to undergraduate study at university, which is usually three years long and leads to a bachelor’s degree. They can then go on to a graduate programme (one-two years which leads to a master’s degree, and then three or more years leading to a PhD).


In the other parts of Canada, ‘college’ refers to community college or a technical school where students can earn a certificate, diploma or associate’s degree. Students can study an undergraduate or postgraduate course at a university (though they will need a degree with honours to do so), while at graduate school they can obtain an advanced certificate, degree or diploma.


Types of institutions


There are a wide variety of higher education institutions which you can choose from in Canada. Each one is located across a wide range of areas of the country. They also have a strong reputation in specific subject areas. Similar to the United States, in Canada you can choose to study at a technical or community college if you have a particular career in mind; or you can transfer to a university to continue your studies at undergraduate level.


Quick guide to the different types of institutions in Canada


Liberal arts colleges


Similar to American liberal arts colleges, these have a particular emphasis on undergraduate courses in the liberal arts which are usually interdisciplinary, which means they cover more than one discipline, namely the humanities but also including the social, natural and formal sciences.




A public institution is one that receives funding from the provincial, territorial and/or federal government, although they charge students tuition fees as well as accept private funding.




A private institution generally does not receive funding from the provincial, territorial or federal governments, instead it gets private funding through donations from wealthy alumni and faculty research grants as well as traditional tuition fees. Private universities often attract and retain the very best staff who are highly respected esteemed in their fields.


Academic culture in Canada


Interacting with staff


Students will find that the way they engage with their professors might be a little different to what they are used to back home. Professors will have office hours during which you can visit them with your questions about the work and they’ll usually be very helpful and approachable. They will also answer questions in lectures.


Course layout


You can expect to take around five courses per semester; it is these classes which make up your programme. Each course is made up of weekly two hours of lectures and a one-hour tutorial  where a teaching assistant leads a discussion based around that lecture or the week’s reading.




Multiculturalism is taken very seriously in Canada therefore, you can expect to study alongside a diverse student body as well as learning from professors who come from around the world (or at least have experience working abroad).


Overall, the higher education system in Canada is renowned for top quality institutions and a rewarding student lifestyle. We explore this further in our guide on 'What makes Canada so unique?'. 


If you are interested in finding out more about studying in Canada you may find the following article useful:


You can also try our course matcher tool to help you find the best course for you in this amazing country.