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The basics
Canada: Applying to University - Must read

Understanding the Canadian higher education system

Learn everything about higher education in Canada, including how the system is structured, the academic culture and more...

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Structure of higher education in Canada

Higher education in Canada is relatively similar to what you’d find in America, though there are influences of the British system too.


In Canada, each province and territory is responsible for education at all levels within it including universities i.e. there is no federal accreditation. This means that each province and territory regulate the standards of education and any issues which arise as well, and these are strict to ensure quality.


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).


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’ refers to either a 2-year pre-university programme or a 3-year professional programme, after which a student can pursue undergraduate study at university which is usually 3 years long and leads to a bachelor’s degree. They can then pursue a graduate programme (1-2 years which leads to a master’s degree, and then 3 or more years leading to a PhD).


Elsewhere in 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 located across a wide range of environments as well as having strong reputations in distinct subject areas. Similar to the 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.


Here is a 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 (i.e. they overlap between 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 do 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 receiving 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 possessing esteemed reputations in their respective 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 accustomed to in their home country. Professors will have office hours during which you can visit them with your questions about the work and they’ll usually be very approachable. They will also answer questions in lectures.


Course layout

You can expect to take around 5 courses per semester; it is these classes which make up your programme. Each course is made up weekly of 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.



As we noted in our guide ‘Why study in Canada?’, multiculturalism is taken very seriously in Canada where the first policy of such was adopted in the 1970s. Therefore, you can expect to study alongside a diverse student body as well as learning from professors who hail from around the world (or at least have experience working abroad).



Canada shares a lot of terminology with the USA when it comes to higher education. For example, the term ‘school’ is used widely for everything from kindergarten/pre-school to university.


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?'. 


Ready to apply? Search for courses in Canada using our course matcher tool to find your future course and university.