Universities in Canada are seen worldwide as prestigious educational institutions, along with the universities of America and the United Kingdom. Among the distinctive features of Canadian universities are practical orientation, high levels of funding and up-to-date facilities. There is no national system of higher education in the country, so one can differentiate 13 systems, adopted in 10 provinces and 3 territories of Canada. Universities vary greatly in admission requirements, the language of instruction and even the duration of programs.

Top universities in Canada

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Advantages of Canadian universities

  • Practical focus. While studying, a student at a Canadian university is more likely to participate in seminars and project work than attend lectures. 56% of undergraduates benefit from hands-on learning – such as co-ops, internships, and service learning – as part of their university education[1].
  • Global integration. Degrees and certificates granted by Canadian higher education institutions are highly valued all over the world. According to the three most famous world rankings, Canada has 5 of the top 150 universities worldwide. In total, all Canadian universities have more than 5000 partnerships, including those with large international companies.
  • Funding. Universities in Canada are properly funded. Large endowments available at McGill University, the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia allow them to equip modern laboratories and academic buildings. Both the government and private sector are providing significant support. According to the OECD, 5.9% of Canada’s total GDP is allocated to education[2].
  • Bilingualism. In Canada, students can choose their language of study. Among the options are anglophone, francophone and bilingual universities. The latter offer programs in both state languages.

Disadvantages and features of Canadian universities

  • High tuition fees. The average cost of studying for international undergraduate students is 22,500 USD per year, which is about 30% cheaper than in the United States, Great Britain or Australia. However, it is hard to actually call it affordable.
  • Religious nature and conservatism. Despite the fact that many Canadian universities were founded not so long ago, they mainly adhere to the traditional paradigm of education. Moreover, almost all private universities in Canada are still formally affiliated with religious groups. The curriculum includes optional classes on the history of various religions, but most attention is paid to the study of Christianity and the Bible. Probably the only private secular university is Quest University in British Columbia.
  • Medical education. In Canada, foreign students cannot get higher education in the field of medicine, except for the colleges providing nursing programs. Surgery and medical care programs at universities can only be offered by the agreement of two countries’ governments, which is extremely rare.
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Admission requirements at Canadian universities

Type of studyAgeDurationMin. cost per yearAvg. cost per yearMin. language levelExamsType of study
Foundation16+1 year7,500 USD18,750 USDB1IELTS 5.0-5.5DELF B1
Colleges17+1-4 years1,500 USD7,500 USDB2IELTS 6.0-6.5DELF B2
Bachelor’s17+3-4 years15,000 USD22,275 USDB2IELTS 6.0 -6.5DELF B2
Master’s20+1-3 years7,500 USD13,275 USDC1IELTS 7.0-7.5DALF C1
MBA20+2 years29,250 USD39,601 USDC1IELTS 7.0-7.5DALF C1
Doctoral20+3-6 years7,500 USD11,250 USDC1IELTS 7.0-7.5DALF C1

Admission requirements in Canada vary, depending on the institution. Usually, international students can apply to a college or university after 11-12 grades of secondary school (except for the province of Quebec, where a high school diploma achieved after 11 years of study is not sufficient for admission to a local university). The minimum entry age for higher education in Canada is 17-18.

Each foreign applicant has to demonstrate basic language proficiency. To study in English, you can submit TOEFL or IELTS results. For French-speaking universities, DELF / DALF is required.

The final list of documents may include:

Recognition of academic credentials
An important step before entering a Canadian university is academic credential assessment and recognition. Each educational institution has the authority to independently decide on the recognition of a candidate’s qualifications, but not all universities in Canada have the capacity to assess them. In this case, students can call on external services which can be provided by six members of the Alliance of Credential Evaluation Services of Canada (ACESC). The application fee is about 113 USD. It is usually required to provide scanned copies of government-issued identification (ID) and academic documents. The latter may include:
  • Diploma(s) or degree certificate(s);
  • Transcript(s) / mark sheets / index;
  • Detailed course outline(s).
The complete list of required documents depends on the country and is available on the websites of the organizations. Any documents that are not in either English or French must be translated and certified.

Types of educational institutions in Canada

Higher education in Canada is provided by colleges and universities. However, understanding of these types of educational institutions is a bit different from that adopted in many other countries.

  • Universities in Canada are degree-granting institutions, i.e. institutions providing bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees. Particular importance is attached to scientific research. The title "university" is protected under federal regulation.
  • Colleges are defined as higher education institutions that grant certificates, diplomas, associate’s degrees, and apprenticeships. Some are also permitted to award a limited set of bachelor’s degrees through joint programs with universities. Canadian colleges offer vocational training in specific employment fields.
  • University colleges. In some provinces (mainly Ontario and Alberta), there are designated university colleges that do not have full university status, but, unlike ordinary colleges, are permitted to grant undergraduate degrees, including applied bachelor's.
  • CÉGEPs - Collèges d'enseignement général et professionnel. CÉGEP is a type of post-secondary institution exclusive to Quebec. These are pre-university colleges, which are primarily designed to prepare high school graduates for admission to Canadian universities. However, they also offer vocational programs for those who want to directly enter the profession. Depending on the purpose, training lasts 2 or 3 years.

Based on the language of teaching, higher education institutions can be divided into three categories: anglophone, francophone and bilingual. In English-speaking universities, undergraduate studies generally last 4 years and graduate (or postgraduate) programs — 1-2 years. In French-speaking universities, located mostly in Quebec, undergraduate programs take 3 years to complete due to the fact that Quebec students usually spend one extra year at CÉGEP prior to university. Bilingual universities mainly function as English-speaking ones.

Most universities are funded by the government, but there are several dozen private and religious universities and colleges.

Colleges in Canada

The main difference between colleges and universities is that college students rarely engage in research activities. Teaching is fully focused on providing them with specific employment skills. Students benefit from internships and co-op programs, which allow work experience as part of their educational process.

Canadian colleges may be known as colleges of applied arts and technology, community colleges, institutes of technology, polytechnics and career colleges[3]. In total, they offer over 10,000 programs lasting from several months to four years, providing graduates with a straight path to employment in many technical and professional fields, including: agriculture and agri-food, engineering technology, social services and health, environment, hospitality management, information technology, broadcasting and journalism, business, languages and art and design[4].

Top colleges in Canada

  • British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) is a public polytechnic institute in Burnaby, British Columbia. In addition to providing business, technology, health and trade programs, the institute is also engaged in applied research, focused on providing solutions to industry challenges. BCIT also has the Aerospace Technology Campus in Richmond, an interactive fire simulation theatre, an automated manufacturing robotics lab and other advanced facilities[5].
  • Humber College is a publicly funded polytechnic in Toronto, Ontario. Humber has 6 faculties and 31,200 full-time students, including over 6000 foreigners[6]. Training takes place in state-of-the-art facilities and creative spaces. Humber's Centers of Innovation offer students the opportunity to join interdisciplinary teams with faculty and partner companies to create meaningful applied research projects.
  • Algonquin College is a publicly funded college with campuses located in several cities of Ontario. It is named after the indigenous peoples of North America who lived in this area — Algonkin. The college is actively expanding and renovating its campus through building green buildings according to LEED standards. Algonquin College ranks 2nd among top Ontario colleges for student and graduate satisfaction[7]. In 2019, Algonkin was recognized as one of the National Capital Region's Top Employers[8].
  • George Brown College is a public college of applied arts and technology in downtown Toronto, Ontario. It collaborates with companies for developing programs and employing graduates. 98% of career-focused programs include the so-called integrated field education, providing students with opportunities for experiential learning in real-world work environments[9]. In 2018, George Brown was ranked 1st among the top 50 research colleges for the number of paid student researchers[10]. 27% of George Brown’s students are international[11].
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Public and private universities in Canada

In Canada, as in many countries, universities are divided into public and private. Most Canadian institutions are currently funded by the government while remaining autonomous in academic matters. In turn, private universities rely solely on tuition fees and donations. Most of them offer undergraduate programs and in some cases, master's and doctoral programs.

Quality of education and the educational process itself do not vary much depending on the type of institution. The main (but not unconditional) differences between them are the following:

  • Tuition fees. Tuition in public universities is usually cheaper for domestic students than for international ones. As for private institutions, the cost of studying remains almost the same for everyone regardless of the country of citizenship or permanent residence.
  • Class size. Due to the smaller number of students in private universities, teachers have more opportunities to apply one-to-one teaching than in crowded public institutions.
  • Career opportunities. Private universities tend to partner with large multinational corporations offering work placements to their students. At the same time, those who graduate from public institutions are more likely to get jobs in companies from the public or government sectors.
  • Religious affiliation. In the past, many of the country's oldest universities were privately funded (McGill University,1821) and maintained religious history or foundation (Université Laval, 1663, Saint Mary's University, 1802, Dalhousie University, 1818), but in the 20th century, they became public secular educational institutions. Today’s private universities, though founded not so long ago, are religious in nature: Trinity Western University, 1962, Canadian Mennonite University, 1944, The King's University, 1979.

Groups and associations of universities

  • Universities Canada is the largest association of educational institutions in the country. It was founded in 1911 and currently represents 95 public and private universities and university colleges[12]. The organization advocates for Canadian universities at the federal level, supports students through providing online information and offering scholarships, fosters collaboration between universities, governments, the private sector, and international partners. Universities Canada is sometimes mistaken for a higher education accreditation body. In fact, Canada does not have a national accreditation system. Education providers can gain degree-awarding powers only from provincial governments. After that, each institution determines its own educational standards and procedures. But membership in association means that universities meet strict criteria and share principles of institutional quality assurance developed by the association. This facilitates recognizing graduates’ qualifications across all Canadian provinces and abroad.
  • The U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities, established in 1991, is an association of 15 public universities that undertake 80% of research in Canada. Their overall annual contribution to the Canadian economy is estimated at more than 36 billion CAD. About 75% of all doctoral degrees are awarded in universities of the association[13]. As part of the Global Network, the U15 is also actively collaborating with other networks of research-intensive universities from around the world.
  • Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICan) is a national association with voluntary membership. It is open to all publicly-funded Canadian colleges and other institutions that can be referred to as an institute of technology, CÉGEP or University with a college mandate. CICan currently has 133 member institutions spread over 670 locations serving urban, rural and remote communities across Canada[14].
  • Polytechnics Canada brings together 13 leading research-intensive, publicly funded colleges and institutes of technology, which cooperate with companies in the development of programs, conducting applied research, providing technical, hands-on learning and employment opportunities. In total, Polytechnics Canada members produce annually more than 80,000 graduates in specialties that are in demand in the labour market.
  • National Association of Career Colleges (NACC) is the oldest association of higher education institutions in Canada, founded in 1896, now representing over 500 regulated career colleges[15]. Very few career colleges are included in the list of designated learning institutions, allowing international students to obtain a post-graduate work permit. So, addressing this issue is one of the NACC’s priorities[16].

Free universities in Canada

In Canada, you cannot study at colleges or universities for free. However, most universities offer scholarships and grants for international students at all levels of education: from undergraduate to doctoral studies. For example, Dalhousie University Scholarships, University of Alberta International Scholarships, York University International Student Program and others.

Scholarships provided by the government and independent organizations are not so widespread. And most of them are designed for students of postgraduate programs. For instance, Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships and Canada Graduate Scholarships — Master's Program, Anne Vallee Ecological Fund.

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Interesting facts about Canadian universities

  • According to statistics, more and more college students already have university degrees. They come to colleges for applied education based on concrete practical skills[17].
  • The graduate business school HEC Montréal of the Université de Montréal has Canada's largest bilingual library of management studies. Its archives contain over 375,000 documents. The library is attended by over half a million visitors each year[18].
  • Wilfrid Laurier University is the only Canadian university named after a politician. Sir Wilfrid Laurier was the first French Canadian to serve as Prime Minister of Canada.
  • According to the legend, the University of Alberta has an intensive network of underground tunnels that once allowed students and staff to move around the campus without going outside in the harsh Canadian winter. The 14 km tunnels do really exist but have a different purpose. They are called service corridors and used to convey utility services.
  • Dozens of TV shows and movies have been filmed in Vancouver on the campus of the University of British Columbia, including: The Age of Adaline, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Smallville, X-Men Origins, Fantastic Four, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, The Butterfly Effect, Supernatural, 50 Shades of Grey, Once Upon a Time, Battlestar Galactica, Tomorrowland, Taken, etc.[19]
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