A guide to post-secondary education in Canada
By Dara Poizner
Posted on January 14, 2021
If you have immigrated or plan to immigrate to Canada, you may be considering attending a Canadian post-secondary school (i.e., after high school). This article provides a broad overview of important aspects to know about post-secondary school in Canada as well as tips and links you can use to begin your research.
In Canada, the provincial and territorial governments are responsible for education. Post-secondary schools recognized by the government can grant degrees, diplomas, certificates, or other qualifications. Most post-secondary schools have two main study semesters—September to December and January to April—and some also offer some summer courses.
In Canada, universities and colleges are the main types of post-secondary schools. Universities and colleges are distinct from each other. They teach different skill sets and offer different qualifications depending on your learning and professional goals.
Universities offer academic programs in many subjects, and they often focus on developing students’ research and critical thinking skills. There are three types of degrees you can earn from a Canadian university:
- A bachelor’s degree is the first degree you receive in university. You can earn a general bachelor’s degree after three years if you study full-time. An honours degree (generally a higher standard of education) takes four years and is usually needed if you want to go to graduate school.
- A master’s degree is for students who already completed a bachelor’s degree and want to specialize in a certain subject. Depending on the program, you can typically complete it in about one to two years if you study full-time.
- A doctorate is the most advanced degree and usually requires three or more years of study and research after a master’s degree.
Some universities also have professional programs like medicine, teaching, and law. In addition to classes, people in these programs must take standardized tests and/or do work placements to graduate with a license to work in their field.
Colleges and institutes
There are several types of colleges and institutes formally recognized by the government of Canada. (There are also private career colleges, but note that these programs are not government-regulated.) Graduating from a college program usually prepares students to work in a specific job or field. You can earn different types of qualifications from different college programs.
- Apprenticeship training is for workers who want to learn how to perform a job or trade, through a combination of classroom and on-the-job learning. Apprenticeships usually take four years to complete.
- Certificate programs provide short-term training in a specialized subject for people who want to find work right away. They can often be done in a year or less of full-time study.
- Diploma programs provide more in-depth training than certificates. They often combine classroom and on-the-job learning. If done full-time, they usually take two years.
- Some colleges have programs for academic upgrading (for students who need to add to or improve their academic credentials to get into a university or college program) and English or French language training.
The province of Quebec has its own distinct system. “Cégep” (a French acronym for Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel), a general and vocational college, is the first level of post-secondary education in Quebec. Cégeps offer government-approved pre-university and technical training programs which can earn students a Diploma of College Studies. Most of these programs are taught in French, but there are a few available in English.
People interested in both university and college learning can look into joint programs. Through these programs, students can earn both a university and a college credential. For example, Brock University and Seneca College in Ontario offer a joint program for students who want to earn a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a diploma to become a licensed paralegal. If you start in college and want to switch to university (or the other way around), some schools allow credit transfer. Transfers work differently depending on the schools involved.
If you want to gain relevant work experience while you are in school, you can consider co-operative education (known as co-op). Co-op is a study program that includes paid work periods in a job related to your field. It may, however, take longer to complete than a regular university degree or college diploma. Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning Canada has a directory of schools that offer accredited co-op programs.
There are many reasons for people to want to do their schooling at a slower pace, and not everybody studies full-time. If you need more flexibility, plenty of universities and colleges offer part-time and online learning options.
Finding and applying to programs
If you want to attend a post-secondary school in Canada, do some research about university or college programs that interest you. Here are a few places to start:
- EduCanada has an online database you can use to search for programs. You can search by field of study, language of study (English or French), type of education, and province or territory of the school.
- The Universities Canada directory has links to all of its member universities. You may want to attend a university if you are interested in building knowledge, doing research in your area of interest, and/or preparing for a future career.
- The Colleges & Institutes Canada directory has links to all of its member schools. You may want to attend a college to gain the skills and training needed for a specific job or field.
Every university or college program has its own admission requirements which you must meet to get in. Requirements depend on the specific program, but you usually need to submit your marks from high school and/or from a previous post-secondary program. Certain programs have limited space, and applicants usually have to meet more than the minimum requirements (for example, in very competitive programs, only the applicants with the highest marks are admitted).
Credentials refer to a newcomer’s academic education from before they came to Canada. Before attending a Canadian school, credentials usually need to be reviewed to determine whether they are recognized by the school and/or meet school requirements.
The Canadian Information Centre for International Credentials (CICIC) has detailed information about applying to study in Canada with international credentials. Each post-secondary school has its own process for evaluating previous education—some do the evaluation themselves, and some use an outside organization. There are six organizations in Canada that can do an academic credential assessment.
Contact the admissions offices of the schools you want to apply to, so that you can learn about their processes. Settlement.org suggests asking questions like:
- Will the school do the evaluation, or do I need another organization to do it?
- If the school does the evaluation, is there a fee?
- If another organization does the evaluation, which organizations can I use?
- Which documents do you need (transcripts, diplomas, letters, etc.)?
- Can I give you the documents myself, or does my former school have to send them to you?
- Can I submit photocopies of the documents?
- Do the documents need to be translated into English?
Admissions processes can take several months, so make sure to leave yourself plenty of time to meet the application deadlines.
Programs for trained professionals
Many newcomers to Canada are internationally trained professionals who would like to work in their field and may consider completing a bridging program to become certified to work in Canada. Bridging programs can provide several services, including evaluation of skills, previous education, and workplace experience, language training, and/or exam preparation. Below are links to sites that have information on employment bridging by province:
- Alberta: Employment & Training Programs and Services (Alberta Government)
- British Columbia: Services and programs for newcomers (WelcomeBC)
- Manitoba: Summary of Bridging and Gap Training Programs in Manitoba for Internationally Educated Professionals (Manitoba Labour and Immigration)
- Nova Scotia: Find Employment – Bridging Programs (Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia)
- Ontario: Work in your profession or trade (Government of Ontario)
The CICIC also has information on how to assess your professional qualifications to work in Canada.
Canada InfoNet, a career guidance centre, offers an online program to help approved immigrating professionals, who are arriving in Canada within two to 12 months, build a career anywhere in the country.
Skilled workers can consider joining a professional immigrant network (PIN). These networks help their members find opportunities and prepare to work in Canada. You can search the PINs Directory to find one for your field.
English and French are the two official languages of Canada. When you apply to post-secondary schools, you may need to prove that you can speak either English or French. According to the Government of Canada website, these language tests and certificates are widely accepted:
Students can apply for loans and grants through provincial and territorial student aid offices to help pay for school tuition. The amount of money a student receives is calculated when they apply, and it depends on a few factors, such as their family income, where they live, and whether they have a permanent disability. The Canada Student Loans Program provides financial support to Canadian citizens and permanent residents through grants and loans. You are required to pay back loans over time, but you do not need to pay back grants.
Many post-secondary schools also offer scholarships for students, and you can apply for the ones you are eligible for. Schools usually award different scholarships based on academic performance or financial need.
Making the most of your experience
Post-secondary school can provide you with more than just an education. If you attend a university or college, take the time to explore its services and extracurricular opportunities.
Many schools offer different types of services and benefits for students. This might include access to campus health clinics, free or low-cost gym memberships, and public transit passes, among others. Many local services like restaurants, grocery stores, and retail shops offer discounts to students, too.
Most university and college campuses have clubs and activities you can join. Participating in an extracurricular activity is a chance to explore your interests, meet new people, and have fun. If you are looking for a job you can do while in school, there are often part-time jobs on campus. For example, some students work at a food court or the library. Getting involved outside of class is a great way to learn more about yourself and what you enjoy.
There is a lot to consider if you plan to apply to university or college in Canada as a newcomer. Start by looking around online and talking to people from the schools that interest you so that they can answer your specific questions. There are great programs of all kinds at Canadian schools—with the right research, you can find one that suits you.