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International college students laughing; image used for HSBC Types of post secondary education institutions in Canada article page.

Types of post-secondary education institutions in Canada

Increasingly, international students have started choosing Canadian universities for higher education. Approximately, out of the 572,000 international students studying in the country/region last year, Indian students made up over 172,000 of the student population, making India one of the top five countries/regions to send students to Canada. Some reasons for this could be attributed to higher costs and instability in traditional destinations of choice such as the United States and the United Kingdom. In 2017, India overtook France and is now the second most common citizenship of overseas students at university level in Canada. Given the number of students interested in applying to Canada, it is important to understand the post-secondary educational landscape in the country/region.

An interesting feature of the education system in Canada is that the country/region has two main types of post-secondary institutions–universities and colleges. Unlike in other countries/regions, the terms ‘university’ and ‘college’ are not interchangeable. Historically, these were simplistically defined by their degree-granting capacities; universities granted degrees and colleges granted only diplomas and certifications.

However, with the ever-changing education landscape, many institutions are now both degree and non-degree granting. Now, the definition of a ‘university’ is an educational institution focusing on academic programmes (political science, history and art) or professional programmes (law, business and engineering). A ‘college’ is more vocational and provides training in trades and applied fields. There are also a few accredited public universities that offer bachelor's degrees, along with certificates and diplomas at the graduate level. The University of Toronto, for instance, gives students the opportunity to study and be awarded a Graduate Diploma in Professional Accounting (GDipPA).

According to the Canadian Bureau for International Education, in 2017, approximately 75% of international students in Canada were pursuing post-secondary studies. Out of this, 57% were studying in a university programme, 41% were studying in a college programme and 2% in CEGEP (Collège d'enseignement général et professionnel), which are publicly funded pre-university colleges in the province of Quebec.

Another salient feature of Canadian post-secondary education is that education is under the purview of each province and territory, with support from the federal government. This leads to differences in how each region delivers its education programmes. Each province has its own ministry in charge of post-secondary education. For example, the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities helps students navigate the 20 public universities, 24 colleges and 400+ private career (or vocational) colleges in Ontario. Below are the range of programmes offered at universities and colleges in Canada.

What are the certifications offered at universities in Canada?

  • Bachelor’s degree (four to five years)
    Students usually take four years to complete a bachelor’s degree, with the exception of universities in Quebec, where this degree is completed over three years. This is the most common path taken by high school graduates. Students enrolled in co-op programmes or others involving practical curriculum may take up to five years. Over the first year or two, students typically receive general academic knowledge, post which they pick a ‘major’ or speciality, which they study in-depth until the completion of their degree. Students can study a range of subjects including those in the fields of management, business, science and the arts.
  • Postgraduate diplomas and certificates (up to one year)
    These programmes are typically used to supplement a student’s bachelor’s degree by showing further specialisation or in-depth knowledge in a specific area. Some diplomas and certificates do give students the option of transferring into master’s degrees upon completion. Common subjects studied are sales and marketing, human resource management and other business-related fields.
  • Master’s degree (one to three years)
    A master’s degree in Canada is structured similar to other countries/regions, helping students build on what they have studied at the undergraduate level. These programmes involve conducting original research, writing a thesis, working on a project and undertaking exams.
  • Doctorate degree (four to six years)
    One of the highest academic degrees a student can strive for is a PhD or other doctorate (research-based) degrees. As such, individuals spend two to three years full-time in their academic coursework, while the rest of the time is spent conducting original research for their thesis or dissertation. Popular fields include education, healthcare and STEM-related fields, among others.

What are the certifications offered at colleges in Canada?

  • Certificate programmes (up to one year)
    These provide students with entry-level skills and knowledge for their particular vocation. Sought after certificate programmes include those in fields like business. Jobs which students can pursue would include marketing manager, project manager, executive assistant and office administrator. Most universities and colleges offer these programmes with varying lengths.
  • Diploma (at least two years, could be more)
    These aim to equip students with the skills and knowledge required for a specific trade, technical or vocational careers such as in the construction and automotive industry. These programmes occasionally offer co-ops, internships or apprenticeships which can extend the course beyond two years. Sometimes, the credits earned or courses completed in these programmes can be transferred to a bachelor’s degree.
  • Applied degree (usually four years)
    Combining the academic focus of an undergraduate degree with practical skills and experience, these programmes aim to provide students with the skills required to gain employment above entry-level in their industry. With a stronger emphasis on practical training than their counterparts in a ‘traditional’ undergraduate programme, this degree helps to provide a competitive advantage for those when entering the job market. Since applied degrees are usually created in response to demand from industry, the curriculum is often times developed in tandem with those industries, keeping the degree current and relevant. These degrees would be ideal for students with a career-focused goal in mind. It is important to note that students with an applied degree may not get direct entry into a graduate programme.
  • Associate degree (two years)
    This degree can be considered a type of a ‘foundation’ programme in a traditional area of study like the arts, social sciences or pure science. Modelled on a bachelor's degree, students study a range of academic subjects and can specialise in one subject. These degrees also give students the option to transfer into a university (third-year) if accepted. In some cases students have the option of Associate of Arts (Business) degree or Associate of Arts (Science) degree.

Both universities and colleges welcome international students. Each has policies and infrastructure in place to help these students adapt to their new environment. Initiatives include counselling, international student clubs and orientation programmes. The International Students Centre at the University of Toronto, for instance, helps international students feel welcome and orient themselves to their new surroundings by discussing important matters such as visas, work permits and banking. They also hold mixers and networking events for students to meet other international students. While accommodation is usually available to international students, student housing resources vary across all types of institutions.

In 2017, the acceptance rate for international students at the University of Toronto increased by 22%. In colleges, it was observed that the number of international students has risen over the years as well, but it was the students from India which showed the most increase in 2017 by 42.6%. With the evident growth of international students in Canada over the last few years, it seems likely that Canada is here to stay as one of the leading destinations for higher education globally.

Article author: Aditi Bakht, Content Specialist, The Red Pen


The University of Toronto; Canadian Bureau of International Education; Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities and The Red Pen


The Article is published by The Red Pen, an independent third party not affiliated with HSBC. None of the Information represents the opinion of, counsel from, recommendation or endorsement by HSBC or Its Affiliates, Officers, Employees or Agents.

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