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Post secondary education in Canada

Many people in Canada further their studies with a post-secondary education (i.e., at a university, college or trades program), after high school.

This is not free to students, and acceptance to a university or college is not guaranteed. Students must apply to the school of their choice and be prepared to pay tuition fees. While some academic and athletic scholarship and bursaries are available, most students must pay for tuition, often with the help of student loans.

Going back to school is common for many adult newcomers to Canada as well, whether it’s to brush up on your language skills or upgrade your credentials in your field of expertise. Fact is, many skilled immigrants find they have to get some Canadian education to access their fields, especially for professions that are licensed in Canada like engineers, teachers and electricians.

It is important to remember that the education system in Canada is likely to be vastly different from the education system in your home country.

Indeed, Canada’s schools are diverse from each other. Canada has everything from internationally recognized universities such as University of Toronto, University of British Columbia and McGill University, to medium-sized colleges and universities, and to private technical and language institutes, including English as a Second Language (ESL) schools


Many Canadian universities are well respected across the world, including University of Toronto, McMaster University, McGill University, Concordia University, University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, among others.

University studies focus on the development of critical thinking and research skills as students work toward a bachelor’s (undergraduate) degree, a master’s (graduate) degree or a PhD (doctorate) degree.

Class sizes tend to be large, with some lecture halls counting hundreds of students. Although attending smaller tutorials or labs may also be part of the class requirement.

Many universities also offer student housing, and lots of extracurricular and sport activities.

Colleges, university colleges and technical institutes

Colleges, university colleges and technical institutes offer a range of applied programs that are typically focused on preparing you for a career. At one of these schools, you will probably be working toward a diploma, certificate, an applied degree or transfer credits toward a university program. Some colleges also offer apprenticeship training for trades. The hybrid “university college” may also offer undergraduate degrees.

Class sizes range, but are typically smaller than in universities. Tuition rates are also less expensive.

Private colleges

Private career colleges are private businesses that could be either for-profit or non-profit. They do not receive government funding like publicly funded colleges and universities, so fees may be quite high.

They offer certificate and diploma programs in many fields such as business, electronics and health services, with flexible learning schedules, enrolment at many different times during the year and compressed programs that deliver training over a short time. Some private institutions, including some English language schools, are not regulated by the government, so be sure to do plenty of research before you pay.

When and how to apply to a post-secondary school

Each educational institution has its own deadlines and rules for admission. Some schools run on a three-semester basis, and accept students at the beginning of each semester, while others run on a yearly schedule, with application deadlines in early spring.

Note there is also generally a non-refundable admissions fee you must pay when submitting your application.

Contact the admissions department at your school of interest for more information. You can also obtain more information about what programs the school offers and requirements for admission in their calendar or on their website.
Each school will also have its own criteria for recognizing international academic qualifications. And it may also have certain requirements for the translation and authentication of your academic credentials.
You may be required to get your academic credentials assessed through a credentials evaluation service. Such agencies charge a fee so make sure the school will accept an assessment done by one of these independent agencies.
Depending on the faculty or program you’re applying to, you may also be required to show proof of specific courses. For example, in order to be eligible to apply for certain programs at the university level, a student must take certain classes in high school. English and Math 12 are almost always necessary and must be completed with a high-standing grade.

Western education also places a high importance on extra-curricular activities such as volunteering, being accomplished in sports, languages and such. Make sure that your child is pursuing his/her hobbies and save all sorts of distinctions like trophies, as they will come in handy in the future. Enrolling your child in sports is certainly not cheap in Canada (this is likely the case in comparison to your country of origin). However, the money will be well spent. Practicing music or a sport will add to your child’s social skills and will be noted on the university application as an extracurricular distinction.

Helping your child choose post-secondary studies

Post-secondary education is very much self-guided in Canada. Aside from a small number of required courses, post-secondary students are free to choose what subjects they would like to study. A person working toward a political science degree may take a welding course just because it fits his/her schedule.

An immigrant parent whose own education experience consisted of a pre-determined set of subjects may be concerned about their child’s choices. Speak with your child to determine what is important to him/her: being a well-rounded person or taking the most convenient courses to finish the degree faster.

Communicating with your children is very important. Do not make a mistake of thinking that at this point your child is old enough to choose for themselves. While in many realms it could be true, immigrant children face many barriers and understanding the post-secondary education system is one of the most important steps for them.

Cost of tuition

Tuition fees vary from school to school, and even program to program. Tuition for universities will be higher than colleges, just as tuition for graduate studies will be higher than for undergraduate.

Tuition fees will be the bulk of your academic expense, but not your only costs. Count on paying for various administrative and student fees, as well as books for each course.

If you’re studying as an adult, it may be difficult to go back to school full time and also maintain a job to pay for rent and your bills, so you may feel like going back to school isn’t a viable option. However, adding some Canadian educational credentials to your resumé could mean the difference between a job in your profession and a “survival” job. Note that many post-secondary institutions offer part-time and distance education courses geared toward working adults, so they can study and work at the same time.