Higher Education

Universities, tuitions and qualifications

Higher education in Canada is often referred to as post-secondary education, and refers to study beyond the secondary school level and usually assumes that a student has undertaken 13 years of study and has a GED.

Students must usually take a University Transfer Course at a college for one year before attending a university. Mature students aged over 25 are also admitted to these courses, whether or not they have a GED, but must take GED ‘equivalency exams’.

For students who don’t go to university, post-secondary education continues at community colleges, which are low-fee colleges with one to three-year programmes in a range of practical and para-professional skills, ranging from graphic design to nursing, taught under the broad categories of Arts, Business, Health Services, and Science and Technology. For information and a list of colleges contact the Association of Canadian Community Colleges (200-1223 Michael Street N, Ottawa, ON K1J 7T2, 613-746 2222, www.accc.ca ).

Over 40 per cent of Canadian high school graduates go on to some sort of higher education. There are three main levels of higher education in Canada: undergraduate studies (bachelor’s degree), graduate studies (master’s degree) and postgraduate studies (doctorate). Canada has 77 universities and 146 community colleges, with a wide variety of admission requirements and programmes. The total annual university enrolment is around 600,000 full-time and some 250,000 part-time students, over half of whom are female and around 30,000 are overseas students. The academic standards of colleges and universities vary greatly, and some institutions are better known for the quality of their social life or sports teams than for their academic achievements. Establishments range from vast educational ‘plants’, offering the most advanced training available, to small intimate private academies emphasising personal instruction and a preference for the humanities or experimentation.

Tuition fees

Tuition fees increased dramatically in the ’90s and have more than doubled since 1990. Some universities offer programmes that are completely funded by student fees, e.g. Queen’s University in Kingston (Ontario) charges well over $50,000 for its two-year Master of Business Administration (MBA) programme. Studying at Canadian universities costs more for international students than for Canadian students. In the academic year 2005/2006, a Canadian student studying engineering paid $4,677 and a Canadian studying an arts course paid $4,028, while a foreign student paid just under three times these amounts. In recent years, many students have become immigrants in order to reduce their tuition fees. You can check the latest tuition fees in MacLean’s Guide to Canadian Universities.

The cost of living can vary considerably from area to area and is, not surprisingly, highest in the major cities. Health insurance is essential and compulsory, although students may be automatically enrolled in the university health insurance plan. Many families participate in savings and investment schemes to finance their children’s college education. In the 1998 budget, the Canadian government introduced several new schemes to help fund education, including enhancements to Registered Education Savings Plans, which are savings schemes to fund post-secondary education with tax-breaks. The money in a plan isn’t taxed until a student starts to draw on it and because most students are on low incomes the tax payable is far less than it would otherwise have been. If the designated student doesn’t go on to post-secondary education, another child can be named or the funds in the plan can be transferred to the parent/grandparent’s own Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP). Other plans include one that allows adults to withdraw money from their RRSPs without paying tax, provided they spend the money on their own education, and a ten-year ‘Canadian Millennium Scholarship’ scheme to help needy students fund their higher education. A useful book describing these schemes is Head Start – How To Save For Your Children’s or Grandchildren’s Education by Gordon Pape & Frank Jones (Stoddart Publishing).

Many students obtain part-time employment to finance their studies, during term-time and summer breaks (foreign students should check in advance whether their visa allows such employment), while others receive grants, scholarships and loans to help meet their living expenses. Scholarships are awarded directly by universities as well as by fraternal, civic, labour and management organisations. Although public universities don’t usually provide financial aid to foreign students, it’s possible to obtain a scholarship or partial scholarship for tuition fees from a private university. The federal government provides student loans and may also pay some of your fees and living expenses (see www.hrsdc.gc.ca , the website of Human Resources and Skills Development, which has details of the Canada Student Loans Program). From 2005/2006, Canada Access Grants have been introduced for students from low-income families and those with permanent disabilities. For further details, see the website of the appropriate provincial government. The average debt for an undergraduate in the final year of study is nearly $20,000, and owing up to around $40,000 at the end of a four-year course isn’t unusual; you can owe a daunting $100,000 at the end of a Masters degree course!

Entry qualifications

Entry qualifications for Canadian colleges and universities vary considerably; generally the better the university (or the better the reputation), the higher the entrance qualifications. Some specialist schools, such as law schools, have a standard entrance examination. Usually overseas qualifications that qualify students to enter a university in their own country are taken into consideration. It’s also necessary for mature students returning to full or part-time college education to provide any diplomas or certificates showing the education level they’ve attained, otherwise they must take basic tests. Whatever your qualifications, each application is considered on its merits. All foreign students require a thorough knowledge of English (French in Quebec) and those who aren’t of English (or French) mother tongue must take a TOEFL/TOFFL test. Contact individual universities for details of their entrance requirements.

Applications must be made to the Director of Undergraduate Admissions at colleges and universities. If you plan to apply to highly popular colleges and universities, such as those in Toronto, you must apply in August (or autumn) for admission in the following autumn term (August/September), although it’s recommended to start the process 18 months in advance. For less popular universities, the latest a foreign student can apply for September admission is March of the same year, as overseas applications usually take at least six months to process. The number of applicants each university receives per available place varies considerably depending on the university. You would be wise not to make all your applications to universities where competition for places is at its fiercest (unless you’re a genius). It’s best to apply to three universities of varying standards, e.g. speculative, attainable and safe.

Societies and clubs

All colleges and universities have a huge variety of societies and clubs, many organised by the students’ union or council, which is the centre of campus social activities. Canadian universities usually have excellent sports facilities and some provide full academic scholarships to athletes.

There are many books providing information about Canadian universities and colleges, including MacLean’s Guide to Canadian Universities (also available on the website www.macleans.ca/universities ), The Complete Guide To Canadian Universities and Your Guide To Canadian Colleges, both by Kevin Paul (Self Counsel Press Inc.). Moving Publications publish a Guide to Canadian Universities and the Student’s Guide to Financial Survival. Canadian college catalogues are available from high school guidance offices, libraries and bookstores.

There are also many internet sites that provide information about Canadian universities and colleges, including www.schoolfinder.com , www.looksmart.com  and www.uwaterloo.ca/canu/index.html . Many provincial departments of higher education have a toll-free ‘education hotline’ where you can obtain information about all aspects of higher and further (adult) education. You can also contact the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (350 Albert Street, Suite 600, Ottawa, ON K1R 1B1, 613-563-1236, www.aucc.ca ).

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