Canadian Education System

Man Standing in Front of School BuildingThe Canadian Education system comprises of primary, secondary, and tertiary education. The
primary and secondary education is grouped as K-12, which is short for “Kindergarten to Grade 12”. Tertiary education, more commonly referred to post-secondary education in North America, is attained at universities, colleges, CEGEPs, and vocational schools, where students can earn undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, diplomas and certificates.

Primary and Secondary (K-12) Education

The Canadian K-12 school system offers three different schooling options: public, private, and independent.

Public schools are funded by the provincial government and must follow provincial curriculum. These schools are overseen by a Board of Trustees pertaining to the school’s specific community.

Private schools operate under the regulations of each province or territory. Most regions require private schools to be registered with their ministries of education and follow provincial curriculum. They may operate differently depending on the region.

Independent schools are not-for-profit and are overseen by a Board of Governors. These schools are licensed by the provinces they operate in and must comply with provincial standards. The key difference between private and independent schools is that private schools are for profit, while independent schools have charitable statuses.

Many international students begin their Canadian education at a secondary school, which starts in Grade 9 and are more commonly known as high schools. ApplyBoard has contracts with many Canadian high schools and school boards, including the Toronto District School Board and the Calgary Board of Education, which accept students in primary as well as secondary/high schools. Login to the ApplyBoard Platform to view the full list of our K-12 partnerships, admission requirements, processes, and fees.

Post-Secondary (Tertiary) Education

After the successful completion of secondary (high) school, students can pursue post-secondary education, which includes certificate, diploma, and degree programs at undergraduate and graduate studies level. Post-secondary education is offered at public and private vocational schools, CEGEPs, colleges, and universities. Post-secondary institutions that are approved to host international students are referred to Designated Learning Institute (DLI).

Types of Post-Secondary Institutions

In some parts of the world, the words “college” and “university” are often used interchangeably to refer to all post-secondary education. In Canada, the two are very distinct in terms of their program offerings, requirements and teaching styles, although some overlap is starting to emerge between the program offerings at colleges and universities.


There are over 103 universities in Canada, offering students over 30,000 undergraduate (Bachelor’s) and graduate (Master’s and PhD) degree programs. ApplyBoard is partnered with many of the most popular and well-known Canadian universities, including the University of Waterloo, Queen’s University, the University of Western Ontario, Yorkville University and more.

Visit the ApplyBoard website to see all the Canadian universities with whom ApplyBoard is partnered.

Universities provide well-rounded academic education with theoretical and practical components. Due to the in-depth curriculum, undergraduate (Bachelor’s) university programs are typically three or four years long, though some two-year Associate Bachelor’s degree programs are available.

A Bachelor’s degree is typically required for acceptance into professional programs, such as medicine or law, as well as for academia and research-based careers. A Bachelor’s degree is also required to pursue any postgraduate degrees, which can be course-based or research-based Master’s, followed by a PhD, which is the highest level of academic standing students can achieve.


Canada is home to over 130 colleges, many of whom are ApplyBoard partners, including Conestoga College, Seneca Polytechnic, Centennial College, George Brown College, Humber College, and Red River College. For a complete list of ApplyBoard’s Canadian college partners, log in to the ApplyBoard Platform.

Colleges in Canada focus on applied and technical education that is specifically geared towards a career. Class sizes are small, with a lower student-to-instructor ratio, which allows teachers to provide personalized attention and more practical or hands-on learning opportunities.

Students graduating from a college program typically earn a diploma, though some colleges are now accredited to offer degree programs where the hands-on, technical training is supplemented by academic course work.

Chart Showing Differences Between University and College in Canada

University Alternatives

Universities have been the default choice of post-secondary education for many years. However, an increasing number of both Canadian and international students are now opting for a college education, either as a stand-alone option or to supplement university training. In 2017, 40% of international students in Canada were enrolled in colleges, while another small percentage (~2%) were studying in CEGEP (Quebec) and in other vocational schools.

Chart Showing Types of Educational Institutions International Students Attend


CEGEP, which stands for Collège D’Enseignement Général et Professionnel, and translates to “General and Vocational College” is a type of post-secondary institution that is only present in the province of Quebec. A CEGEP offers pre-university and technical programs which lead to “Diploma of College Studies”, equivalent to grade 12 and the first year of university studies. For students in Quebec, completion of CEGEP is a prerequisite for admission into Year two (of four) in Quebec universities.

Vocational Schools

Vocational schools (also called career, technical, and trade schools) offer occupation-specific programs geared towards helping students go directly from school into their chosen careers. These programs can range from a few months to one-to-two years, and often include a work component. Examples of vocational training programs include medical assisting, automotive repair, flight training, culinary arts, and computer support.

Graduates from a vocational school/career program earn a completion certificate from their school. Though often referred to as “career diploma” by vocational schools, it should be noted that these certificates are not equivalent to college diplomas.

Designated Learning Institutions (DLIs)

When deciding where to study and what to study, we recommend first confirming that an institution is accredited as a Designated Learning Institution (DLI). DLIs are approved by the government to offer a letter of acceptance to international students, leading to the possibility of a study permit.

While students can study at other schools, only students at DLIs are eligible to work during study. Learn more about the eligibility criteria in the Working While Studying section of this course.

Furthermore, only graduates from the approved list of programs at DLIs are eligible for the Post-Graduate Work Permit (PGWP), a legal document which allows students to stay and work in Canada after graduation. Learn more about PGWP and its eligibility criteria in the Working and Staying in Canada after Graduation section of this course.

The list of designated learning institutes, and which of their study programs (if any) are PGWP-eligible, can be viewed here.

Program Types and Designations

The designation earned upon the completion of an academic program depends on the type of program and the type of post-secondary institution. The designations offered in the Canadian post-secondary education system include degrees, diplomas, and certificates.

Degrees are typically granted by universities after the completion of an academic program:

  • Bachelor’s degrees are awarded after four years of full-time study. Although uncommon, some three-year Bachelors and two-year Associate Bachelor’s degrees also exist in Canada.
  • Master’s degrees are available after a Bachelor degree for further specialization in a student's chosen subject, and are typically one to two years in duration. They could be course-based, such as an MBA or research/thesis-based.
  • Doctorate or PhD programs are typically research-based and require students to have found a research supervisor at the university they are applying to. A PhD is typically earned in three to seven years and cannot be pursued without a Master’s degree first.

Diplomas are earned after the completion of a college program and fall into one of the following three categories:

  • A regular diploma is granted at the end of an accredited two-year program.
  • An advanced diploma is granted after the completion of a three-year program.
  • A postgraduate diploma programs are one-to-two years in length and can be pursued after a regular/advanced diploma or a Bachelor’s degree.

Certificates are awarded after completion of short courses in a particular subject. Certificate programs are typically less than a year in duration and can be offered by universities, colleges, and vocational schools.

Levels of Post-Secondary Education

Post-secondary education is two-fold, including both undergraduate (UG) and postgraduate (PG) studies. Undergraduate studies is the first level of post-secondary education that students must attain before pursuing further higher studies in the form of Masters, PhD and postgraduate diplomas and certificates.


Flexible Study Pathways

One of the best things about the Canadian education system is the flexibility it offers to students. Students can combine their education experience with the various degree, diploma, and certificate programs at different Canadian post-secondary institutions to suit their interests, career goals, and learning preferences.

For example, many students opt to go to college first and earn a diploma before obtaining their Bachelor’s degree at a university. Sometimes, students switch from one program to another at the same school or even transfer to a different institution altogether as they discover new interests and strengths. It is also common for students to couple their Bachelor’s degree with a postgraduate diploma afterwards to gain more hands-on, industry-focused experience in their chosen field.

Canadian post-secondary institutions share a strong relationship which makes it easy for students to transfer between different levels and types of education. In other words, courses completed at one institution are recognized by the other, thus ensuring that the student is not retaking similar courses.

Man Sitting with School Items Around Him

Pathway Programs

Students who wish to study in Canada may first attend a prerequisite or preparatory program to meet the entry requirements for their desired degree or diploma program. This is called a pathway program. Pathway programs bridge the gap between the qualifications from a student’s home country and the level needed to enter into a post-secondary institution in Canada.

English Language Pathway Programs

English language programs are the most common type of pathway programs pursued by students wanting to study in Canada. The language programs are designed to get the student’s language skills up to the level required for admission in their desired school program. These programs also include a social component with events and activities that help students become accustomed to the Canadian culture and seamlessly transition into their life in Canada.

Many Canadian colleges and universities offer English language programs through their own English Language Institutes. Students graduating from those programs can enroll directly into the academic programs at those colleges/universities, provided that they meet the academic requirements.

In some cases, students can simultaneously apply for admission into the language program and into their academic program. If they meet the academic admission criteria, they will receive a conditional offer of admission, which is contingent upon the successful completion of the language program. This is a great way for the student to be sure they will be able to study at their desired post-secondary institution before enrolling into its language program.

Did you know that ApplyBoard has partnerships with many English Language Institutes in Canada? Find out which of our partner schools have English Language Institutes and the types of pathway programs they offer on the ApplyBoard Platform.

Note that at some institutions, a student can begin taking academic courses while also participating in English language classes and activities.

Language pathway programs are also offered by IELTS, TOEFL, and other recognized language assessment bodies, as well as by private preparatory education providers, such as Kaplan and Pearson.

Academic Pathway Programs

Academic pathway programs focus on academic subjects, offering students foundational courses in math, the sciences, business, the arts, etc., to improve their subject knowledge and to meet the prerequisite course requirements for admission into undergraduate and graduate programs.