Are you wondering if education is free in Canada? The quick answer is yes and no. The public schools are funded by taxes and available free to every child of Canadian residents until the 11th or 12th grade.
However, Canadians and international students pay for private schools and higher education.
If you’re new to Canada and plan to study here or immigrate with your kids, you might have plenty of questions about the school system in Canada.
The good news is that Canadian high school graduation diplomas are internationally recognized and Canada has many prestigious universities with a strong reputation at the global level.
In this post, I’ll dive into the average cost of tuition and information on how the Canadian education system works.
You might be interested in:
Basic Facts about Education in Canada
The schooling system in Canada varies from province to province because it’s not a federal responsibility. But generalities do exist.
By law, children in Canada must attend school from age 6 until age 15 or 16, depending on the province. In Ontario, school attendance is mandatory until 18 or graduation, whichever comes first.
95% of all children in Canada attend public schools. Teachers in all provinces must be qualified and certified/licensed.
There are both French and English language schools throughout Canada, with French schools being most numerous in the province of Quebec.
Outside Quebec, French public schools are often referred to as schools with French immersion programs in which all subjects are taught in French.
For most Canadians, getting a university or college education is important in landing a well-paid job and building a career.
Canada spends (public and private funds) roughly 5.2% of its GDP on education. Investment in education, as a percentage of the country’s GDP, has declined over the years.
However, regarding post-secondary education attainment, Canada has one of the highest numbers of any country in OECD— 92% of 25- to 64-year-olds hold upper secondary education.
Canadian School Funding / Jurisdiction
Although education in Canada is under the jurisdiction of the provinces, funding comes from all levels of government, including municipal property taxes, provincial taxes and federal taxes (a portion given to the provinces through transfer payments).
The federal government also provides funding for post-secondary education and the education of Aboriginals, armed forces and inmates of federal prisons.
Responsibility for the administration of elementary and secondary schools falls under the local elected school boards or commissions.
In some provinces, the provincial governments have become more involved, but these boards generally set local budgets, hire and negotiate with teachers (who are unionized) and shape school curriculum within provincial guidelines.
Full-time tuition varies significantly from school to school and field of study, so it isn’t easy to put a general figure on it.
Higher education is far from free.
On average, tuition fees for full-time undergraduate programs at the national level are CA$7,437, while undergraduate students pay CA$6,834.
Nova Scotia (CA$10,591), Ontario (CA$9,385) and British Columbia (CA$9,994) university students pay the highest tuition fees.
On the other hand, tuition fees in Newfoundland (CA$3,759) and Quebec (CA$3,582) are among the lowest in Canada, almost 50% lower than the national average.
Usually, a portion of the tuition fee, sometimes as much as 60%, is due before you start the academic year.
International Students Tuitions
Canadian universities rely on international tuition income and the fees reflect that.
Tuition fees for international students are significantly higher than for Canadians or permanent residents.
Foreign undergraduate students pay about four times more than Canadian students (CA$36 100 per year), while international graduate students pay about three times more (CA$21 100 per year). (Statistics Canada, 2022)
Of course, the fees vary depending on the field of study, the university and the province.
The living costs for university students in Canada are around CA$15 000 per year.
You also need to take into account the cost of books and supplies. This is where the costs can add up. Depending on the program, your books can cost upwards of CA$1000 for the year, sometimes much higher.
Science students can also assume higher costs due to the need for lab supplies.
Another expense if you study abroad in Canada is your study visa, which may include fees for Canadian immigration consultants to help with your application.
The federal government assists students who can prove that they don’t have sufficient resources to fund their own studies through the Canada Student Loans Program.
The provinces have complementary loan programs, but even with federal and provincial loans, most students have to work part-time and in the summer to keep up with school and living expenses.
However, the way some provincial loan programs are set up, the more you work, the less loan money you get.
Most student loan payments are due in monthly installments plus interest after six months from graduation. However, the annual interest you pay on your loans is tax deductible. Also, some loan programs have a loan forgiveness option in extreme circumstances.
Student loans are primarily available to Canadian citizens. However, some international students with protected status, such as refugees, might be eligible.
Universities and even some corporations offer financial aid in the form of scholarships and bursaries based on academic performance and/or financial need.
Canada Education System Grades and Ages
Generally, primary education starts at the kindergarten level at the age of 4 or 5 and continues to the end of grade 6, although some schools continue to grade 8. In some provinces, there is a junior high level, either grades 7 and 8 or 7, 8 and 9.
Secondary education, or high school, goes from grade 9 or 10 to grade 11 or 12, again depending on the province.
Some parents choose to place their children in pre-school before it is legally required to do so. For pre-school, children are usually aged 3 and 4 and attend only a half-day of ‘class’.
The focus is on basic education, like the alphabet, numbers, arts and crafts, songs and play.
Pre-school is a good option as an alternative to regular daycare if parents work.
Kindergarten to Grade 6
In elementary school, children have the same teacher for all their subjects, with a few exceptions. The curriculum focuses on reading, writing, maths, geography, history, science, social studies and introductory arts.
Students have to complete small projects and homework.
Grades 7 and 8
A child in grade 7 is about 12 or 13 years of age.
At this stage, a lot more is expected from the students and subjects are studied in greater detail and depth.
Often, each subject has a separate teacher so that students.
Students do not choose their subjects; the courses are all mandatory. They are instructed in English, French (not all provinces), maths, science, history, geography and physical education.
In many schools, mid-year and end-of-year examinations are given in addition to tests, assignments and essays.
Most provinces have grades 9 to 12, but Quebec students finish in grade 11 before entering the CEGEP system (junior college).
High school entails taking compulsory courses and having the option of choosing electives.
All schools offer a core curriculum mandated by the province. They differ in what electives they offer. Some schools are very academic-oriented, while others offer trade and technical courses.
Usually, the courses taken in the last year of high school are the ones universities and colleges look at when deciding whether or not to admit a student.
Most universities look at the overall average score of these courses when assessing a student’s application.
The academic year lasts from September to mid-May, although some programs run through the summer.
Some courses are also offered in the summer if you choose to accelerate your studies or if you fail a course.
A general undergraduate degree, if done full-time, usually takes three years, while an honors degree takes four years and often involves doing a thesis or major research project.
Masters programs vary from one to three years, and PhD programs range from four to seven years.
Professional degrees like medicine or law usually require a couple of years of working in the relevant field after the degree program.
One of the top universities in Canada are the University of Toronto, McGill University, University of Waterloo, University of British Columbia, University of Alberta and more.
Colleges and Trade Schools
Most trade school programs cost significantly less than university studies. They offer more specialized hands-on training geared to the job market.
Becoming licensed in a trade usually involves apprenticeship, theory and passing a provincial examination.
The range of courses and academic programs is extensive.
Canadian colleges offer everything from hairdressing and design to carpentry and business administration.
The best part is some programs include paid job training, which means you can earn income while you study in Canada.
Most colleges also offer continuing educational courses that run for a few months.
Canadian Education System vs American
Here are some of the basic differences between the Canadian and American education system
- Standardized Testing for University Admissions: The United States tends to emphasize standardized testing more, with assessments like the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) being widely used for college admissions. In contrast, Canadian universities don’t generally require the SAT for admission.
- Academic Evaluation for Post-Secondary Education: American students often have Grade Point Averages (GPAs), while Canadian students have percentage averages. American universities typically consider cumulative GPA (4-point grade system) when admitting students, while Canadian universities primarily look at average percentage marks from grades 11 and 12.
- Educational Philosophy: The Canadian education system is less competitive and more focused on inclusivity and holistic development than the American. On the other hand, the American education system may prioritize competition and offer more freedom for parents to choose their children’s schools.
- College vs University: In Canada, there is a distinction between universities (which grant degrees) and colleges (which grant certificates and diplomas). Canadian colleges are similar to institutions called “community colleges” in the US. In other words, if you want to attain a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in Canada, you should apply for university, not college. In the United States, the terms college and university are used interchangeably.
- Length of Bachelor’s Studies: In the USA, Bachelor’s degrees typically last for 4 years, while in Canada, Bachelor’s degree programs can sometimes be completed within 3 years. Canada also has an Honours Bachelor’s degree, which takes 4 years and is similar to the US Bachelor’s degree.
Free Education in Canada FAQ
Is education free for US citizens in Canada?
Generally, Canadian universities don’t provide free education for US citizens unless you get a fully funded scholarship as an international student.
Can I go to school in Canada as a US citizen?
You can study in Canada as a US citizen as long as you apply for a study permit and gain a letter of acceptance from a designated learning institution in Canada.
Is it cheaper to study in Canada or the USA?
Tuition fees for international students are lower in Canada than in the USA. It’s much easier to get a study permit in Canada and, consequently, a permanent residency. For Americans aspiring to study in Canada, tuition tends to be cheaper than the average private school tuition in the United States.
Is university free in Canada?
There are no tuition-free universities in Canada for both international or domestic students. However, some universities offer fully-funded scholarships that cover students’ complete education.
Which province in Canada is the cheapest to study?
Average tuition fees in Newfoundland and Quebec are among the lowest in Canada, almost 50% lower than the national average. However, knowledge of French might be a prerequisite to certain university programs in Quebec.
Is education free in Canada for immigrants?
The public schools are available free to every child of Canadian residents until the 11th or 12th grade. However, you’ll have to pay for private or higher education.
If you’re a temporary resident with a work or study permit in Canada, your child’s eligibility for a free public school education will depend on the rules of the school board in your community.