Legislation, academic credentials, and quality-assurance matters

In each of Canada's ten provinces and three territories, legislation (act and regulation) is used to some extent by governments to establish, govern, recognize, or ensure the quality assurance of postsecondary educational programming.

Generally, it is the type of academic credential that has different models of oversight, rather than the institution type; however, these types of credentials tend to fall into patterns of universities providing degrees, colleges providing diplomas and certificates, and private career colleges providing vocational training.

This section addresses government relationships with types of academic credentials—recognizing the institutions as providers of those academic credentials, and how those credentials are quality assured.

Comprehensive review of this information: March 2022

There are five primary types of degrees offered in Canada:

  • 2-year associate degree (only offered in British Columbia)
  • 3-year bachelor's degree
  • 4-year applied/bachelor's/honours bachelor's degree
  • Master's degree
  • Doctoral degree

Most degrees are aligned with the Canadian Degree Qualifications Framework, which forms part of the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) Ministerial Statement on Quality Assurance of Degree Education in Canada.

You can also consult CICIC's diagram of academic credentials in Canada.

Public university degrees

In most provinces and territories, an act of provincial or territorial legislation provides an institution with the ability to grant degrees, to use the term “universities” in their legal name, and to govern themselves through a board of governors and, most often, a senate. Most public universities are able to provide any academic credential; however, accountability arrangements may be confined to certain subject areas (e.g., not all universities provide doctoral, medical, or legal programming).

Most publicly legislated universities are autonomous in academic matters, including the determination of their own quality-assurance policies and procedures. Universities have the power to set academic, admission, and graduation policies and standards; appoint faculty and staff; and undertake academic planning. Councils, member-based organizations, or government-appointed bodies have been established in most provinces and territories, with responsibility for planning and coordinating the development of the postsecondary system, in consultation with the institutions.

Thus, the approval of new and significantly revised programming is typically undertaken by either the ministry responsible for postsecondary education, or the council/agency responsible for quality assurance. Some provinces allow universities to self-regulate through member-based organizations (e.g., Council of Ontario Universities [COU]), or through voluntary agreements with government agencies (e.g., British Columbia). Other provinces, such as Alberta, allow each institution to be responsible for its own quality assurance (through governing councils and internal mechanisms), which is then relayed to the government.

Most public universities undergo an external institutional review process, as designed by their provincial or territorial oversight body (e.g., ministry, agency, council), and, through this process, are responsible for internal program quality reviews.

Public college and institute degrees

Public colleges and institutes in Canada typically offer diplomas and technical education. In some provinces and territories, these institutions may also be permitted to provide some degree-level programming (e.g., associate degree; 3- and 4-year bachelor's degrees). Some institutes may also provide applied master's programming.

The legislative oversight of government differs by province and territory, where some colleges are required to receive ministerial consent for each degree program (e.g., Ontario), while some institutes are granted autonomy, much like universities (e.g., British Columbia).

Private and out-of-province provider degrees

For many provinces with governmental approval, which sometimes takes the form of ministerial consent or statute, private and out-of-jurisdiction institutions (i.e., institutions from another province in Canada, or institutions from another country outside Canada) are permitted to provide all degree-level programming. Institutions themselves are not granted statutes; they must apply for an authorization to provide each degree for a set amount of time (typically 5 to 7 years). Private institutions may also seek permission to use the term “university,” but are not required to have the title in order to provide degrees.

Private and out-of-jurisdiction institutions undergo a quality-assessment process that is undertaken by provincial government authorities, and approved degrees are cyclically reviewed for academic rigour and institutional soundness.

Indigenous and theological degrees

Indigenous postsecondary education institutions (IPSIs) or theological schools that offer degree-level programming do so with differing oversight.

In most provinces and territories, IPSIs (which typically provide diploma-level programming) seek government authorization to provide degree programming. For example, in Ontario in 2017, the Indigenous Institutes Act delegated academic planning, approval, and quality-assurance powers to the Indigenous Advanced Education and Skills Council (IAESC).

In most provinces, theological schools have a private act that was introduced in a provincial Legislative Assembly, which allows them to provide bachelor's and master's theological degrees. However, theological schools are required to seek authorization to provide degree programming outside of the field.

Most common short-cycle, non-degree, and professional and technical credentials in Canada include:

  • Certificates
  • 1- to 2-year diploma
  • 3-year advanced diploma
  • Post-graduate certificate
  • Graduate diploma
  • Apprenticeship training

While there is no pan-Canadian description of these credentials, you may consult provincial and territorial qualifications frameworks, where the Alberta Credential Framework and the Ontario Qualifications Framework present those details.

You can also consult CICIC's diagram of academic credentials in Canada.

Public university diplomas and certificates

Under their acts of legislation, public universities are allowed to—and typically do—provide undergraduate and graduate diplomas (short, post-degree credentials). Since quality assurance expectations for these diplomas are not established in qualifications frameworks, and only some are established in quality frameworks, undergraduate and graduate diplomas are quality assured through internal processes. Public universities typically provide undergraduate and graduate degree-level certificates, rather than vocational or apprenticeship programming.

Public college and institute diplomas and certificates

Public colleges in Canada typically offer diploma, certificate, and post-graduate certificate programming. These public institutions usually work in collaboration with governments on diploma and certificate programming and quality assurance. Since there is a tight relationship between colleges and governments, most provinces and territories manage quality reviews internally.

In Ontario, provisions are slightly different, in that the provincial government has established curriculum College Program Standards, to which each public institution must adhere, as well as a member-based quality-assurance organization that performs institutional quality assurance and reviews adherence to program standards.

Indigenous and theological diplomas and certificates

Indigenous postsecondary education institutions (IPSIs) and theological schools that offer diploma- and certificate-level programming do so with differing oversight.

In most provinces and territories, IPSIs offer diplomas and certificates through coordination with the government (much like public colleges). For example, in Ontario in 2017, the Indigenous Institutes Act delegated academic planning, approval, and quality-assurance powers to the Indigenous Advanced Education and Skills Council (IAESC), which oversees all levels of programming in the institutions.

In most provinces and territories, theological schools have a private act of legislation that allows them to provide theological diplomas and certificates.

Private career college and language school diplomas and certificates

Private career colleges and institutes, which operate under a wide variety of names, are registered or licensed in most provinces, under a specific act of legislation for this type of institution. Registered or licensed providers are typically subject to compliance reviews.

Depending on the legislation, these reviews may involve: consumer protection for students; monitoring of the provision of programs; limits on advertising claims; or the imposition of standards for curricula and instructor qualifications. Private career colleges and institutes could also offer non-registered or licensed programs. For example, in some provinces, under current legislation, private career colleges are not required to be registered or monitored if they offer language-training programs; programs of less than 40 hours duration; programs that cost less than $1,000; or professional development and single-skill training programs.

Some provinces have their own framework for registration and oversight of language schools, while others have language schools registered or licensed as private career colleges, in order to host international students. For example, in Nova Scotia, the Language Schools Act, 2013 applies to these providers.

Apprenticeship training

Apprenticeship training combines workplace training and class instruction. Provincial and territorial legislation governing apprenticeship training may assign the responsibility for quality assurance to government, an arm's-length industry-led agency, and/or trade-specific advisory committees. These groups may establish standards and content for the in-class portion provided by colleges; monitor training quality; and oversee other aspects of quality assurance. Program standards are set using pan-Canadian or provincial/territorial occupation standards.

The Interprovincial Standards Red Seal Program promotes and facilitates the alignment of provincial and territorial apprenticeship training and certification across Canada; it also provides greater professional mobility of certified apprentices in moving from one province or territory to another in Canada. A provincial or territorial Certificate of Trades Qualification bearing the Red Seal provides training recognition in other provinces and territories in Canada; for employers, it is an assurance of quality training and certification to pan-Canadian standards.