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The thirteen admissions systems of Canada

Regionally-focused, teacher led, and league-table free - Alex Usher thinks the Canadian system offers a very different experience for university applicants.
This article is more than 3 years old

Alex Usher is President of Higher Education Strategy Associates, a consultancy based in Toronto, Canada.

The first thing you need to understand about university admissions in Canada is that it is not one system but thirteen.

Most of the admissions architecture is pretty similar across the country and so generalizations are possible, but there are some quirks here and there, which I will cover briefly below. Similarly, you need to understand that for the most part due to its size Canada does not have a national market in higher education. Only about one in seven students in the country leaves their province of origin for education, and a much higher fraction of Canadian than UK students lives at home with parents throughout their course of study. The realistic “choice set” for most secondary students is to no more than 3 institutions which happen to be in commuting distance.

Ahead by a century

The most important thing to understand about Canada, though, is that the status hierarchy among institutions is much weaker than in the UK. Our funding system drives universities which wish to be research-intensive to also accept large numbers of undergraduate students, so our most prestigious universities also happen to be among our largest. The three most prestigious institutions (the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia and McGill) educate somethings like 13% of all undergraduates, and the U-15 group of universities – more or less equivalent to the Russell Group in the UK – are responsible for about 50% of the country’s enrolments. This really reduces the need to make fine discriminations between students via an examinations system: good students will get into a good school, somewhere.

In large part because of this relatively flat hierarchy, there has never been much call for any mandatory final exams at the end of secondary school in order to make the minute discriminations in quality that A level exams do. Good students are going to get into a good school, somewhere. In fact, most provinces and territories, including Ontario and British Columbia, have no mandatory provincial exams at all, and university admission is based solely on graded coursework the final two years of secondary school (what we call Grade 11 and Grade 12).

Legal age life at variety store

In these provinces, the model of admissions works as follows. Students apply to universities sometime between January and March in their final year, with the date varying somewhat by province. School Boards then forward students’ secondary school marks electronically to universities, which then make their offers about eight weeks later, based on a set of marks which covers grade 11 (the next-to-last year of secondary school) and the first two-thirds of grade 12 (the final year of secondary). In theory, the offers of acceptance are accompanied by text which says that offers are conditional on students maintaining their academic performance in their final semester of secondary school, but in practice final semester grades are patrolled very lightly if at all.

Alberta, Manitoba and Newfoundland are exceptions which do have provincial exams, but in none of these cases do examination marks outweigh course-work in the calculation of a final grade. First of all, examinations do not exist in all courses (they tend do in all the core areas like language, math and science) and second of all they do not account for a majority of a final grade in the course (30% in Alberta and Manitoba, and 50% in Newfoundland). And perhaps more to the point, because these exams are often timed so as to come after the university admission decision, they are largely irrelevant to that process. Universities issue admissions which in theory are conditional on exam results but in practice are not.

Quebec is a whole different story because there is a level of education in between secondary education and university, which is known as les collèges d’enseignement general et professional, or CEGEPs. The rest of North America is on a 6-6-4 primary-secondary-tertiary sequence for education, while Quebec is 6-5-2-3. The transition from CEGEP to university does not entail any standardized province-wide exams, but the transition from secondary to CEGEP does entail a provincial exam in the spring of the fifth year of secondary school. This exam, which is worth 50 per cent of total marks if a students’ exam mark is below the course mark, or 100 per cent if it is above it, is more a check on secondary school quality than on student ability: most CEGEP programs are open access and only a few are selective enough to require the use of exam results.

The boys in the bright white sports car

The obvious question this approach poses to observers from other countries is: how can universities be sure that secondary school marks have a uniform meaning? How do they know than an 85 per cent at school A is similar to an 85 per cent at school B? The answer, for the most part, is that while institutions are in a position to know this – they can compare students’ high schools grades to their university grades and get a sense of which schools are “easy graders” without too much difficulty – but many of them simply don’t care because the variations aren’t big enough to affect the quality in the classrooms. That said, some schools or programs where admissions are competitive do in effect develop their own internal “grading curve” for each high school based on previous admissions. This is a benefit of each school having a relatively limited catchment area – it is not impossible for admissions officers to know all the major feeder secondary schools relatively well and make well-reasoned judgments on that basis. The exception here is Quebec, where there actually is a province-wide system for adjusting students’ grades according to the strength of the CEGEP, known as the Cote R.

Taking care of business

In short, Canada’s admission systems are much more relaxed and laid back than the UK’s. There is little belief that high-stakes exams actually measure much of anything so they are not seen as a necessary step in admissions. There is no sense anywhere that the entirety of secondary course-work needs to be completed before admissions decisions are taken: an 80 per cent sample of the final two years of secondary are good enough.

Canada’s geography and much more limited student mobility means most universities are dealing with a small enough number of feeder high schools that they can form expert judgement about the quality of each without having to rely on standardized measures. And in any case, the prestige hierarchy is sufficiently flat that universities don’t need to discriminate all that finely between candidates. This flexibility permits Canadian secondary school students quite some leisure to decide between schools: all of them know relatively early in Spring which schools have admitted them, which leaves them lots of time to choose based on individual fit.

This system works because of some fairly idiosyncratic features of the Canadian system (in particular geography) which are not necessarily portable to other countries. But it does show that it is possible to run a major university system without either curriculum-based exams like UK A-levels or psychometric exams like the American SATs or university entrance exams like the Japanese Daigaku Nyūshi Sentā Shiken. Having less of a status hierarchy of institutions makes many things possible.

2 responses to “The thirteen admissions systems of Canada

  1. Also, some high demand programs such as law and medicine are so-called ‘second entry’ undergraduate programs which admit applicants on the basis of the early years of a relevant undergraduate program and an aptitude test such as the Law School Admission Test or the Medical College Admission Test.

  2. Nice chapter headings! I feel maybe “Complicated” could have had a place there; and perhaps “This is me in Grade 9”.

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