2017 marks Canada’s 150th birthday. In hono[u]r of friendly neighbor[u]rs in the North, let’s talk about liberal education in Canada. An American myself, I have lived in Toronto for nearly four years now, and am keen to tell my liberal education friends and colleagues in the United States what I’m beginning to know about liberal education in Canada. 

Let’s begin with the general postsecondary education landscape (less commonly called ‘higher education’ in Canada). The system is almost entirely publicly funded. Two primary types of institutions exist: universities and colleges. Universities grant university degrees, which typically take three to four years to complete. Colleges, also known as community colleges, provide diplomas, which typically take two to three years to complete, and certificate programs, which are one year or less in duration. Universities generally focus on the humanities, sciences, and professional programs, and colleges offer academics focused on career training and trades. 

With under 37 million people in the country, fewer institutions exist, serving the approximately 2 million students enrolled. Statistics Canada reports that in 2014/2015, there were more than 1.3 million students attending universities, and over 700,000 students attending colleges. Those university students specifically studying “liberal arts and sciences, general studies” account for 9 percent of the university population, according to the 2014 Statistics Canada data. 

‘Liberal Education’ as a term is not quite as widely used in Canada as it is in the United States. Perhaps it’s less frequently used, in part, because ‘liberal arts colleges’ per se, do not exist; and ‘college’ holds a different meaning than in the States. Yet ‘liberal arts education’ is very much part of the Canadian system. Universities Canada, a group that represents the nearly one hundred universities in Canada, asserts, 

The liberal arts are critical to Canadian innovation and prosperity. The arts and sciences disciplines produce a creative and well-rounded workforce highly valued by Canadian employers. The soft skills developed through liberal arts education—including relationship-building, communication and problem-solving skills, analytical and leadership abilities—are essential in a rapidly changing labour market. 

The liberal arts are undoubtedly a critical component of the Canadian postsecondary system and essential to civil society. Still, Canada, not unlike the United States, has seen a 20% decline in enrollment in liberal arts courses, especially since the global economic downturn of 2008 (Universities Canada, 2016). 

The Canadian preference for ‘liberal arts education’ does not mean that the term ‘liberal education’ is not used at all. Martin Hicks, Executive Director of Data & Statistics at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, explains, “‘Liberal education’ as a term is more often used in Canada to describe a rich, varied undergraduate experience.” In fact, I learned that one group of Canadian institutions—Acadia University, Bishop’s University, Mount Allison University, and St. Francis Xavier University—has recently decided to celebrate its rich, varied liberal education experience by forming the Maple League of Universities in 2016 (previously called the U4). As the Maple League stated at its inaugural event, “Our schools all share a unique and extraordinary undergraduate learning experience—and we are committed to our model of liberal education.” The student experience that these four residential, rural institutions offer is arguably most similar to that of many residential liberal arts colleges in the States (and at a fraction of the cost, I might add). 

Core courses and programs, which in the U.S. are generally a feature of the general education component of the liberal arts, do appear in Canada at places like St. Thomas University, the Arts One program at University of British Columbia, and the liberal arts college at Concordia University, to name a few. The Foundation Year Programme at University of King’s College in Nova Scotia is perhaps the most similar to a Great Books core curriculum found at Columbia and the University of Chicago, where all students take the same courses and engage in a shared intellectual experience. And like in the United States, there are varied conceptions of core courses (some mean required courses, others mean general education, and still others mean Great Books courses), but the tendency has been for Canadian postsecondary education to concentrate core programs in degree-bearing programs. The Liberal Studies program at Vancouver Island University is one such program.

Certainly measurement of student learning outcomes is happening in Canadian postsecondary education, but given that the whole system is publicly funded, no separate accreditation bodies exist other than government itself. The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) was created in 2005 to provide evidence-based research to improve the postsecondary education system in Ontario, and learning outcomes is one of their three stated priories in addition to access and system design. Interestingly, Ontario is the only province with such a body, but other provinces have contracted with HEQCO to conduct research on student learning outcomes for them. 

I’m only scratching the surface here of a rich and complex system that has seen strong success. According to Education at Glance 2014, 53% of Canadian adults have a tertiary qualification, which the highest share among the 34 OECD countries where the average is 32%. I also realize that making direct comparisons between the postsecondary education systems in the United States and Canada is fraught with challenges as they are very obviously two distinct countries. If I’ve learned anything during my sociological observations over the past four years, it’s that the subtle cultural differences between Canada and the U.S. are significant and meaningful, and I’m certain those subtleties are present in postsecondary education sphere. Still, the ‘compare and contrast’ method that teachers are known to love remains an instructive educational tool for us all. 

Multiple conversations informed this post. Special thanks to Brenna Baggs of Universities Canada, Katherine Edwards of the Maple League of Universities, Brian Frank and Natalie Simper at Queen’s University, Martin Hicks and Elyse Watkins at HEQCO, Scott Lee at the Association of Core Texts and Courses, and Neil Robertson at University of King’s College. 

Please Note: The Teagle Foundation’s grantmaking supports projects based in the United States.