Student life in... Canada

What's it like to be a university student in the Great White North? Lucy Mair shares her experience

When I touched down in Montreal to spend my third year studying at McGill University, I was greeted by an impossibly long immigration queue, a complicated bureaucratic procedure to obtain study permits from both the federal and provincial immigration offices, and commands barked in unfamiliar Québécois French. Though torturous after 24 hours of travelling, missed connections and lost luggage, these themes are reflected in Canada's education system and culture, and they prepared me for what I would encounter during my time in Montreal. Despite the initial difficulties, and the fact that the temperature rarely rises above -10 °C between December and March, Canada is a remarkably easy country to adapt to - and to fall in love with.

Campus map

From Yukon in the northwest to Newfoundland in the southeast, Canada has been home to Aboriginal peoples for millennia, but the arrival of the first European colonies in the early seventeenth century was closely followed by the founding of the country's first university, Université Laval, in 1663. This set a precedent for the importance of higher education in Canada's culture, and today Canadians are extremely proud that almost a quarter of the workforce holds a university degree - one of the highest proportions in the world.

Although Canada's population is small, with just over 30 million people, the country boasts 83 universities. The majority of these are public institutions, however they're governed by ten different ministries of education - something which, for a visitor from the UK, is difficult to get to grips with. Constitutional responsibility for education in Canada lies with each individual province and territory, rather than the federal government, and for Canadian students, it means that their path to university, entry requirements, language of instruction, tuition fees and length of study vary depending on where they're from, and where in the country they intend to study.

Tuition fees, in particular, differ dramatically from province to province. In Quebec, for example, tuition fees for students from the province are $2,167 per academic year, but almost triple that figure for students from elsewhere in Canada, at $5,858 per year. The reason for this difference is that the Quebec government spends significantly more of its budget on education than do other provincial governments, but it's also because the officially French-speaking province encourages its citizens to study at a Francophone university - most of which are located in Quebec.

In most instances, Canadian parents pay for their children to attend university, though students will often take on a part-time job during term time to help with their living costs. For those families who can't afford the fees, the federal government operates a student loan programme. However, unlike in the UK, student loans aren't available to everyone. Some provinces, such as Quebec, are excluded from the programme, and loans are given on a means-tested basis only to those students in genuine financial need.

Class timetable

"Work hard, play hard" is the motto that most Canadian students live by. Academics are taken seriously by students, parents and professors, yet there's also consensus that university is a time for students to enjoy themselves before entering the world of work.

Most undergraduate courses in Canada are four years long, with some exceptions in Quebec. Universities typically offer a much wider range of courses than British institutions, and students have greater freedom to mix and match subjects in order to build their own degree. The downside, however, is that it's your own responsibility to ensure you've taken enough credits at the necessary level to graduate. Canadian degrees are awarded based on a cumulative grade point average (GPA) system, meaning that students' final degree classification is based on an average of all of their grades received over the course of four years. Graded work isn't just final exams - it's down to each professor how they choose to assess their students, and it can range from a pop quiz and class participation to open-book tests and more traditional examinations. Most importantly, for Canadian students everything counts towards their degree, so they can't afford to slip up in their first year and make up for it later on.

But, it's almost impossible to fail at a Canadian university. Professors are more like teachers than lecturers and, on the whole, they make an effort to get to know their students on a personal level and offer support if a student is struggling with something. Day-to-day life on campus involves more contact hours with professors and teaching assistants than most degree courses in the UK - it's not unusual to have classes between 9am and 5pm, Monday to Friday, with just a couple of free periods - but students aren't expected to do as much independent study.

Campuses are hubs of student activity and a place where Canada's multicultural population comes together. Canada has one of the world's highest rates of immigration and students are more likely to introduce themselves to each other with where they're from, rather than what they're studying or what year they're in. Canadian universities also attract international students, including many from the across the border. At McGill, roughly half of students hail from Quebec, 25 per cent come from the rest of Canada, and 25 percent are international students from over 150 countries, though the majority come from the US. The influence of American students can be felt in the growing popularity of fraternities and sororities, which aren't traditionally Canadian. But, like at British universities, there's a huge range of clubs and societies to choose from. Canadian students are also far more politically active and socially engaged than students in the UK, with many charitable and campaigning groups based on campus and protests and rallies held on a  weekly basis.

Careers advice

Canadian students are motivated to get involved in extra-curricular activities in order to build up their résumés. Students in Canada usually begin thinking about their career in their second year of university and they do as much as possible to make themselves more employable, whether it's learning the basics of television production at the on-campus TV station, or taking on a position of responsibility within a charitable organisation to boost their leadership skills. Internships are also big business in Canada and pretty much everyone does one in the summer of their penultimate year, if not also before then. Like at universities in the UK, careers assistance is available from advisors on campus, but you have to seek out help yourself - nobody tells students when to start planning their career, or how they should go about it. Canadian students start university knowing that the job market is competitive, and they use their time at university building up their defences so they can enter the battle to win a graduate job.