Virtually the entire adult population is literate (96.6%). The age limits of compulsory school attendance are roughly from age 6 to age 16. Primary schools lasts for six to eight years and secondary or high school another six years. In 1996, primary schools numbered 12,685. There were 148,565 teachers and 2,448,144 students in primary schools. The same year, secondary schools had 133,275 teachers and 2,505,389 students. As of 1999, 99% of primary-school-age children were enrolled in school, while 98% of those eligible attended secondary school. In the same year, the pupil-teacher ratio at the primary level was 15 to 1.
Each province is responsible for its own system of education. While the systems differ in some details, the general plan is the same for all provinces except Québec, which has two parallel systems: one mainly for Roman Catholics and speakers of French, the other primarily for non-Catholics and speakers of English. Québec, Newfoundland, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and, to a lesser extent, Ontario provide for public support of church-affiliated schools. Primary and secondary education is generally free, although nominal fees are charged for secondary education in some schools or provinces. Public elementary and secondary schools are administered by the provinces and Yukon Territory. As of 1999, public expenditure on education was estimated at5.6% of GDP.
As of the mid-1990s, there were some 60 degree-granting colleges and universities in Canada. There are provincial universities in all provinces; other degree-granting institutions are private or connected with a religious denomination. In 1996, full-time enrollment in all higher-level institutions, colleges, and universities was 1,763,105. The federal government operates one military college with degree-granting powers conferred by the province of Ontario. Since 1977, the federal government has contributed to post-secondary education by cash payments and tax transfers, independently of provincial program costs.
Canadian higher education began with the founding of the Collège des Jésuites in Québec City in 1635. The Séminaire de Québec, another Jesuit institution, established in 1663, became Laval University in 1852. Other early institutions on the French collegiate model were the Collège St. Boniface in Manitoba (1827), the University of Ottawa (1848), and St. Joseph's University in New Brunswick (1864). Although many French institutions survive—most notably the University of Montréal, which separated itself from Laval in 1920—most university-level instruction is conducted in English on the Scottish, British, or US model. The first English-language college in Canada was King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia (1789). Two private universities on the Scottish model are Dalhousie University in Halifax (1818) and McGill University in Montréal (1821). The first state-supported institution, founded in 1827 on the principles of Anglicanism and loyalty to the British crown, was King's College at York in Upper Canada, which became the University of Toronto, the largest and one of the most distinguished of Canadian institutions. Universities in each of the four western provinces—Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia—founded in the late 19th century, represent a Canadian adaptation of the US state land-grant universities.
Canada also has numerous community colleges, teachers' colleges, technical institutes, nursing schools, and art schools. Adult education is sponsored by universities, colleges, school boards, government departments, and voluntary associations, each of which has some other primary function. The Canadian Broadcasting Corp., the National Film Board, and many museums, art galleries, and libraries engage in adult education as part of their work. Instructors are represented by the Canadian Association of University Teachers, and students by the Canadian Federation of Students.