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The Canadian school system, once no more than a collection of small, generally one-room schools, has become much more complex. Heading into the new millennium, Canada had some 16,000 elementary and secondary schools and nearly 300 colleges and universities.

Our school system includes both public and private schools that are essentially under provincial jurisdiction. In the 1999/2000 school year, public school enrolment accounted for 93% of the total enrolment compared with 6% for private schools.

Elementary and secondary school enrolment remained fairly stable during the last decade. In 1999/2000, just over 5,442,000 young people attended an elementary or secondary school.

Full-time enrolment in postsecondary institutions has increased, especially at the university level. In 2003/2004, university enrolment rose to 990,385, the highest level ever. Full-time university enrolment was up 20% from 1997/1998, with nearly three out of four students registered full time. For part-time enrolment, the increase was 2%.

Schools answering many needs

Chart: Undergraduate university enrolment, full-time, by sexWith thousands of immigrants arriving in Canada every year, our schools are noted for the cultural diversity of their students. Toronto and Vancouver are the two census metropolitan areas that stand out for their diversity. The 2001 Census found that more than 25% of the school-age residents in these cities were immigrants, more than 40% belonged to a visible minority, and nearly 20% spoke a language other than English or French at home.

Today, most schools take into account the special needs of students, which was not the case 50 years ago. Most students with special needs learn in ordinary classes but also receive part of their education in special classes. Others attend specialized schools, such as schools for the visually or hearing impaired.

A number of schools throughout Canada provide second-language courses and programs. In 1999/2000, just over half of elementary and secondary students were registered in second-language learning programs. Also, the provinces and territories have an education system for French or English linguistic minority students, who in 1998/1999 accounted for 5% of the total student population.

Denominational schools, most of which are Catholic, exist in several provinces. While some provinces are abandoning the denominational system, others are addressing the requests of various religious groups that want to establish new denominational schools in their province.

There are also Aboriginal schools and Canadian Forces schools which are under federal jurisdiction. Approximately 1% of Canadian students attend such schools.

A more educated population

Chart: Population 15 years and over, by highest degree, certificate or diplomaFifty years ago, just over half the Canadian population had less than a grade nine education. By 2000/2001, nearly 77% of young people had obtained a high school diploma and, in March 2002, approximately 62% of those aged 18 to 24 had gone on to postsecondary education.

From 1991 to 2001, the number of students who obtained a postsecondary diploma increased substantially. The proportion of persons aged 25 and over with a university degree expanded from 15% to 20%. The percentage of college graduates grew from 12% to 16%, whereas the proportion of trade school graduates remained stable at 12%.

A growing number of women pursued university education from 1991 to 2001. In 2001, young women aged 25 to 34 were in the majority, not only at the bachelor's level but also at the master's level: 56% of persons holding a bachelor's degree were women, as were 52% of those holding a master's. At the doctoral level, however, men still outnumbered women.

Immigrants who arrived during the 1990s helped to lift the education level in Canada. In 2001, some 41% of new immigrants had a university education, 13% a college diploma and 8% a trade school certificate.

Teachers are one of the largest occupational groups in Canada. In the lower grades, most teachers are women. At the postsecondary level, most teachers are men, although the percentage of women teaching increased in the 1990s. Teachers are a group that has been aging faster than some other professions.

How is education financed?

Chart: Undergraduate tuition fees, averageThe largest source of funding for education is the public purse. Public and private spending on education stood at $68.6 billion in 2001/2002, a 6% increase from 1998/1999.

Most spending on education takes place at the elementary and secondary levels. In 2001/2002, elementary and secondary expenses accounted for 60% of all education spending, whereas postsecondary expenses accounted for 40%.

The higher the level of education, the higher the cost per student and the greater the increase in these costs. In 1999/2000, the average cost per student was $7,758 at the elementary-secondary level, $13,290 at the college level and $23,159 at the university level. These costs represented respective increases of 2%, 11% and 13% compared with the previous year. Undergraduate tuition fees have almost tripled since the early 1990s. In 2004/2005, university tuition fees averaged $4,172, compared with $1,464 in 1990/1991.

Parents play a major role in financing their childrens' education. In 2002, half of all students under 19 had an average of $8,600 set aside for them for postsecondary education.