Education Indicators in Canada: Fact Sheets

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Spending on Postsecondary Education
June 2011

In Canada, a public education is available free to all residents until the end of secondary school (up to a certain age depending on the province or territory). Funding from governments covers most costs for a public elementary and secondary education, but families usually have out-of-pocket expenses for their children's school supplies and school-related activities. As students move on to postsecondary education, costs can rise considerably. Although postsecondary institutions receive substantial government funding, student tuition fees are one of their most important sources of private funding. At the same time, the students who pay those tuition fees can also face many additional costs for other items related to their postsecondary education. Rising expenses on both sides have inspired much debate over the appropriate balance for this shared public–private responsibility at the postsecondary level.

This fact sheet offers brief outlines of spending on postsecondary education,1 based on data from three different Statistics Canada surveys (see Table 1). Information is presented for Canada and the provinces.

Table 1 A brief outline of three surveys that provide data for Indicator B2: Public and private expenditures on education

Expenditures per household

According to data from the Survey of Household Spending (SHS), total average household spending in Canada was $71,117 in 2009 (Table 2).2 This estimate is based on reported expenses for all household members, including costs for the major spending categories of food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and personal taxes.

Although the SHS was not designed to collect information specifically on education expenses (see Table 1), it does ask respondents to report household expenditures on education. In 2009, about one-third of households (33%) reported such expenditures, and 17% said they had incurred costs for postsecondary tuition (Table B.2.7). At the Canada level, the average expenditure on postsecondary tuition for these households was $4,674 (Table 2). This average for total household—not individual—spending on postsecondary tuition (fees for university, trade and professional courses), represented close to 5% of total average household expenditures among those Canadian households that reported such expenses.3  The total average household spending for those households that reported postsecondary tuition expenditures in 2009 was about $30,000 higher, on average, than the total average household spending for all households in Canada.

Table 2 Household expenditures, all households and those reporting expenditures for postsecondary tuition, Canada and provinces, 2009

The SHS estimates for average household spending on postsecondary tuition varied across the provinces in 2009, with the figures for most in the $3,000-to-$5,000 range (Table 2). The lowest average, seen in Quebec, reflects a postsecondary education system that includes CEGEPs, the majority of which are public programs with very low tuition fees, as well as relatively low university tuition fees. Average expenditures on the opposite, or higher end, reflect higher total tuition costs in a household.

Examining the median expenditures per household offers a different perspective. When households are ranked from lowest to highest tuition expenditures, the median is the value of tuition expenditures that separates the households in two groups of equal numbers (50% of households have tuition expenditures lower than this amount and 50% have higher amounts). When comparing the provinces according to the differences between the average and the median, higher tuition expenditures experienced by some households in a province may result in a larger difference between the two measures in that province compared with another where the tuition fees incurred are more homogenous. The differences between the average and median expenditures for this 2009 snapshot of total household spending on postsecondary tuition are most noticeable in British Columbia, and much less pronounced in Saskatchewan and New Brunswick (Table 2).

Average university tuition fees

According to the Tuition and Living Accommodation Costs for Full-time Students at Canadian Degree-granting Institutions (TLAC) survey (see Table 1), average undergraduate tuition fees4 in Canada were $4,747 for the 2008/2009 academic year (Chart 1; Table B.2.9).5 Although this figure is similar to the SHS figure for average household spending on postsecondary tuition in 2009, the two averages are not directly comparable. TLAC fees reflect the cost of tuition only and do not include additional compulsory fees.

TLAC also presents average tuition fees for graduate students, which were $5,737 in 2008/2009.6 Quebec, along with Newfoundland and Labrador, had the lowest average tuition fees overall—for both undergraduates and graduates—in 2008/2009. Graduate tuition fees were higher than the national average in Ontario, Nova Scotia and British Columbia. Graduate tuition fees were typically higher, sometimes considerably more so, than undergraduate fees in half of the provinces.

Chart 1 Average undergraduate and graduate university tuition fees, full-time Canadian students, Canada and provinces, 2008/2009

University revenues

The majority of revenues at Canadian publicly funded postsecondary institutions7 are from public sources, reflecting government funding from all levels. According to the Financial Information of Universities and Colleges (FIUC) survey (see Table 1), university revenues from public sources comprised about 61% of total university revenues for the 2008/2009 academic year (Chart 2; Table B.2.12). The remaining 39% was from private sources and more than half of this portion (22%) was from student fees (tuition and other fees).

Chart 2 University revenues from private sources (including student fees) and government sources, as proportions of total university revenues, Canada and provinces, 2008/2009

In 2008/2009, the proportions of government, or public, funding for postsecondary education revenues ranged from 49% in Nova Scotia to 72% in Alberta. These proportions were also relatively high in Saskatchewan (68%) and Newfoundland and Labrador (69%). Although the proportions from student fees were relatively low in Saskatchewan and Alberta (between 14% and 15%), the lowest figures (around 12%) were in Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec8. As noted earlier, undergraduate and graduate tuition fees in 2008/2009 were lowest in these two provinces. In Manitoba, Prince Edward Island and British Columbia, around 60% of university revenues were from government sources, but the proportions of private funds from student fees varied, from approximately half in Manitoba and Prince Edward Island to two-thirds in New Brunswick. Nova Scotia, Ontario and New Brunswick, which had relatively lower funding from government sources (all below 60%), received the highest proportions of private funding from student fees, around 30% in all three cases.

Postsecondary education financing

The three short snapshots of spending on postsecondary education in this fact sheet merely hint at some of the complexities that must be taken into account when exploring any cost issue related to education, particularly at the postsecondary level. The surveys used for this fact sheet have related, yet different objectives, and thus yield related results that provide information from different perspectives. Such differences, along with the implications of the actions of several levels of government and other aspects of individual spending, should be considered in any examination of spending on postsecondary education.


  1. The first fact sheet in the Pan-Canadian Education Indicators Program (PCEIP) series, Household Spending on Education, highlighted Canadian household expenses for educational expenses such as supplies, textbooks, and tuition costs at the pre-elementary and elementary-secondary, and postsecondary levels in 2007.
  2. For more information, see "Survey of Household Spending" in the December 17, 2010 edition of The Daily.
  3. Although some provinces may have higher average postsecondary tuition fees than others, the SHS averages per household reporting such expenditures represent total household—not individual—spending on tuition. They also do not necessarily represent fees paid to attend a postsecondary institution in the particular province. For example, higher averages for household spending could reflect higher tuition fees for a household member pursuing a Master's degree in another province or perhaps a program at a higher-cost university outside of Canada. In other cases, total household expenditures may contain expenses for two or more household members in full-time postsecondary education, or for household members who are foreign students paying higher foreign tuition fees.
  4. Tuition fee amounts in this section reflect tuition paid by one student for one year of studies.
  5. Data for 2008/2009 are used to provide similar timelines for the survey results reported in this fact sheet; however, TLAC data for the 2006/2007 through 2010/2011 academic years are presented in PCEIPTable B.2.9, which was published on December 13, 2010. TLAC data for the 2011/2012 academic year are scheduled for release in mid-September 2011.
  6. Since the tuition for some MBA programs (Executive Masters of Business Administration and Regular Masters of Business Administration) can be substantial and can therefore inflate average tuition costs, those fees are not included in the TLAC averages.
  7. Includes government-sponsored research revenues and may differ from figures released by provinces.
  8. It is relevant to note that 2008/2009 was rather an atypical year. Due to the financial crisis that substantially reduced the value of endowment funds, several Canadian universities declared significant losses in the category of investment revenues, thereby altering the relative contribution of the different sources of financial revenues at universities.
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