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International student enrolment continues to soar in Canada

Despite the success, the country’s universities look to diversify the source countries to avoid over-reliance on a few key nations.


In 2015, Vijay Babu was 21 years old, newly graduated from a computer science engineering degree in his native Chennai, India, and casting around the globe for a graduate program that could advance his career prospects. By year’s end he was on a plane to Canada, landing during a snowstorm in Thunder Bay, Ontario. He’d been drawn by Lakehead University’s January entry option, co-op opportunities and Canada’s reputation for natural beauty, quality education and relative safety for international students compared to the United States.

Four years later, he holds a master’s degree in computer science from Lakehead and is excited about starting a full-time job with the university’s international student advisor team. The position builds on Mr. Babu’s previous volunteer role as a peer mentor to Lakehead’s growing complement of foreign students.

“My plan is to settle here,” said Mr. Babu, now 25 and with a newfound love of hiking, kayaking – and snow. “I really like the winter, and this city is almost like my hometown in Canada.”

His experience is part of a runaway success story for international education in Canada. In 2014, the federal government set a target of more than 450,000 international students attending Canadian educational institutions by 2022, roughly doubling their numbers from 2011. That box got checked by 2017. A year later – as of December 31, 2018 – Canada had a record 572,000 international students, at all education levels, representing a 16-percent increase from the previous year, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. At the postsecondary level, the number was 435,415, an 18-percent jump.

“Increasingly, what we’re seeing among our member institutions, universities included, is a real proactive effort to diversify their student populations,” said Larissa Bezo, president and CEO of the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE). “We’re beginning to see the fruit of these investments.”

At universities, it’s common for international students to make up at least 15 percent of enrolments and sometimes much more. Lakehead, with 1,400 international students, is well on the way to meeting its 2023 target of 2,000 international students, representing 20 percent of its enrolment. Nine years ago, it had just 150 international students.

The University of British Columbia has seen international enrolment climb nearly 60 percent in four years. It has 16,000 international students, representing a quarter of its enrolment. “The sense that international students have of Canada is that it’s a place that is committed to the idea of global citizenship, and that resonates deeply with this generation,” said Murali Chandrashekaran, UBC’s vice-provost, international.

The University of Windsor opened its first international recruitment office last December, in New Delhi, to better service its top international market of India (followed by China, Nigeria and Bangladesh). The university’s special focus on students interested in a foreign master’s degree in business or STEM disciplines has more than paid off: international students make up 70 percent of the university’s graduate student enrolment, about 2,700 students, representing a six-fold increase in the last decade.

“[Canada’s] immigration policy is the primary driver,” observed Chris Busch, the university’s assistant vice-president, enrolment management. It allows international students to work during and after their studies, and provides a pathway to permanent residency, which some 60 percent of international students planned to seek, according to a 2018 CBIE survey. A low Canadian dollar and, as in Mr. Babu’s case, Canada’s reputation for quality and safety, have also contributed to Canada’s popularity, said observers.

“Canada had relatively affordable [tuition] rates for similar educational quality when compared to other popular destinations,” like the U.K. and U.S., said 33-year-old Nigerian Lanre Adenekan, a master’s student in management, international accounting and finance at U of Windsor. He chose Windsor because it offered small classes and a curriculum in line with his plan to advance into executive banking positions when he returns to Nigeria. As well, other countries “are not as inclusive as Canada,” said Mr. Adenekan. “I wanted to come to a place where I knew I would be accepted.”

The exponential growth comes as the key demographic of young adults in Canada is flat or declining in some regions. International students, by adding to enrolment rosters and contributing to revenues in an era of restrained government support, are “creating opportunities for Canadian students,” said Paul Davidson, president and CEO of Universities Canada.

For smaller communities, especially those trying to recover after the loss of key industries, international students can also provide an economic shot in the arm. Cape Breton University’s more than 2,700 international students – the number more than doubled between 2017 and 2018 – have been estimated to contribute about $60 million a year to the local Sydney, Nova Scotia, economy.

Diversification of source countries

The good news story could be a double-edged sword if planners aren’t careful, though. Last summer, university administrators witnessed the risks of relying on any single country when Saudi Arabia said it was recalling its students due to a diplomatic dispute with Canada – although in the end the number of students who left was less than originally feared. “It served as a wake-up call across the country,” said James Aldridge, vice-provost, international, at Lakehead.

Then, Canada got into a spat with China – by far the top source country for international university students – over the arrest in this country of Chinese senior telecommunications executive Meng Wanzhou. Moody’s credit agency warned that if political tensions between the two countries worsened, this could pose “credit risks for Canadian universities.”

With international students paying annual tuitions of anywhere from $20,000 to $60,000-plus a year, a significant pullback would leave universities exposed. In its budget report for 2018-2019, the University of Toronto noted that international student fees accounted for 30 percent of revenue, more than provincial grants (25 percent).

That has made “diversification” the mot du jour among Canadian international education administrators. Universities Canada said it would like to see Canada give serious backing to a fresh, sector-led, five-year international education strategy that identifies a group of source countries with the best promise for student recruitment based on factors such as existing partnerships, trade agreements and where Canada has a realistic opportunity to compete.

To that end, there’s much applause for the federal government’s 2019 budget earmarking $148 million over the next five years for a new international education strategy, part of which is intended to promote Canada to “top-tier foreign students,” so that they choose it as their “education destination of choice.”

While Canada has “done a good job,” of competing – it garnered fourth place for market share in 2017, ahead of Australia and France, but behind the U.S., U.K., and China, according to CBIE – Mr. Davidson noted that federal government spending to promote the Canadian education brand has been about $5 million a year, compared to $7.5 million by New Zealand and $12 million by Australia. It’s time to take Canada’s pitch “to the next level,” he said. “It’s about seizing this moment, when Canada is seen as open, inclusive and dynamic.”

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  1. lance johnson / May 7, 2019 at 05:31

    Sadly, Trump’s contentious issue is affecting enrollments in the US and is yet one more thing that makes being an international student away from home difficult, compounded by our complex culture and language problems. Welcoming and assimilation assistance must come from numerous sources, including the White House, to aid these young people embarking on life’s journey. Most struggle in their efforts and need guidance from schools’ international departments, immigration protection, host families, concerned neighbors and fellow students, and even informative books to extend a cultural helping hand.
    Something that might help anyone coming to the US is the award-winning worldwide book/ebook “What Foreigners Need To Know About America From A To Z: How to Understand Crazy American Culture, People, Government, Business, Language and More.” Used in foreign Fulbright student programs and endorsed worldwide by ambassadors, educators, and editors, it identifies how “foreigners” have become successful in the US, including students.
    It explains how to cope with a confusing new culture and friendship process, and daunting classroom differences. It explains how US businesses operate and how to get a job (which differs from most countries), a must for those who want to work with/for an American firm here or overseas.
    It also identifies the most common English grammar and speech problems foreigners have and tips for easily overcoming them, the number one stumbling block they say they have to succeeding here.
    Good luck to all wherever you study or wherever you come from, because that is the TRUE spirit of the American PEOPLE, not a few in government who shout the loudest! Supporters of int’l students must shout louder.

  2. Manteshwar Singh Nangla / May 8, 2019 at 08:56

    Well written article.

  3. Daniel Murray / May 9, 2019 at 18:09

    Has any university or group of universities in Canada ever done a study to determine whether international students are actually an economic benefit to Canada?

    I would appreciate it if any of the Canadian administrators quoted in this article would provide the title of such a study.

  4. Dave Sage / May 12, 2019 at 23:06
  5. John Engels / January 27, 2020 at 13:17

    Can you verify the post-secondary enrollment (435,415) source link in paragraph 4?

    • Léo Charbonneau / January 28, 2020 at 13:36

      Hello John, that figure comes from the Canadian Bureau for International Education. See the link here, last paragraph.

      Léo Charbonneau, Editor, University Affairs