Skip navigation

Number of international students studying in Canada looks set to rebound

Several institutions say preliminary figures suggest the drop in enrollment due to the pandemic may be easing.


There are signs that Canadian universities will be welcoming more international students this fall, after many stayed away during the 2020-2021 academic year due to the pandemic. While it’s still too early to say exactly how significant the recovery will be, postsecondary institutions are reporting an uptick in interest from abroad.  

The news is encouraging as universities from coast to coast have become increasingly dependent on the significantly higher tuition fees paid by international students amid stagnating levels of government funding. Statistics Canada estimates that in 2017-2018, international students paid nearly 40 per cent of all tuition fees and provided Canadian universities with close $4 billion in revenue. 

At the University of Saskatchewan, the number of applications from international students to undergraduate direct-entry programs was up about 40 per cent in early July compared to the same time last year, says Alison Pickrell, assistant vice provost, strategic enrolment management. Confirmed offers of admission were up two-thirds. The school is now anticipating “exceeding pre-pandemic levels of both new and returning international students by the end of the academic year,” she says. 

At York University, there’s been a “modest increase” in the number of international students enrolled in classes this summer compared to a year ago — from 5,224 to 6,831 — says deputy spokesperson Yanni Dagonas. The Université du Québec à Montréal is expecting to welcome four per cent more international students in regular programs (which excludes exchange students) this fall compared to a year earlier, says its rector, Magda Fusaro.  

Malcolm Butler, vice president, academic and research at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, says that while the proportion of students from other countries at his institution has fallen from its normal range of 30 to 32 per cent of the student body, that dip in enrollment may soon be over. “It’s too early to get specific, I would say. There’s a reason why we record enrollment numbers in the fall, of course, once we’re certain the students are actually with us — but interest is there,” he says. “Certainly, we’re seeing greater numbers of international students this year compared to last year, and the positive signs of a strong rebound.” 

Data from Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) provide another point of reference. The department received nearly 100,000 applications for study permits — the lion’s share of which are issued to postsecondary students — from January through April of this year. That compares with 66,000 and 96,000 applications during the same period in 2020 and 2019, respectively. 

“We’re hearing encouraging messaging,” says Larissa Bezo, president of the Canadian Bureau for International Education, an Ottawa-based non-profit group. “You’ve had a number of students, perhaps, who were teed up to come and begin studies last year, who maybe opted to defer for a year but are now looking at resuming. And I think announcements like the recent one coming from our federal government in terms of that first wave of opening up the border for fully vaccinated travelers — I mean those are really important messages.” 

In late June, Ottawa said it would allow returning Canadians into the country without requiring them to quarantine for two weeks if they are fully vaccinated with a Health Canada-approved vaccine — those produced by Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and AstraZeneca. The measure was extended to international students with a valid study permit traveling to the country to pursue their education.  

Universities have also taken a range of additional measures to make the journey easier. McGill has launched an airport reception service to meet students after they land. At Saint Mary’s, Dr. Butler says the university will have enough space for students to quarantine on campus if they will be living in residence. A growing number of schools are also making vaccinations mandatory for those living in residence and have pledged to help students secure access to a vaccination if need be. 

However, Bipin Kumar, international students’ commissioner at the Canadian Federation of Students, says there’s still more that could be done to help. Many students coming to Canada may have faced significant delays in obtaining their visa because of COVID-19 restrictions in their corner of the world. They may not have access to approved vaccines, particularly in the two biggest countries of origin for Canadian international students — China and India. And he says there are persisting questions about whether they will be covered by health insurance during and after their international journey. 

“If they are traveling without vaccines and they get sick during their travels, how would that affect them?” Kumar says. “Most universities are trying to say, ‘Gentlemen, you have to come at least 14 days before to quarantine.’ If you’re coming early into the country and you do not have access to insurance because most [takes effect] only after you enter into the program, there is a gap.” 

Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Anurag / August 14, 2021 at 13:44

    Why no one is talking about flight ban from India. This is a disaster, you are risking Students lives and money. Canada is not a student friendly country anymore. Only PR hungry people will go there not good students.

Click to fill out a quick survey