According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) data, Canada’s international student population grew by 13 per cent in 2019 compared to the previous year, marking yet another year of double-digit growth. Overall, 404,000 international students saw their study permits take effect in 2019.
Canada’s international student population has grown six-fold over the past 20 years. In the last decade alone, it has tripled.
Canada’s growth is being fueled by the rise in the global middle-class population, with more students looking to pursue educational, and in some cases, immigration opportunities overseas. According to UNESCO, there are now over five million international students globally, compared with around two million in 2000.
Here at home, Canadian colleges and universities have been left with little choice but to recruit more international students in order to sustain themselves financially. Growth among the main cohort of Canadian-born students entering colleges and universities (individuals between the ages of 18-24) has stagnated over the last decade due to Canada’s low birth rate.
While Canada’s population has grown by 11 per cent over the past decade, the 18-24 cohort has only grown by 4 per cent. As such, Canadian institutions need revenues from international students to fund their rising operating expenses.
Ontario is by far the largest beneficiary of foreign students in Canada. In 2019, it hosted some 48 per cent of Canada’s international student population—nearly 307,000 people.
British Columbia is a distant second, with 23 per cent of Canada’s international students—about 145,000 people.
Quebec is third, with 14 per cent of all international students in Canada—87,000 people.
Manitoba and Nova Scotia have high international student populations on a per capita basis, with some 19,000 international students in each province.
Over the past decade, the Atlantic province of Prince Edward Island (PEI) has experienced the strongest growth among all provinces and territories. PEI’s international student population has grown nearly five-fold since 2010.
Other provinces that have experienced at least a doubling of their international student populations over this period include Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, Ontario, and Manitoba.
Some 56 per cent of Canada’s international students come from India and China.
Indian’s account for over one-third of Canada’s foreign students. Given it has a large middle-class population with high levels of English-language proficiency, India has many international students who are eligible for programs offered by Canadian educational institutions.
This has contributed to Canada’s population of Indian students nearly quadrupling over the past five years. Indian students have also benefited from the federal government’s Student Direct Stream, which fast-tracks study permit applications for nationals of India, as well as China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Pakistan, Senegal, and Morocco.
China is second, accounting for 22 per cent of Canada’s international students. The number of Chinese students in Canada has actually stagnated over the past five years, with India overtaking China as the lead source country in 2018. There are several potential reasons for the stagnation, one of which is that China’s strong economic growth is encouraging more of its students to remain at home.
Rounding out Canada’s top 10 international student source countries are South Korea, France, Vietnam, the United States of America, Iran, Brazil, and Nigeria.
Among the top 20 source countries, the strongest growth rates over the past five years have been posted by India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Colombia, and Algeria.
The United States currently has an estimated 1.1 million international students. Despite concerns that policies enacted by President Donald Trump may discourage international students from studying in the U.S., the country still boasts many of the world’s best universities, which continue to serve as a major magnet for international students.
Australia ranks second globally, with its nearly 700,000 international students. Canada’s 642,000 international students now rank it third globally, ahead of the nearly 500,000 each hosted by China and the United Kingdom.
Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE) research shows that international students choose Canada due to the country’s strong quality of education, as well as its reputation as a multicultural and tolerant society.
Some 60 per cent of international students have also reported to CBIE that they are interested in becoming permanent residents of Canada after their studies.
Canada offers international students one of the world’s most competitive packages, allowing them to work while they study, then obtain a post-graduation work permit to gain Canadian work experience, and then offers them more than 80 economic class immigration streams to choose from.
Another consideration is that while international students pay higher tuition than Canadian students, their overall expenses in Canada are lower than in the likes of the U.S., Australia, and the United Kingdom. A major reason for this is the Canadian dollar is weaker than the U.S. dollar, British pound, and the Euro (the European Union is another attractive destination for international students).
Canadian government research estimates that international students contribute some $22 billion annually to the country’s economy and help to sustain over 170,000 jobs.
Beyond this major impact, international students are set to have an even larger impact on Canada’s economy in the decades to come thanks to the over 80 economic class pathways offered through the likes of Express Entry, other federal programs such as the Atlantic Immigration Pilot, as well as the Provincial Nominee Program (PNP). These pathways feature dedicated streams for international students and may also award extra points to international students. This is due to federal government research showing that international students who become immigrants have very strong outcomes in the Canadian economy.
As such, more international students are obtaining permanent residence. For example, in 2019, the Canadian Experience Class, which is designed for international students and temporary foreign workers with Canadian work experience, accounted for 34 per cent of those who became immigrants through Express Entry.
This suggests that Canada may actually be understating the positive economic impact that international students are having on the country.
Beyond their immediate $22-billion annual impact, international students who remain in Canada permanently will help to drive economic growth as both workers and consumers for many decades to come.
Kareem El-Assal is the Director of Policy & Digital Strategy at CanadaVisa.
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