International students driving enrolment growth in Canada

Shelby Thevenot
Published: December 7, 2020

Before coronavirus forced learning online, international students were enrolling in post-secondaries in Canada at three times the rate of domestic students.

A recent Statistics Canada report examines student enrolment pre-pandemic as a way to evaluate the coronavirus impact on students. Researchers used the 2018/2019 academic year as the benchmark to measure how enrolment and graduation has been affected, particularly for international students.

That year, over 2.1 million students were enrolled at Canadian universities and colleges, up 1.8 per cent from the 2017 academic session. This gain was entirely due to international student enrolment, which went up 16.2 per cent. That same year, enrolment by domestic students decreased 0.5 per cent.

Most of these enrolments were in formal programs, only 8.4 per cent were in courses outside a formal program such as continuing education or personal interest.

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International student enrolments more than triple within a decade

Between the 2008 and 2018 academic years, enrolments for international students grew from upwards of 101,000 to more than 318,000. Canadian student enrolments in formal programs grew 10.9 per cent in the same period.

This resulted in the proportion of international students at Canadian post-secondaries increasing from 6.4 per cent to 16.2 per cent, and represents 57.2 per cent of the total growth in all program enrolments.

Canadian universities rely more on tuition for funding

As revenue from provincial governments decline, Canadian universities have increasingly relied on student tuition as a source of income, according to a previous Statistics Canada report. The share of revenues from tuition fees grew 4.7 per cent between 2013 and 2018.

International students pay higher tuition fees than domestic students. As a result of higher fees and enrolment growth, international students contributed about 40 percent of all tuition fees, or $4 billion across Canadian universities in the 2018 academic session.

STEM enrolments grow, humanities decrease but not for international students

Education systems evolve with the needs of the labour market. In the span of a decade, there were 24.2 per cent more enrolments in mathematics, computer and information sciences. Although these programs accounted for 5 per cent of all enrolments in 2018,  growth in this field was the strongest over a 10-year period.

In Canada's labour market, jobs associated with digital economy grew 37 per cent, exceeding the growth rate of the total economy which was 8.6 per cent between 2010 and 2017.

Although humanities accounted for 11 per cent of enrolments in 2018, these programs saw the largest decrease in enrolments. Over a 10-year period, the total number of students enrolled in these programs dropped 19.4 per cent. Statistics Canada also found that arts and humanities graduates were more likely to be overqualified in their occupations than their peers.

There were differences in humanities enrolment rates when comparing international and domestic students. Enrolments in humanities decreased 25.2 per cent for Canadian students, but increased 106.1 per cent for international students. The increase in international student enrolments could be because of initiatives intended to attract them to study in Canada, or to responds to labour market demands in their home country.

Growth in business, management, and public administration programs lead by international students

International students drove growth in enrolments in business, management and public administration programs over the 10 year period leading up to 2018. The percentage of international students studying in these fields grew more than 200 per cent, whereas Canadian student enrolment only grew about 7.7 per cent.

Canadian students were more likely to work in health and related fields, with 15.2 per cent of all Canadian enrolments choosing these fields. Only 5.1 per cent of all international students chose these fields in 2018.

Looking to the future

Although the long-term impact of COVID-19 on international students is years away, Statistics Canada notes that their participation is important for many reasons.

"Not only does international student tuition revenue contribute to the viability of some courses and programs, international students increase the social and cultural diversity of campuses," the report read.

International students also contribute to the local economy as they study in Canada, and provide a large pool of highly educated people who can become permanent residents and contribute to the workforce.

Almost one third of international students who got Canadian bachelor's degrees, and almost half of international students who graduated with master's degrees became permanent residents in the 10 years after they got their first study permit.

Statistics Canada is monitoring these data as they come available in a post-COVID world. They will provide insights into the impact the pandemic has had on student enrolments and shifts in fields of study.

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