International Student Mobility to Canada: A Surge? Or Something Else?

Canada is now the seventh leading destination for globally mobile international students [1] – and all signs point to further growth. But news reports of a precipitous spike in enrollments, together with the often-heard refrain that Canadian policies are uniformly welcoming to international students, may paint an overly simplistic portrait of the reasons behind that growth. This article examines enrollment trends going back to 2002, looks back to the patchwork of policies and practices that have affected student mobility to Canada, and provides insights for enrollment managers at institutions in the U.S. and elsewhere, who are seeking to support both international students and international education programs in the face of current geopolitical trends.

A chart showing the number and year-over-year change of international students in Canada between 2002 and 2015. [2]

The Short View: Are We Seeing a Surge? Or Not?

Anecdotal reports lay down a simple narrative about current international students’ interest in Canada: In the wake of two major political shocks, the June 2016 British vote to exit the European Union (a.k.a., Brexit), and the November 2016 election of Donald Trump, international students suddenly began diverting their interest to Canadian universities en masse. As reported by the Vancouver Sun in May 2017: “Since May 2016, U.S. applications for undergraduate studies at [Montreal’s Concordia University] have increased by 23 per cent and by 74 per cent for graduate classes. Undergraduate applications from Mexico have jumped 325 per cent and by 233 per cent from India during the same period.” International applications to the University of Toronto meanwhile, had, as of May, risen by 22 percent.

The same month the Globe & Mail reported that acceptances by international students for the fall of 2017 were up considerably at some universities. The University of Alberta had a 27 percent increase over the prior year’s acceptances, for instance, while Queen’s University in Ontario had a 40 percent bump.

Data from Hotcourses, meanwhile, an online tool that lets international students research higher education options worldwide, also supports the notion that the “Trump effect” is real. According to Hotcourses data, 27.4 percent of Middle Eastern students on the platform (who numbered around 830,000) searched for the United States as a study destination between November 2015 and April 2016. Between November 2016 and April 2017, the percentage was just 19.7 percent. The attention directed at Canada, meanwhile, increased dramatically. From year to year, the fraction that searched for Canada as a study destination jumped from 41 percent to 89 percent. [1] Simon Emmett, Hotcourses Group, “Data Driving Decisions: Identifying Trends and Opportunities in Diversification Markets,” NAFSA Presentation, May 15, 2017

The Long View: A Slope

That said, much of the data gathered about current growth is, so far, anecdotal. It thus remains unclear whether what we are seeing is a long-term change, or a relatively small uptick in what has been steady, ongoing growth. “The long-term trend of expansion has held over the years, despite currency fluctuations and major economic and political events abroad,” Creso Sá [3], Director of the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education (CIHE) at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, wrote earlier this year. “The surge that has been reported in international applications in 2017 cannot be divorced from … long-term trends.”

Sá makes another key point: This steady growth has often continued not due to Canadian policies and practices that pave any easy path for international students to enter the country, work in it, or become residents. Often, it has happened despite those that make it difficult. This view is confirmed by the government itself. “There is a lack of an effective whole-of-government approach between federal departments regarding international students,” stated a 2015 Citizen and Immigration Canada (CIC) evaluation [4] of the country’s international student program.

Policy and Practice: Diffuse Responsibility, Conflicting Signals

What of the oft-repeated refrain that Canada is welcoming to international students? Well, yes, and no. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s welcoming stance is well-documented, and in recent months, Canada has put forth a number of policies that explicitly encourage international enrollments.

Moreover, in 2014, the Canadian government unveiled an “International Education Strategy [5]” under the Ministry of Trade, signaling its intent to grow international student ranks as a form of economic competitive advantage.

But Canada’s ability to approach internationalization strategically is hampered by diffuse responsibility for implementation. As the Canada’s Immigration and Citizenship office noted in one 2015 report [4]:

“Several federal departments have a role related to international students in Canada,” including the CIC, the Canada Border Service Agency, and the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development. These “have their own mandates that sometimes work at cross-purposes.” Moreover, “education in Canada is the constitutional responsibility of the [country’s 13] provinces and territories. The federal government does not have jurisdiction (or legislative authority) to regulate education or its providers. As a result, a number of partners – all with different perspectives and priorities – share responsibilities with respect to international students.”

These challenges are not new. Over the last 16 years, inconsistent policies and practices related to international students have been the rule. What follows is a timeline of the visa and immigration policies and practices that have, in recent years, had an oftentimes contradictory effect on international students’ ability to pursue education in Canada. The timeline looks at a few select years, and evaluates the overall annual impact of immigration and international education related policy and practice with regard to student entry.

The Provincial View Beyond the Big Three: More Students Needed

The majority of international students in Canada are in just a few provinces – 86 percent are in Ontario, British Columbia, or Québec.[21]http://cbie.ca/media/facts-and-figures/ Attracting international talent to provinces that are more sparsely populated is one key to ensuring that students contribute to the widespread economic benefits the country is seeking. Through the Provincial Nominee Program (PNP) different provinces in Canada can nominate immigrants that fulfill the economic needs of that particular province.[22]http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/immigrate/provincial/index.asp Recently, the program has become heavily weighted towards international graduates.[23]http://www.immigration.ca/new-immigration-policies-entice-international-students-study-canada/ A handful of provinces have begun to find innovative ways to attract international students. Nova Scotia, for instance, has launched a pilot program for international students as part of an effort to increase immigration into the province.[24]http://www.immigration.ca/nova-scotia-targets-international-students-boost-immigration/Graduates in the fields of health care, entrepreneurship, computer engineering, and ocean sciences who are admitted to the program will have their salaries subsidized.

The Takeaway

There are two interpretations of the latest reports on inbound student mobility to Canada.

  1. Canada is now the destination of choice for students alarmed by the political events in traditional destinations.
  2. Canada is, as it has been for more than a decade, one among many rising international education destinations around the globe with the potential to chip away at inbound flows to traditional higher education magnets like the U.S. and U.K.

Given that uncertainty, how should institutions in the U.S. and other countries react as they weather the current geopolitical climate?

The reality is that policies on immigration and other issues that affect international students change as governments or world events change. The impact on student flows, whether to the United States, Canada, or elsewhere, is uncertain.

In the face of these changes it makes sense for institutions to be both nimble and resolute. In the words of Robin-Matross Helms [9], director of the American Council on Education’s Center for Internationalization and Global Engagement, universities and others must “adapt: by responding swiftly, thoughtfully and effectively, and continuing to move forward… our work is too important not to [do so]. We owe it to our students to forge ahead with our commitment to developing their international knowledge and skills, and ensuring that they too can adapt and are well prepared to navigate whatever challenges they face in the increasingly globalized world.” [10]


1 Simon Emmett, Hotcourses Group, “Data Driving Decisions: Identifying Trends and Opportunities in Diversification Markets,” NAFSA Presentation, May 15, 2017
2, 15, 16 http://cbie.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/A-World-of-Learning-HI-RES-2016.pdf
3, 6 http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/resources/evaluation/isp/2010/background.asp
4 http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/resources/evaluation/isp/2010/background.asp
5 http://www.levlaw.com/history-of-immigration-2000-2012/
7 http://wenr.wes.org/2008/06/wenr-june-2008-feature
8 https://thepienews.com/news/saudis-protest-at-canadian-visa-delays/
9 https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/indian-visa-uproar-prompts-canada-to-launch-immigration-policy-review/article4321034/
10 https://thepienews.com/news/canada-closes-six-visa-offices-abroad/
11 http://cbie.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/RISIA-Handbook_E.pdf
12 http://monitor.icef.com/2015/10/canada-launches-new-immigration-certification-for-international-student-advisors/
13 https://thepienews.com/news/canada-9-3-drop-in-elt-students-in-2013/
14 It’s important to note that this goal includes more than university age students. Per Statistics Canada, “International students come to Canada at various ages and attend various types of educational institutions. For example, some come to Canada through student exchange programs at the high school/secondary level while others come to obtain a post-graduate degree from a Canadian university. In short, they are a heterogeneous group… In the early 1990s, 43% of international students came to Canada to attend primary and secondary schools, while 18% pursued a university education. In the early 2010s, more international students attended universities (29%) than primary and secondary schools (22%).”
17 https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/ontario-halts-residence-program-for-international-students-amid-backlog/article30054500/?ref=http://www.theglobeandmail.com&
18 https://thepienews.com/news/canada-concern-over-study-permits-rule-change
19 https://thepienews.com/analysis/international-student-visa-application-usa-uk-australia-canada-china/
20 https://www.cicnews.com/2017/06/bill-c6-become-law-june-19-changing-canada-citizenship-act-069243.html
21 http://cbie.ca/media/facts-and-figures/
22 http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/immigrate/provincial/index.asp
23 http://www.immigration.ca/new-immigration-policies-entice-international-students-study-canada/
24 http://www.immigration.ca/nova-scotia-targets-international-students-boost-immigration/