More and more foreign students are coming from the same countries, concentrating in particular school programs and provinces, and that could spell trouble for Canada’s international education sector, says a new study.
Based on immigration and post-secondary student information data between 2000 and 2019, Statistics Canada examined the countries from which international students come, and how those students’ level of study and province of study have evolved over the years.
Over nearly two decades, the number of first-time study permit holders almost quadrupled to 250,020, with the most notable jump coming post-2015 with the annual growth rates ranging between 12.5 per cent and 27 per cent.
The share of the international student population from the top 10 countries has grown from 67.9 to 74.9 per cent, with those from India skyrocketing to a whopping 34.4 per cent of the pie from just 2.7 per cent 20 years ago.
Increasingly, international students are drawn to shorter, cheaper college programs with business, management and public administration becoming the dominant fields of study.
While international enrolment increased in all provinces, Ontario consistently attracted the largest share of foreign students, with its percentage up steeply to 48.9 per cent in the 2015-19 cohort from just 37.4 per cent in the 2000-04 cohort.
“Despite its growth, the international student population has become less diverse in many ways over the past two decades,” said the study released this week.
And those trends go against Ottawa’s International Education Strategy, unveiled in 2019, which cited the “need for diversification” in the flow of international students to Canada as well as their fields as well as levels and location of study.
“Attracting students from a wider diversity of countries, as well as to a greater variety of regions and schools, would foster sustainable growth of Canada’s international education sector and distribute the benefits more equitably across the country,” said the strategic plan.
“The new strategy contributes to these goals by increasing the diversity of inbound student populations, skill sets and programs, and by fostering people-to-people ties and international networks.”
Like diversifying investments to reduce risk, attracting students from different countries can also minimize the impact on international enrolment if there is a particular regional economic downturn — the kind that might make students from a certain area halt their studies.
According to the study, the growth of international education in the past five years has much to do with new regulations in 2014 that set up a designated learning institution regime to stamp out “nongenuine and poor quality” schools as well as automatically allowing the students to work off-campus for up to 20 hours per week.
Over the years, Ottawa has also made a strong push to favour those with Canadian education credentials and work experience as potential permanent residents, turning international students into a pipeline for permanent immigration.
At the program level, the Statistics Canada study said, the shares of international students in elementary through secondary schools have declined, but it was made up for by increases in the shares intending to study at the college and master’s degree levels.
In 2019, the share of first-time study permit holders at the elementary school level was five per cent, a drop from the 10 per cent in 2000. The corresponding share also declined at the secondary level from 18 per cent in 2000 to 11 per cent in 2019.
In contrast, those in college programs grew from 27 per cent to 41 per cent as their peers studying at the master’s degree level doubled from five per cent to 10 per cent. The share of international students at the doctoral degree level was steady, at two per cent.
Among the 2015-19 cohort, there were 324,000 international students in college programs, compared to 246,000 in universities over the same period.
Over the past five years, India (34.4 per cent) has replaced China (16.5 per cent) as the top source country for international students, followed by South Korea (4.7 per cent), France (4.5 per cent), Brazil (3.3 per cent), Vietnam (2.7 per cent), Japan (2.6 per cent), the United States (2.6 per cent), Mexico (2.1 per cent) and Nigeria (1.9 per cent).
Of those in college programs, Indian students made up 66.8 per cent of the international student population. Those from India also accounted for 21.3 per cent of that population in universities.
Ontario was the main beneficiary in the competition for international students, with its share up from 37.4 per cent in 2000 to 48.9 per cent in 2019, while B.C. saw the biggest drop from 31.1 per cent to 22.7 per cent over the two decades. Alberta’s and Quebec’s shares both dropped slightly as well.
At both the college and university levels, the most common field of study for international students was business, management and public administration, although growth in the field being more prominent at colleges, up from 37 per cent to 41 per cent in the last decade, at the expense of international enrolment in architecture, engineering and related technologies, and of visual and performing arts, and communications technologies.
The share of international students in math, computer and information sciences was up notably in colleges while universities saw a bigger gain in international students studying physical and life sciences and technologies.
“Looking forward, trends in the sociodemographic characteristics of international students have the potential to influence the sustainable growth of Canada’s international education,” the Statistics Canada study concluded.
“Increased concentration of international students by source country, level of education, province of study and field of study may have a downstream impact on the potential pool of candidates for permanent immigration and the Canadian labour force.”
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