Canada plans to attract more international students by expanding its presence overseas in an effort to advance classroom diversity and boost economic benefits that already amount to billions per year.
The economic effects of foreign students nearly doubled between 2010 and 2016, when they reached a total of $15.5 billion in Canada for everything from tuition fees to rent and groceries, according to a federal analysis.
To put that in perspective, the document says the sector supported nearly 170,000 jobs in 2016 and had greater economic impacts than Canada’s exports of auto parts, aircraft and lumber.
The vast majority of foreign students have been coming from India and China, while recent years have seen surges from countries with fast-growing economies like Vietnam.
Officials from universities, colleges and the federal government are now in the early stages of developing an “aligned” strategy that will broaden campaigns in other parts of the world, Universities Canada president Paul Davidson said in an interview. He expects Canada to promote itself as an education destination in places with expanding economies and large populations of young people, like Colombia and parts of Africa.
“We’re looking at where in the world there is a growing middle-class demand for higher education, a place where Canada has got linkages and connections,” said Davidson, whose organization represents 96 institutions.
Canada has been an attractive place to study for years. In 2000, federal numbers show there were 122,665 valid study permits in Canada — a number that hit 572,415 last year for an increase of 467 per cent. Numbers compiled by Universities Canada say full-time international student enrolment at universities rose by about 15 per cent across Canada between 2017 and 2018.
The 2018 growth came despite a diplomatic dispute last August between Canada and Saudi Arabia, which has been one of the top home countries for international university students.
The Saudi government suspended diplomatic ties with Canada, expelled the Canadian ambassador and recalled its own envoy to Ottawa after Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and her department criticized the regime on Twitter for its arrest of social activists. Saudi Arabia also ordered thousands of its citizens studying in Canada to come home.
Davidson said diplomatic efforts by the federal officials and the higher-education community helped reduce the impact. In the end, he said many Saudi students stayed, including medical trainees who had been in Canada for several years as well as those in studying in other areas of health science and some graduate programs.
“The Saudi situation underscored the importance of having a diverse range of countries to work with,” Davidson said.
Last month’s federal budget announced nearly $148 million of funding over five years for international education, part of which will be dedicated to efforts to attract more foreign students to Canada.
International Trade Minister Jim Carr said beyond the economic impacts, students from abroad often establish important, decades-long links with Canada.
“We believe that international students add value to our communities, that they experience Canada’s fine institutions and take with them an appreciation of who we are as Canadians,” Carr said in an interview.
“Sometimes they stay, sometimes they go back to their home countries and become, really, ambassadors for Canada.”
Denise Amyot, president and CEO of Colleges and Institutes Canada, said foreign students bring new perspectives that help their Canadian classmates better understand the world.
Their higher tuition fees strengthen institutions and ensure a wider choice of programs are offered for all students, she added.
Amyot, who represents 132 publicly funded colleges and institutes, said her members have also seen rising numbers of international students. In 2006-07, she said foreign students made up a four per cent share of enrolment in the college system — by 2015-16, it had grown to eight per cent.
She said immigration policy changes in Canada have helped it compete with other countries in attracting the world’s increasingly mobile post-secondary students. The policies, she added, have sped up visa processing times, permitted foreign students to work in Canada while they study and improved a graduate’s chance of obtaining permanent residency.
Numbers from the Immigration Department show that last year 10,950 former study permit holders became permanent residents. Between 2015 and 2017, the annual total failed to eclipse 3,000.
“Some of our best immigrants, in fact, have been international students that have studied in Canada, worked in Canada,” said Amyot. “This becomes very, very attractive and Canada has a shortage of employees right now, so it is really helping our labour-market situation.”