Get Our Canada Immigration Newsletter

canada international student enrolments

International students account for all growth in Canada universities & colleges

A study released by Statistics Canada on November 25, 2020 shows that student enrolments in Canadian public universities and colleges rose for the fourth consecutive academic year in 2018/2019, driven solely by higher Canada international student enrolments. In fact, during the decade that ended at the close of the 2018-19 academic year, the growth in Canada international student enrolments (the number of international students attending Canadian universities and colleges) far outstripped the growth in the number of Canadian students. Over the 10-year period, Canada international student enrolments in formal programs more than tripled while Canadian student enrolments increased at a slower pace.

In the 2018/2019 academic year, over 2.1 million students were enrolled in Canadian public universities and colleges, up 1.8% from the previous year. This was attributable to a 16.2% increase (+47,952) in international student enrolments during the same time period, while enrolments by Canadian students edged down by 0.5% (-8,301). To explore these findings in a visual format, visit the new “Postsecondary program enrolments and graduates: Interactive tool.”

From the 2008/2009 to 2018/2019 academic period, enrolments for Canadian students in formal programs grew by 10.9% (from 1,486,602 to 1,648,923). Over the same period, the number of international students more than tripled from 101,304 in 2008/2009 to 318,153 in 2018/2019. As a result, over a decade, the proportion of international student enrolments changed from 6.4% to 16.2% by 2018/2019 and represented 57.2% of the total growth in all program enrolments.

The vast majority of enrolments (91.6%) were in formal programs, while 8.4% of enrolments were in courses outside of a program, or another type of non-formal learning activity such as continuing education or personal interest courses.

The study also says that Canadian universities and colleges are increasingly courting international students for their tuition fees to boost their bottom line. The reliance of universities on tuition as a revenue source has grown over the past decade and international students, who pay substantially higher tuition than domestic students, are an important element of this growth, contributing an estimated 40% of all tuition fees and accounting for almost $4 billion in annual revenue for Canadian universities in 2018/2019. See Financial information of universities for the 2018/2019 school year and projected impact of COVID–19 for 2020/2021.

The study finds that the participation of international students in Canadian postsecondary programs is important for a variety of other 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. In addition, while contributing to the local economy when studying in Canada, international students provide the country with a large pool of well-educated individuals who could contribute to Canada’s work force and obtain permanent residency. According to a study that examined the rate of transition into permanent residence, almost one-third of international students with a bachelor’s degree and almost half of those with a master’s degree became permanent residents in the 10 years after their first study permit was issued.

A profile of international student enrolments showed that they originate from 225 countries, with over half from China. Two-thirds of international students were pursuing a credential at the bachelor level or higher; the most common field of study was business, management and public administration.

The study finds that as labour market needs evolve, education systems adapt to new demands for skills. These adaptations are reflected in enrolment changes in programs. Although mathematics, computer and information sciences programs accounted for 5.0% of all enrolments in 2018/2019, growth in this field of study was the strongest (+102.7%) over the past decade, with the number of students increasing from 47,748 in 2008/2009 to 96,768 in 2018/2019. The study concludes that this reflects the increased digitalization of society in general where, according to a recent study, jobs associated with the digital economy (+37.0%) grew much more than the total economy (+8.6%) from 2010 to 2017. See Measuring digital economic activities in Canada: Initial estimates.

The current and long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on international student enrolments is not yet known. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, postsecondary students experienced significant changes to their educational instruction, with most students learning remotely at the end of the 2019/2020 academic period and continuing to do so at the beginning of the 2020/2021 academic period. Additionally, international students faced travel restrictions and delays in the processing of their student visas and study permit applications. The study expects that the 2018/2019 results from the Postsecondary Student Information System can be used as a benchmark to evaluate the impact of COVID-19 on student enrolments and graduates, in particular international student enrolments.

Meanwhile Canada continues to put measures in place to ease the impact of the pandemic on international students. For example:

See in full International students accounted for all of the growth in postsecondary enrolments in 2018/2019