Source: IRCC data

Canada’s international education sector continued to grow by double digits in 2018, but just barely.

Applications for study permits were up 11 per cent in 2018, reflecting dueling trends in Canada’s two largest markets. Applications from Indian students were up 17 per cent and applications from Chinese students were down seven per cent.

Data released by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada shows that 37 per cent of the 349,641 study permit applications filed in 2018 came from India, with two thirds of those students headed to college programs.

International demand for Canadian college programs has exploded since 2014, when just 18 per cent of all study permit applications were attached to college admissions. In 2018, college-related study applications made up almost 40 per cent of all study permit applications.

Alain Roy, vice president of Colleges and Institutes Canada, attributed the growth to the quality and nature of college programs in Canada. He pointed out that several surveys have found that international students put an emphasis on practical programs that will help them secure employment after graduation.

“I think it is what they have to offer in terms of applied education,” Roy said. “(Colleges are) very responsive to labour market needs and have many career-oriented programs.”

Roy said that colleges have also invested more in international recruiting in recent years.

Permits, Price and Immigration

Other factors driving interest in college applications include fast-tracked study permits, lower costs and an easier path to immigration.

College-bound students were the first to benefit from a new fast-track study permit application program that was piloted in India, China, Philippines and Vietnam several years ago. The system was consolidated into the student direct stream in 2018 and expanded to include university-bound students. This year, Pakistan, Morocco and Senegal were added to the list of countries included in the fast-track program.

International students also pay less, on average, for a college diploma or certificate than for an undergraduate university degree. College programs are usually one or two years long, compared to four years for a typical undergraduate degree, and annual college tuition tends to be lower. For example, the cost for an international student to attend one year at the Nova Scotia Community College is  $13,546; the cost of attending one year of an arts and science degree at Dalhousie University is $19,153.

Surveys show that many students consider the long-term potential of immigrating to Canada when selecting a program or institution. For some students, graduating from a two-year diploma program at a publicly funded Canadian college may lead to immigration faster than graduating from a four-year undergraduate university program.

Robert Summerby-Murray is president of Saint Mary’s University in Halifax and chair of the Canadian Bureau for International Education. He said lower tuition and a faster route to permanent resident status are significant factors for international students choosing a Canadian program.

“While all of us in the post-secondary world would like to think that our students come to us because of our academic programs, I think sometimes there are often these far more prosaic rationales,” he said. “(If a student is thinking) I might be able to not only get permanent residence status, but actually have a job, that has to be an attractive prospect. You put it up against doing a four-year degree in a subject area, particularly those subject areas that don’t have a direct employment outcome, and that’s a much tougher decision to make.”

USA down, Iran, Bangladesh, Philippines up

Canada has led the world in growing its international education sector, according to an OECD report published in May. According to that report, the number of international students in Canada tripled between 2008 and 2018 and the number of international students working in Canada after graduation increased five fold in the last five years.

The growth in study permit applications peaked in 2016 and 2017, increasing by 28 per cent in 2016 and 31 per cent in 2017. Last year’s increase of 11 per cent was significantly lower. Summerby-Murray said that 11 per cent growth is still strong.

“It’s good growth. It’s good for the country. Higher education is a way of internationalizing our economy, our society and our culture. The way forward is to transform ourselves globally, so that’s what we have to do.”

Summerby-Murray also said Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver are benefiting more from the growth than other regions.

“We are not seeing that level of growth here at all,” he said. “We are essentially flat.”

Describes growth in Canadian study permits 2015 to 2018

Source: IRCC data

The growth rate varies significantly by market and level of study. Demand was up more than 80 percent in some top-source countries, and down 25 per cent in others.

India’s 17 per cent increase in study permit applications is in the middle of the trend of high-volume countries.

Canada received more than 2,000 study permit applications from students in each of 23 countries in 2018. Of those countries, demand was up dramatically in Algeria (87%), Iran (82%), Bangladesh (65%) and Philippines (47%), while it was down in Pakistan (-25%), China (-7%), the USA (-6%) and Nigeria (-5%).

List of growth and decline of study permit applications to Canada from top source countries

Growth in study permit applications varied widely in 2018. Includes all countries where at least 2,000 students filed study permit applications to Canada. Source: IRCC data

Canada recently announced a five-year education strategy that is designed, in part, to make Canadian schools and institutions less dependent on India and China, which together account for more than half of all incoming international students.

The new strategy identifies 11 countries that are target markets for Canadian schools, colleges, universities and institutes from 2019 to 2024. Interest in Canadian education programs and study permit approval rates vary significantly in the 11 countries.


Country 2019 Study Permit Refusal Rate 2018 Growth Rate
Mexico 22% 13%
Colombia 25% 29%
Brazil 18% 0
Vietnam 55% 18%
Philippines 40% 47%
Indonesia 32% 43%
Thailand <1,000 25% 5%
Morocco 51% 23%
Turkey 29% 1%
France 10% 2%
Ukraine 41% -9%

All figures and charts in this story are based on data provided to Polestar Research by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. To receive copies of the IRCC raw data files, email [email protected] and ask for the study permit data package published in September, 2019.


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