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ApplyInsights: Analyzing a Record-Breaking Year for International Education in Canada

On the heels of one of the longest stretches of uncertainty for the Canadian international education sector, things are looking up. Following a 17% decline in the number of international students in Canada during 2020,1 newly released data places Canada just 2% shy of its pre-pandemic international student total.

As studying abroad returns to feeling like a common endeavour, there’s a host of storylines to watch. We’ll be investigating a spike in European interest in the Canadian market, encouraging growth from Latin America, and surging numbers of students from historically popular markets like India and China.

Key Insights at a Glance

  • The number of international students in Canada increased by nearly 18% from 2020 to 2021.
  • In 2021, seven of the top 10 fastest-growing international student populations in Canada were European.
  • Increased K-12 enrollment is driving rapid growth in several markets.
  • Asian countries accounted for six of the top seven international student populations in Canada in 2021.

What’s driving growth in these markets and what’s on the horizon for international education in Canada? Let’s get into it.

International Student Growth Since 2016

Canada’s international student population increased by 55% from 2016 to 2019, from 490,000 to 638,000. But after a challenging pandemic year, there were just 528,000 total international students in Canada at the end of 2020.

This represented the largest single-year decline in international students since 2000, at 17%. However, students quickly returned to studying at Canadian schools last year.

The following graph tracks the evolution of the international population in Canada over the past six years:

After the pandemic-related decline in 2020, Canada saw a prompt return to pre-pandemic levels, with the number of international students in Canada climbing by nearly 18% in 2021.

Canada’s Post Graduation Work Permit Program (PGWPP) offers international students one of the smoothest pathways to securing work in their trained field, and is likely a key driver of this growth.

This is particularly relevant given the record 330,000 study permit approvals that poured in last year. Many of these students have yet to actually begin their education. Students who want to transfer from online to in-person studies will also make the trip.

Europe

Since 2000, most European countries have shown a consistent level of interest in studying in Canada. The number of European students in Canada has fluctuated slightly but remained largely stable for the past 20 years.

In 2021, we’re seeing a surge in the number of European students coming to Canada. Last year, seven of the top 10 fastest-growing international student populations in Canada were European.2

Take a look at the growth trajectory of those seven countries over the past decade:

With the exception of Spain and Italy, which both experienced steady growth from 2010 to 2019, the other European countries on this list have shown a stable level of interest in studying in Canada.

In 2021, there was a dramatic increase in the number of students in Canada from the majority of countries in Europe. For context, the average growth of international students in Canada across all countries from 2020 to 2021 was 18%. Last year, 37 of the 44 countries in Europe experienced growth exceeding that average.

While it’s well-documented that COVID-19 created pent-up demand for international education with students in all countries, this concentrated spike in interest across Europe looks to be a product of Brexit.

European students who previously would’ve opted to take advantage of reduced tuition fees at UK institutions are now casting their search wider, pursuing education opportunities in Canada. While several UK schools continue to offer these rates to EU students, they may be skeptical of future tuition hikes or soured by Brexit politics.

Denmark (+800%), Germany (+250%), and Spain (+240%) ranked as the top three countries in the world by international student population growth during 2021.

What’s driving this sudden growth? Let’s take a closer look at the five fastest-growing European countries in 2021. For context, we’ve also included the all-markets average:

As you can see from the chart above, several European countries are expressing considerably more interest in the K-12 study level, accounting for the majority of study permits issued to German, Spanish, and Italian students last year.

When compared against the global averages, these European countries are pursuing K-12 study permits at a particularly high level. Across all countries in 2021, just under 13% of Canadian study permits were issued at the K-12 level.

Those looking to get upskilled on all study levels provided to international students in Canada, including K-12, should check out ApplyBoard’s free ABCC–Canada course.

Local recruitment partners tell us that the increasing popularity of high school study abroad programs among Europeans is a big factor contributing to the number of international students attending Canadian K-12 institutions.

When you factor in that exchange programs under six months are not counted towards this data, the actual number of international students studying at the K-12 level is likely even higher.

Asia

Looking at the raw numbers, it’s Asian countries that remain at the top of the Canadian rankings for total international students in Canada in 2021:

Asian countries accounted for six of the top seven countries in 2021 ranked by students in Canada. The sheer volume of students from countries like India, China, and South Korea is enough to vault these countries to the top of the rankings, but most of them have not fully recovered to pre-pandemic levels.

This indicates major room for growth in the short term for Asian countries. Amid rapid growth seen by several countries across Europe, Africa, and LATAM, Asia was still able to secure a large foothold in the 2021 rankings.

The Filipino student population exploded in 2021, more than doubling from 2020. This massive growth was driven by the college market and a mature student population.

Looking forward, we expect the number of students from these nations to increase substantially once Asian students regain a high level of comfort with international travel. Economic instability at home may hinder certain markets more than others, but Asia still looks poised to lead these rankings for the foreseeable future.

LATAM

Four of the top 12 fastest-growing countries from 2020 to 2021 came from the LATAM region. Chile (#3), Peru (#7), Mexico (#10), and Colombia (#12) all grew by over 70% last year, well above the global average of 17%.

Mexico was the quickest LATAM nation to bounce back post-pandemic, posting 80% year-over-year growth and cracking the list of top 10 international student populations in Canada for the first time since 2015.

Africa

Africa made a big contribution to Canada’s record-breaking year, mostly from an emerging markets standpoint. In 2021, seven of the top 30 countries ranked by number of students in Canada were African countries.

Nigeria comes in at ninth in the top 10 rankings, building on steady growth that’s caused it to blossom into an emerging market in Canadian international education. Let’s check out Nigeria’s growth since 2015:

Nigeria has historically been a country with low approval rates on study permit applications, which is often used to justify its modest YOY growth figures.

But last year, Nigerian study permit approval leapt from 17% in 2019, to 33% in 2021. Overall, there was a 30% increase in the number of Nigerian students in Canada from 2020. This growth was driven by undergraduate degrees, with over half of all Nigerian study permits being held at the university level.

In 2021, 10 African countries posted a YOY growth rate above the global average of 17%.

Looking Forward

Students are once again excited to pursue their educational dreams on Canadian soil. Not only are perennial top source markets expressing interest in Canadian institutions, but we’re also seeing a host of emerging markets return in droves.

With high immigration targets, the PGWPP, and a welcoming culture, Canada looks primed to surpass its pre-pandemic growth trajectory.

Canadian institutions and recruitment partners should take note of these region-specific trends as they bolster their recruitment efforts for 2022 and beyond. Here’s a few of our recommendations:

  • Canadian institutions should prepare for an impending wave of applications from high-volume source markets that have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. Students from these markets will be applying in bunches in 2022.
  • K-12 schools should increase their recruitment efforts in Europe, specifically in high-growth countries such as Germany, Spain, and Italy.
  • Recruitment partners must educate themselves in all levels of education available to students in Canada, as interest expands from university to college and K-12 options.

Published: March 24, 2022

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About the ApplyInsights Team

Led by ApplyBoard Co-Founder and CMO Meti Basiri, the ApplyInsights Team analyzes the latest government and third-party data, alongside ApplyBoard internal data, to provide a complete picture of trends in the international education industry. They also work with industry experts and ApplyBoard team members to gather local insights across key source and destination countries, where ApplyBoard has helped more than 300,000 students around the world.

FOOTNOTES:

1. In this article, “international students in Canada” will refer to study permit holders with a valid permit as of December 31 of the given year. All data courtesy of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), unless otherwise noted. More recent data not yet available.

2. Minimum of 100 Canadian study permit holders in 2021.

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