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ApplyInsights: Canada Needs International Students Now More than Ever

International students comprised 18% of Canada’s post-secondary enrollment in the 2019-2020 academic year, an increase of seven percentage points compared to 2015-2016.1 This data shows that international student enrollment continued to provide vital support for the ongoing growth and success of Canadian post-secondary education. As ApplyBoard’s CEO, Martin Basiri, wrote for the Toronto Star, improved access to global education helps Canada and the world grow stronger and more prosperous.

A new report from Ontario’s auditor general highlights a 15% decline in domestic student enrollment for Ontario’s colleges since 2012-2013.2 However, Statistics Canada’s most recent data demonstrates that Ontario is not alone in this trend. This new data set shines light on the statistics beneath many international study trends we’ve been seeing across the country.

Key Insights at a Glance

  • Among Canadian provinces, only Prince Edward Island and Alberta experienced positive domestic enrollment growth at post-secondary institutions from 2015-2016 to 2019-2020.
  • 9 out of 10 provinces saw at least a 10% increase in incoming post-secondary international students in 2019-2020 over the previous year.
  • Domestic enrollment for universities stagnated from 2015-2016 to 2019-2020, while international enrollment grew by 40% over the same period.
  • International student enrollment for colleges more than doubled in 7 of 10 provinces from 2015-2016 to 2019-2020. The sector’s domestic enrollment dropped by 4% over the same period.

Which Canadian provinces rely the most on international enrollment for growth in the post-secondary market? What significant differences exist between international and domestic enrollment in the university and college sector?

Join us as we dive into the data to answer these questions.

Total Enrollment in Canada

After sitting around 1.8 million for several years, the total number of domestic students enrolled at Canadian post-secondary institutions declined by 1% in 2019-2020. At the same time, Canadian universities and colleges welcomed over 388,000 international students, representing 14% growth year-over-year. The chart below highlights how the rapid rise of international student enrollment has captured a larger percentage of Canada’s total enrollment over the five year period.

159,000 more international students were enrolled at Canadian post-secondary institutions in 2019-2020 than in 2015-2016, representing 70% growth. And year-over-year growth in international student enrollment exceeded 10% every year from 2016-2017 to 2019-2020. This boom was crucial to the success of the Canadian post-secondary sector as domestic student enrollment waned. It also points to the global strength of Canadian institutions to attract and educate students from across the world.

We wrote about the positive economic impact made by international students last year.

Let’s take a look at how these enrollments impacted Canada’s provinces.

Enrollment by Canadian Province

The stacked bar charts below highlight which provinces increasingly relied on international student enrollment to continue the growth of their post-secondary schools from 2015-2016 to 2019-2020.

International students encapsulated 21% of Ontario’s total enrollment in 2019-2020, up from 12% in 2015-2016. This percentage point shift was behind only Prince Edward Island (PEI) for the largest in the country, and just ahead of Nova Scotia.

Ontario’s domestic enrollment remained stagnant as international enrollment doubled over the five year period. As a result, the province accounted for 50% of all international enrollments across Canada in 2019-2020. This maintained an ongoing trend: Ontario grew its share of the country’s total number of international students every year since 2015-2016, averaging a yearly increase of 2 percentage points during the five-year span.3

The enrollment shift in PEI and Nova Scotia highlights Atlantic Canada’s need for international students to support its economic success. The region saw some of the sharpest domestic student enrollment declines from 2015-2016 to 2019-2020. Newfoundland and Labrador dropped 12%, Nova Scotia by 5%, and New Brunswick by 3%. Conversely, international student enrollment rose by 55%, 69%, and 32% in each respective province over the same period.
PEI's domestic student enrollment grew 18% from 2015-2016 to 2019-2020. Its international student enrollment grew by 142% over the same period.
Alberta was the only other province that saw positive domestic enrollment growth (+7%) from 2015-2016 to 2019-2020. This means the post-secondary education sector would have declined in 8 of 10 provinces if not for increased international enrollment. Instead, only Newfoundland and Labrador (-6%) and Quebec (-1%) saw negative total enrollment growth during this period.

Nearly 20,000 fewer domestic students enrolled in Quebec’s post-secondary institutions in 2019-2020 than in 2015-2016. Over this same period, the province welcomed more than 16,000 international students.

Due to the size of Quebec’s market, the decline of domestic student enrollment over this period represented just a 4% drop. The province’s increased international student enrollment represented 38% growth over the same period. By total amount, Quebec experienced the largest decline of domestic student enrollment in the country. ApplyInsights examined Quebec’s opportunities for post-pandemic recovery and sector growth last year.

Let’s dive into how these enrollment shifts impacted Canada’s universities and colleges.

Enrollment at the University Level

International student enrollment in the university sector grew by 40% from 2015-2016 to 2019-2020. During this period, domestic enrollment at universities stagnated, growing by less than 1%. The following chart compares the total percentage of international and domestic student enrollment at the university level by province from 2015-2016 to 2019-2020.

PEI, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador saw the biggest percentage point change from 2015-2016 to 2019-2020: international students captured 11%, 8%, and 7% of each respective province’s university enrollment total. For these three provinces, as well as British Columbia, international students accounted for more than 20% of university enrollment in 2019-2020.

Without the rise of international enrollment, the university sector would have declined, as 6 of 10 provinces saw domestic enrollment decline from 2015-2016 to 2019-2020. Every province increased its international student enrollment by more than 20% during this same period except for New Brunswick, which saw a 7% decline. The chart below highlights the university sector’s growth over the five year period.

Enrollment at the College Level

Canada’s colleges experienced sharper fluctuations in both international and domestic student enrollment than the university sector. The chart below compares the total percentage of international and domestic student enrollment at the college level by province from 2015-2016 to 2019-2020.

International students increased their share of Ontario’s total college enrollment by a whopping 17 percentage points from 2016-2016 to 2019-2020. However, the province is not alone. British Columbia, New Brunswick, and PEI all saw percentage point shifts in the double digits.

Domestic student enrollment at the college level dropped 2% in 2019-2020, and 4% between 2015-2016 and 2019-2020. Saskatchewan and Ontario were the hardest hit, with domestic enrollment dropping 17% and 3%. From 2015-2016 to 2019-2020, only PEI (48%) and Alberta (4%) saw positive domestic enrollment growth.

On the other hand, international student enrollment at the college level boomed across all provinces. The sector’s international enrollment grew by 20% in 2019-2020 alone, and grew by 154% since 2015-2016. Over the five-year period, international student enrollment doubled in every province except for Alberta (85% growth), Manitoba (60%), and Newfoundland and Labrador (39%). The chart below highlights the college sector’s growth over the five year period.4

Looking Ahead

Canada’s positive perception internationally and strong PR pathways, alongside its excellent institutions, have driven growth. However, the country enjoyed numerous advantages during the last few years that may face increased competition. President Biden is committed to recovering the US’s relationship and reputation with international students. And Australian institutions are preparing for an enrollment boom in 2022 as the country reopens its borders to international students.

Due to this expected uptick in competition, Canadian schools and governments must continue to innovate and develop support for international students if they wish to maintain positive enrollment growth. Schools should look to create and expand programs and funding opportunities that help international students develop and foster their sense of community.

At the same time, governments must remain proactive in supporting post-secondary institutions. The report by Ontario’s auditor general identified some areas for improvement. These included updating funding allocation strategies for schools, standards for public college non-degree programs, and program approval processes. These forms of government support would help schools innovate quickly and respond to both market and student needs. At ApplyBoard, we’re looking forward to working with our partner schools on these issues and more.

Published: January 13, 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.


1. Statistics Canada, Postsecondary enrolments, by registration status, institution type, status of student in Canada and gender. November 24, 2021. Note that the most recent data is for 2019-2020.

2. Office of the Auditor General of Ontario, Value-for-Money Audit: Public Colleges Oversight. December 2021. Note that the data here extends to 2021-2022.

3. It is worth reiterating that Stats Canada’s most recent enrollment data is for 2019-2020.

4. Note: Due to data availability, Nova Scotia has been omitted.


The most important stories in international education, backed by data