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ApplyInsights: Canada on Track for Strong International Ed Recovery in 2021

Canada’s international education sector was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. But through it all, Canada has remained top of mind for many international students. According to a recent Navitas poll, international student interest in Canada is at an all-time high, leading all English destination markets. This is largely because students and recruitment partners feel that the Canadian government has handled the pandemic more effectively than other destination markets. Canada has also been ranked as the most open and welcoming, the safest, and the most stable of the four major English destination markets.1

These results show that the Canadian international education sector is poised for a substantial post-pandemic rebound. In this ApplyInsights, I’ll be analyzing whether those positive sentiments have turned into student action so far in 2021. Based on new study permit data for January to April 2021,2 I’ll take a look at study permit trends across all source markets. I’ll also dig deep into study level trends and top source markets for new Canadian international students in the first four months of 2021.

Key Insights at a Glance

  • All-market approval rates rose sharply through the first four months of 2021, climbing 15 percentage points from 2020 and surpassing 66% for the first time since 2018.
  • Applications and approvals, as well as issued study permit numbers, are all on track to significantly exceed 2020 numbers.
  • Approved study permits for students from India, the Philippines, and China have already equalled or exceeded full-year 2020 totals.

First, let’s look at new Canadian study permit trends for students from all source markets.

Study Permit Trends – All Markets

From 2019 to 2020, new Canadian study permit applications declined by 48.3% while approved study permit volumes fell by 55.9%. The number of new study permits issued3 dropped even further, decreasing by 73.5% year-over-year. But as pandemic restrictions ease and vaccination rates increase around the world, students are returning to their study abroad plans.

Nearly as many new study permits were approved between January and April 2021 as were approved in full-year 2020.

The chart below shows the number of study permit applications submitted in each year from 2017 through the first four months of 2021, along with the number of study permits approved and issued in each year:New Canadian Study Permit Trends, All Markets, 2017–2021In the first four months of 2021, study permit application volumes reached 75% of 2020 full-year application volumes. This shows a strong resurgence of student interest in Canadian international education. While I expect some month-to-month volatility in application numbers because of different intake windows and changing pandemic policies, it’s possible that study permit applications reach 2017 or 2018 numbers by the end of 2021.

The number of new study permits issued in 2021 also approached full-year 2020 numbers. Just over 64,000 study permits were issued in all of 2020, and nearly 58,000 were issued by the end of April 2021. By contrast, only 25,000 study permits were issued in the first four months of 2020.

More new Canadian study permits were issued to international students in the first four months of 2021 than were issued in the first six months of 2019.

As travel and border restrictions are lifted, I expect that issued study permit numbers will spike significantly. Many students who had their study permit approved in 2020 and who delayed their start date will look to come to Canada in 2021 or early 2022. Students who began online studies but want to transfer to in-person studies will also make the trip, along with new international students who’ve applied for the first time in 2021.

Approval Rates Rose Sharply in 2021

These strong results were also helped by a substantial increase in the all-market new study permit approval rate between 2020 and the first four months of 2021. Canada’s new study permit approval rate fell each year between 2017 and 2020. It dropped from 67% in 2017 to 60% in 2019, before falling sharply to 51% in 2020. But students from many source markets saw a marked increase in study permit approval rates in early 2021.

The chart below shows the all-market approval rate for new Canadian study permits in each year from 2017 through April 2021:New Canadian Study Permit Approval Rates, All Markets, 2017–2021The average study permit approval rate for new Canadian study permits jumped up 15 percentage points to 66% through the first four months of 2021. As a result of this higher approval rate, over 100,000 study permits were approved in early 2021. If this approval rate stays stable throughout 2021, Canadian institutions could see a return to near-2019 study permit numbers.

Study Permit Trends by Study Level

This spike in the all-market approval rate was largely driven by a huge increase in the approval rate for new college study permits. The following chart shows the average study permit approval rate for all markets by study level between 2017 and 2020 and from January to April 2021:New Canadian Study Permit Approval Rates by Study Level, All Markets, 2017–2021From 2020 through the first four months of 2021, the approval rate for new college study permits increased by 24 percentage points. This rate may not persist throughout 2021, however, if it does, it will be the first time that college approval rates significantly exceed undergraduate or language studies approval rates. Approval rates for all other study levels were up from 2020 as well. Study permit approval rates for primary and secondary, language studies, undergraduate, and post-graduate were all in line with or above 2019 rates.

Approved study permit numbers for most study levels were also very promising. Approved study permits for language studies and undergraduate programs all reached around 75% of last year’s total volume. But it gets even better: 43% more study permits were approved for college programs from January to April 2021 than in all of 2020. The number of new study permits approved for primary and secondary students as well as undergraduate students also exceeded 50% of full-year 2020 totals.

Study Permit Trends – Source Markets

Not all source markets have seen the same level of recovery thus far in 2021. However, many key source markets for Canadian institutions saw higher approval rates and approved study permit volumes approaching full-year 2020 totals.

The table below shows the top ten source markets for new Canadian study permit approvals through the first four months of 2021:

Top Source Markets by New Canadian Study Permit Approvals, 2020–2021
2021 Rank 2020 Rank Source Market 2021 (Jan–Apr) 2020
1 (-) 1 India 67,456 36,778
2 (-) 2 China 9,352 9,737
3 (↑) 7 Philippines 2,622 2,675
4 (↓) 3 France 2,085 6,828
5 (↑) 6 Japan 1,890 3,106
6 (↑) 13 Mexico 1,780 1,855
7 (↓) 5 Iran 1,744 3,791
8 (↑) 10 Colombia 1,683 2,237
9 (↓) 4 South Korea 1,534 4,663
10 (↑) 14 Nigeria 1,295 2,107

Strong recruitment recovery throughout the top 10 markets has already resulted in substantial approved permit growth from full-year 2020. Led by the rebounding Indian market, the number of approved study permits for students from the top 10 markets increased by 18% from 2020 through the first third of 2021. If we exclude the Indian market, approved study permits for students from the other nine markets reached 60% of last year’s total. Collectively, these trends are very encouraging.

Let’s take a look at the top three markets in greater detail.

New Canadian Study Permit Approval Rates for Indian students in 2020 and Jan–Apr 2021 and rate of change between the two

India remains the top source market for new international students to Canada, and the market is showing very strong signs of recovery. The number of approved study permits for India students exploded from full-year 2020 to April 2021, increasing by 83.4%. This substantial rise occurred in spite of the COVID-19 crisis in India and was helped by a 25 percentage point increase in the approval rate for Indian students compared to 2020. By the end of April 2021, more study permits were issued to Indian students than in all of 2020.

New Canadian Study Permit Approval Rates for Indian students in 2020 and Jan–Apr 2021 and rate of change between the two

China also retained its rank as the second-largest source market for new international students to Canada thus far in 2021. After a substantial decline in new study permits for Chinese students in 2020, early numbers indicate that the Chinese market may bounce back before the end of 2022. Even more than Indian students, Chinese students have benefited from a very strong approval rate of 91% through April 2021. However, the number of study permits issued to Chinese students remained quite low, still down over 93% from 2019.

New Canadian Study Permit Approval Rates for Filipino students in 2020 and Jan–Apr 2021 and rate of change between the two

2021 has been a strong year so far for Filipino students, building on a stronger-than-expected 2020. While the Philippines was the seventh-largest source market for Canadian international students in 2020, it was the third-largest through early 2021. The first four months of 2021 saw as many study permits approved for Filipino students as were approved in all of 2020. The early 2021 study permit approval rate for Filipino students was higher than the full-year rate had been in the past decade.

Other Notable Markets

Many source markets throughout Latin America rebounded well through the beginning of 2021. The number of approved study permits for students from Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Ecuador, and Peru all exceeded 65% of full-year 2020 totals by the end of April 2021. Aside from India, other South Asian markets including Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan also surpassed 65% of full-year 2020 approvals in early 2021. I anticipate that 2021 will be a banner year for Nepali students looking to study in Canada. In 2020, the study permit approval rate for Nepali students was 41%, up from 25% in 2019. Through April 2021, that rate skyrocketed to 88%, the largest increase in approval rate among major source markets.4

Now’s the Time to Act

As countries around the world move into a new post-pandemic “normal,” competition for international students is already growing. Schools throughout Canada, the UK, the US, and Australia have all been waiting for a chance to recover from 2020. Canadian institutions have a prime opportunity to take advantage of positive student opinions and drive recruitment from established and growing markets.

Right now, Canadian institutions are poised to see large influxes of international students throughout 2021 and 2022. But it’s important to keep in mind that creating sustainable recruitment pipelines will be critical for long-term success. The Biden administration is working to rejuvenate the US international student market, though this has been hampered by slow visa processing times. The UK government has appointed Sir Steve Smith as their “International Education Champion,” and the UK is viewed favourably by international students. While Australia’s recovery will be slower due to prolonged border closures, pilot projects will begin soon to start bringing international students back to Australia.

I’ll be keeping an eye on Canadian study permit numbers throughout 2021, and I’ll review the market again before the end of the year. I’m excited that international students are coming back to Canada, and I’m looking forward to seeing our Canadian partner schools thrive in 2021!

Published: June 16, 2021

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Meti BasiriMeti Basiri
Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer (CMO)
Meti is driven by the belief that education is a right, not a privilege. He leads the International Recruitment, Partner Relations, and Marketing teams at ApplyBoard, working to make education accessible to people around the world. Meti has been instrumental in building partnerships with 1,500+ educational institutions across Canada, the United, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Working with over 7,500 international recruitment partners, ApplyBoard has assisted over 200,000 students in their study abroad journey. Follow Meti on LinkedIn for more access to ApplyInsights and key industry trends.


FOOTNOTES:

1. Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

2. More recent data not yet available. Canadian statistics used in this article are for new study permits only, unless otherwise indicated. All Canadian study permit data courtesy of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).

3. It’s important to note that just because an applicant is approved for a study permit doesn’t mean they will be issued a study permit. A study permit is issued to a student when they attend a port of entry or border crossing and enter Canada for the purposes of completing their studies. Students completing virtual studies require an approved study permit, but they may not be issued a study permit.

4. Major markets include all source markets which saw over 500 students receive approved study permits in 2019.