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ApplyInsights: Top Canadian Post-Secondary Schools for International Students in 2020

In spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada remains a top destination for international students. When we last looked at the impact of the pandemic on post-secondary education in Canada, data was only available for the first half of 2020. Now, with full-year 2020 data,1 we can take a more complete look at how Canada’s post-secondary sector fared throughout the year. Specifically, we can assess which Canadian post-secondary schools attracted the most international students in 2020, and how this compared to 2019.

Here’s what this post will cover:

  • The number of Canadian study permits issued to post-secondary students in 2020, contrasted with the number issued over the previous three years
  • Snapshots of some of the top colleges and universities in Canada by new study permits issued in 2020
  • Lists of the top 10 universities and top 10 colleges by new study permits issued in Canada in 2020
  • The full list of the top 30 post-secondary institutions by new study permits issued in 2020
  • A brief look ahead at the future of post-secondary education in Canada

The pandemic made international recruitment harder than ever in 2020. Kudos to all the top schools that appear in the lists below, especially those partner schools that we have the pleasure of working with to educate the world!

Canadian Post-Secondary Study Permit Trends, 2017 to 2020

In our ApplyInsights spotlight on the impact of COVID-19, we observed a roughly 30% shortfall in issued study permits for post-secondary students in the first six months of 2020. How did full-year 2020 ultimately compare to 2019?

The chart below shows the number of new Canadian study permits issued for post-secondary students in 2017 through to 2020:

Line chart of New Canadian Study Permits Issued for Post-Secondary Students, 2017–2020
The total number of new study permits issued to post-secondary students dropped from 221,927 in 2019 to just 56,656 in 2020. This amounts to a decline of 74.5% year-over-year. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have study permit extension data for calendar 2020. But study permit extensions issued between January and October 2020 exceeded the total number of extensions issued in 2019. This will certainly reduce the total decline for the sector year-over-year.

For new study permits issued, the decline was not uniform across all post-secondary institutions. We’ll start with the top 10 Canadian colleges for international students in 2020 and see how their rankings compared to 2019.

Top Canadian Colleges for International Students in 2020

On average, the number of new study permits issued for the 2020 top 10 colleges dropped 65.5% from 2019 to 2020. Eight of the top 10 Canadian colleges were based in Ontario. The other two colleges, based in Quebec, were generally more stable than their Ontario peers in 2020.

Let’s look at the top five colleges more closely:

  1. CDI College: International student enrollment at CDI College stayed relatively stable between 2019 and 2020. This stability is largely due to the explosive growth of their Quebec campuses over the past three years. Quebec is the only province that provides Post-Graduation Work Permit Program (PGWPP) eligibility to international students who graduate from private colleges. This helped CDI increase their international enrollment at their Quebec locations from 800 in 2019 to 2,852 in 2020. CDI also had the most popular college program for ApplyBoard students in 2020.
  2. Lambton College: Based in Sarnia, Ontario, Lambton College has been in the top 10 colleges for international students for the past five years. Lambton’s new international student enrollment dropped only 57.2% from 2019 to 2020. That was 17.3% better than the all-institutions average and fourth-best among the top 10 colleges.
  3. Conestoga College: Kitchener, Ontario-based Conestoga College has shown incredible international student growth over the past five years. From 2016 to 2019, Conestoga’s new international student population grew by more than 350%. Even with a 75.3% decline from 2019 to 2020, 13.2% more international students studied at Conestoga in 2020 than 2016. It’s no wonder Conestoga has added more than 1 million square feet of campus space since 2010.
  4. Seneca College: Seneca College has campuses throughout the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). The growth of this population centre helped Seneca attract over 16,000 international students since 2016. Seneca’s new study permit decline in 2020, at 73.1%, was in line with the all-institutions average.
  5. Northern College: Even though Timmins-based Northern College is far from major population centres like Toronto, it attracted a growing international student base pre-pandemic. New study permits issued to international students enrolling at Northern College increased almost 500% between 2016 and 2019. Northern’s 59.8% drop in 2020 was still a strong result. Nearly 140% more new study permits were issued to Northern College students in 2020 than in 2016.

Canada College also deserves recognition as the only post-secondary school in the top 30 to increase its study permit numbers in 2020. Based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada College achieved 49.3% new international student growth from 2019 to 2020. Like CDI, this is likely largely due to Quebec’s implementation of the PGWPP for private colleges.

Here’s the full list of the top 10 colleges for international students in Canada in 2020:

Top 10 Canadian Colleges by New Study Permits Issued, 2020
Rank 2020 Rank 2019 Designated Learning Institution (DLI) # of New Study Permits Issued, 2019  # of New Study Permits Issued, 2020
1 11 CDI College 2,865 2,501
2 5 Lambton College 4,997 2,138
3 1 Conestoga College 8,238 2,039
4 3 Seneca College 5,667 1,522
5 9 Northern College 3,773 1,516
6 6 Fanshawe College 4,905 1,306
7 35 Canada College 865 1,291
8 4 St. Clair College 5,397 1,232
9 2 Centennial College 6,358 1,231
10 10 Canadore College 2,814 1,070

Top Canadian Universities for International Students in 2020

Canadian universities saw lower new international student enrollment in 2020 compared to colleges. New study permits for the top 10 universities fell 74.6% from 2019 to 2020. This was right in line with the all-institutions decline of 74.5%. Unlike the top Canadian colleges, only two of the top 10 universities were in Ontario.

Here are the top five universities for new international students in 2020:

  1. University Canada West (UCW): Vancouver-based UCW has risen up the Canadian universities rankings over the past five years. The number of new study permits issued for UCW students in 2019 was more than 20 times higher than in 2016. The pandemic certainly slowed things, causing a 51.8% decline from from 2019 to 2020.
  2. Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières (UQTR): Prior to the pandemic, UQTR saw its number of new study permits nearly double every year since 2017. A 49.1% drop in 2020 halted that trend, but UQTR still outperformed its peers. UQTR nearly matched its 2018 total, which was as much as its 2016 and 2017 new study permit numbers combined.
  3. Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU): KPU has five campuses in Metro Vancouver. Between these campuses, Kwantlen achieved the highest year-over-year new study permit retention among the top 10 universities in 2020. A 46.3% decline was very strong in light of the pandemic, helping Kwantlen rise from 24th in 2019 to third in 2020.
  4. University of British Columbia (UBC): 2020 marks the first time in five years that UBC was not the most popular Canadian university for new international students. From 2017 to 2019, UBC’s new study permit numbers didn’t change by more than 1.3%. This long-standing strength will undoubtedly help UBC recover post-pandemic from what was an 85.4% new study permit decline in 2020.
  5. McGill University: Like UBC, Montreal-based McGill University was the picture of international student stability pre-pandemic. In each year from 2016 to 2019, new study permits were issued to between 2,960 and 3,390 international students for McGill programs. McGill’s established international reputation will likely help it rebound in 2021/2022 from the 77.5% new study permit drop it saw in 2020.

Here’s the full list of the top 10 Canadian universities for international students in 2020:

Top 10 Canadian Universities by New Study Permits Issued, 2020
Rank 2020 Rank 2019 Designated
Learning
Institution (DLI)
 # of New Study Permits Issued, 2019  # of New Study Permits Issued, 2020
1 9 University Canada West 2,230 1,076
2 13 Université du Québec
à Trois-Rivières
1,790 911
3 24 Kwantlen Polytechnic
University
1,407 755
4 1 University of
British Columbia
4,858 708
5 4 McGill University 3,047 686
6 8 Université de Montréal 2,347 656
7 2 University of Toronto 4,546 649
8 12 Université Laval 1,810 601
9 3 York University 3,188 574
10 5 Concordia University 2,980 547

Top 30 Canadian Post-Secondary Schools for International Students in 2020

One other post-secondary school in the top 30 deserves special mention: the International Language Academy of Canada (ILAC). The only language school to make it into the top 30, the number of new study permits issued to ILAC students dropped 66.4% from 2019 to 2020. This was 8.1% better than the average decline among all post-secondary schools in 2020.

Here’s the top 30 list of Canadian post-secondary institutions in 2020:

Top 30 Canadian Post-Secondary Institutions by New Study Permits Issued, 2020
Rank 2020 Rank 2019 Designated
Learning
Institution (DLI)
 # of New Study Permits Issued, 2019  # of New Study Permits Issued, 2020
1 16 CDI College 2,865 2,501
2 5 Lambton College 4,997 2,138
3 1 Conestoga College 8,238 2,039
4 3 Seneca College 5,667 1,522
5 11 Northern College 3,773 1,516
6 6 Fanshawe College 4,905 1,306
7 75 Canada College 865 1,291
8 4 St. Clair College 5,397 1,232
9 2 Centennial College 6,358 1,231
10 23 University Canada
West
2,230 1,076
11 17 Canadore College 2,814 1,070
12 13 International Language
Academy of Canada
3,045 1,023
13 35 Université du Québec
à Trois-Rivières
1,790 911
14 21 Langara College 2,495 869
15 25 Niagara College 2,205 838
16 61 Matrix College 1,085 787
17 48 Kwantlen Polytechnic
University
1,407 755
18 7 University of
British Columbia
4,858 708
19 14 McGill University 3,047 686
20 44 Cégep de la Gaspésie
et des Îles
1,472 668
21 23 Université de Montréal 2,347 656
22 8 University of Toronto 4,546 649
23 10 Humber College 3,933 643
24 31 St. Lawrence College 1,918 637
25 33 Université Laval 1,810 601
26 12 York University 3,188 574
27 15 Concordia University 2,980 547
28 18 George Brown College 2,692 520
29 22 University of Windsor 2,416 518
30 43 Université du Québec
à Chicoutimi
1,489 480

Looking Forward

2020 was a hard year in nearly every sector. Post-secondary institutions were especially affected by travel restrictions forcing students to cancel or delay their plans to study abroad. But Canadian colleges, universities, and language schools are well poised to recover post-pandemic. The recent election of President Biden could lengthen Canada’s recovery time due to renewed interest in US post-secondary studies providing competition from down south. However, the recent announcement that international students who complete their studies online are still eligible for the PGWPP will help Canadian schools continue to attract students from abroad.

As additional 2020 data comes in, we’ll be sure to break down specific study trends for Canadian schools. Next week, we’ll look at the top Canadian colleges and universities for Indian students in 2020; stay tuned!

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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 5,000 international recruitment partners, ApplyBoard has assisted over 150,000 students in their study abroad journey. Follow Meti on LinkedIn for more access to ApplyInsights and key industry trends.


FOOTNOTES:

1. All data courtesy of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).