ApplyInsights: Top Canadian Source Market Resiliency in 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a significant decline in new international student enrollment at Canadian post-secondary institutions in 2020. But not all source markets saw the same level of decline. In this ApplyInsights, I’ll be exploring the top source markets for Canadian post-secondary schools in 2019 and detailing which markets saw the lowest change in new issued study permits in 2020.

In previous ApplyInsights articles, we’ve covered the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education in Canada. Yet we were only able to assess partial-year 2020 data. Now, with full-year 2020 post-secondary data available,1 we can see what trends the pandemic has affected. Throughout this article, we’ll be looking at source market “retention,” meaning the difference in the number of new study permits issued to students from those markets year-over-year. A 100% retention rate would mean that just as many students came to Canada from that market in 2020 as in 2019.

Here’s what this blog post will cover:

  • The list of top 10 source markets for Canadian study permits issued for post-secondary institutions in 2019
  • The list of top 10 source markets which saw the lowest change in new study permits issued for Canadian post-secondary studies between 2019 and 2020
  • An analysis of the top five high-retention source markets in 2020
  • A brief look at ApplyBoard’s impact on the top high-retention source markets

Let’s first take a look at where things stood at the end of 2019.

Top Source Markets in 2019

Frequent readers of ApplyInsights won’t find any surprises in the 2019 data presented below. India and China were the main source markets for international students to Canada in 2019. We previously discussed these markets as top source markets for colleges and universities as well as top source markets for graduate-level studies. But what impact has COVID-19 had on their 2020 study permit numbers?

The table below shows the top 10 source markets for Canadian study permits issued for post-secondary students in 2019. It also shows how many Canadian study permits were issued to students from those markets in 2020:

Top Source Markets for New Canadian Study Permits Issued, 2019
Rank Source Market 2019 2020 Retention
1 India 110,028 27,751 25.2%
2 China 19,100 1,156 6.1%
3 France 9,830 2,568 26.1%
4 South Korea 6,817 1,966 28.8%
5 Iran 5,799 1,657 28.6%
6 Brazil 4,926 985 20.0%
7 United States of America 4,446 1,685 37.9%
8 Japan 3,898 1,017 26.1%
9 Philippines 3,863 1,420 36.8%
10 Bangladesh 3,353 498 14.9%

New international student enrollment at Canadian post-secondary institutions dropped 74.5% in 2020. This means that the average source market retention was 25.5%. Many of the 2019 top source markets had above-average retention in 2020. Only China, Brazil, and Bangladesh fell below the all-markets average.

The main outlier was China. As the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic, China enacted strict travel restrictions which delayed or cancelled plans for many students. Additionally, Chinese student enrollment at Canadian institutions was already declining pre-pandemic. Considering these two factors, it’s no surprise that the retention rate for Chinese nationals at Canadian post-secondary schools dropped to just 6.1%.

China, Brazil, and Bangladesh all fell six spots on the 2020 ranking of top source markets for post-secondary students. China’s fall from second to eighth was the most pronounced, after nearly doubling the third-ranked market, France, in 2019. The decline for Brazil (from sixth to 12th) and Bangladesh (from 10th to 16th) is also worth noting. Though Brazil’s enrollment growth had subsided before COVID-19 hit, Bangladesh saw a 317% increase in study permits issued for Canadian schools between 2015 and 2019.

Top High-Stability Source Markets

Not all source markets saw the same level of retention volatility because of COVID-19. In fact, some markets–like Algeria, Colombia, and Morocco–saw high enough retention to crack the 2020 top 10 source market list.

The table below shows the top 10 major source markets2 for Canadian study permits issued to post-secondary students by 2020 retention:

Top Source Market Retention for Canadian Issued Study Permits, 2019–2020
Source Market 2019 2020 Retention
Hong Kong (SAR China) 510 408 80.0%
Tunisia 811 481 59.3%
Algeria 2,573 1,425 55.4%
Sri Lanka 674 373 55.3%
Morocco 2,268 1,132 49.9%
Colombia 2,965 1,154 38.9%
Senegal 780 297 38.1%
USA 4,446 1,685 37.9%
Nepal 591 219 37.1%
Philippines 3,863 1,420 36.8%

The average retention rate among these markets was 49.4%, nearly double the all-markets average. Comparing the top 2019 source markets to the retention table above shows that only two markets persisted: the United States and the Philippines. The high retention rate for US students is not surprising, given the relative ease of travel between the US and Canada. By contrast, strong Filipino retention is likely a byproduct of that market’s growing interest in Canadian post-secondary education.

Within the next month, we’re planning to release ApplyInsights deep-dives into the top five high-retention source markets. For now, let’s look briefly at each of these resilient markets in greater detail.

Hong Kong flag with title

Hong Kong’s retention rate was more than 20% higher than the second most resilient market. This incredible resistance to decline had a big impact on Hong Kong’s ranking among the largest source markets. Hong Kong was the 19th-largest source market for new Canadian post-secondary students in 2020, compared to the 37th-largest in 2019. Surprisingly, Manitoba was a strong source of Hong Kong market resilience. Red River College and the University of Manitoba saw a combined 446% increase in their Hong Konger student populations in 2020 compared to 2019 (from 13 to 71 combined).

Tunisian flag with title

Tunisia’s retention rate was strong enough to see it become the 17th-largest source market for new Canadian higher education students in 2020. This was a gain of nine spots over 2019, when it ranked 26th. Tunisian students are predominantly francophone and the majority study at institutions in Quebec. Strong resilience among francophone markets in 2020 may help Quebec’s share of the new international student market continue to grow.

Algerian flag with title

Algeria passed Morocco as the second-largest Canadian source market for francophone post-secondary students in 2019. In 2020, Algeria rose above China and the Philippines to become the sixth-largest source market for all Canadian post-secondary international students. Thanks to strong pre-pandemic growth and solid resiliency during COVID-19, the Algerian market grew 241% between 2016 and 2020, and the number of study permits issued to Algerian nationals increased by 154 from 2018 to 2020.

Sri Lankan flag with title

The retention rate of the Sri Lankan market was greater than double the all-markets average. Impressively, more Sri Lankan nationals were issued Canadian post-secondary study permits in 2020 than in 2018. The only market to grow more than Sri Lanka over this period was Algeria. A few post-secondary schools saw more Sri Lankan nationals in 2020 than in 2019. The big winner was University Canada West, whose new Sri Lankan student population increased by 267% in 2020.

Moroccon flag with title

Morocco has been within the top 20 source markets for Canadian colleges and universities since 2017. But 2020 marks the first time Morocco made it into the top 10, leapfrogging much larger populations such as Japan and Brazil for the 10th spot. This may be in part due to Morocco’s inclusion in Canada’s Student Direct Stream (SDS) program, which Morocco was added to in September 2019.

The Impact of ApplyBoard

COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of diverse international recruitment more than ever. Recruiting from around the world can give institutions increased student population stability as not all markets will react the same to shifting global and economic conditions.

At ApplyBoard, we work with our partner schools to increase their student diversity for all educational levels. Even the pandemic couldn’t push us off our mission to educate the world.

ApplyBoard enrolled more international students at Canadian institutions in 2020 than in 2019.

For the top 10 high-retention source markets in 2020, enrollment through ApplyBoard increased 80% over 2019. Specifically, enrollment for students from Hong Kong increased 100% and Sri Lankan enrollment grew by 87%. The number of Filipino students enrolled at Canadian institutions through ApplyBoard exploded in 2020, growing by 177%. We look forward to working with our recruitment partners and partner schools to increase these numbers even more in 2021!

As more 2020 data comes in, we’ll take a closer look at how some of the top source markets fared during the first year of the pandemic. We’ll also dig deeper into Hong Kong, Tunisia, Algeria, Sri Lanka, and Morocco in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

Published: February 19, 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 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.


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

2. Only markets with more than 500 study permits issued in 2019 were considered for this comparison.