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Is the recent spike in international students affecting domestic university enrolment at Canadian public postsecondary institutions?

January 22, 2024, 11:00 a.m. (EST)

The surge in international student enrolment at Canadian postsecondary institutions from 2010 to 2019 has ultimately proven beneficial to Canadian students enrolled in science and arts programs at public universities and colleges, according to a recent study.

International student enrolment more than doubles in a decade, while Canadian enrolment declines

Postsecondary educational institutions play a key role in building the skill base for the Canadian labour market. However, does this still hold true when considering the recent influx of international students and the decline in domestic enrolments?

The number of international students enrolled in Canadian public postsecondary educational institutions more than doubled in a decade, rising from 142,200 in 2010/2011 to 388,800 in 2019/2020, while their share of total postsecondary student enrolments increased from 7% to 18%.

However, unlike domestic students, most international students left Canada after graduation. Among international students who arrived in the 2000s, approximately one-third became landed immigrants within a decade of their arrival. Thus, the majority of international students did not contribute the skills they acquired in Canadian educational institutions to the Canadian labour force.

Conversely, enrolment of Canadian students in public postsecondary institutions across Canada declined by 37,065 from the 2010/2011 academic year to 1,784,181 in 2019/2020, likely due to population decline.

Study finds a positive relationship between changes in domestic and international student enrolments in science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs

Despite the drop in Canadian student enrolment over this period, the study found a positive relationship between changes in domestic and international student enrolments within programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at universities and in business, humanities, health, arts, social science and education—as well as legal studies, trades, services, natural resources and conservation (BHASE)—at colleges. 

For example, an influx of 100 international students in STEM fields was associated with 141 additional domestic student enrolments in the same fields at universities.

An increase in the enrollment of 100 international students in BHASE programs at colleges was associated with 99 additional domestic students in these programs at colleges.

International undergraduates pay almost five times more on average in tuition fees than Canadian students

The average tuition fees of undergraduate Canadian students rose by over one-quarter (+27.8%) from 2010/2011 to $6,580 in 2020/2021, while those for undergraduate international students almost doubled to $32,039.

Because tuition fees and enrolments of international students are growing at a much faster pace than their Canadian counterparts, their overall contribution to total tuition revenues at Canadian universities has risen. This has helped to make up for the reduction of provincial funding in universities’ budgets for their operational activities.

Considering the forecasted demographic trends, the relationship between domestic and international student enrolments should be revisited in the future

In the 2010s, the population of young adults aged 18 to 24 in Canada declined. Because of the demographic change, postsecondary institutions may have needed to expand their international student enrolments to keep up their operation.

However, the population of young adults is projected to experience rapid growth in the next 10 years. This demographic change may lead to increased domestic enrolment, and thus the underlying relationship between changes in enrolments of domestic and international students may shift in the next decade.

The full report, “A comparison of postsecondary enrolment trends between domestic and international students by field of study,” is now available.

The report, "Characteristics of postsecondary international students who did not enrol in publicly funded postsecondary education programs" is also available.

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