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Go north, young grad. How Canada is winning over international students.

Why We Wrote This

Increasingly, students are looking at a country’s reputation as much as a college’s and asking, Where can I make a home? For many college students, Canada is being seen as the new land of opportunity.

Lei kesi/AP/File
An education consultant from Canada (l.) talks with a visitor during the 18th China International Education Exhibition Tour 2013 in Beijing. Today, international students can work on and off campus while studying in Canada, and secure three-year visas afterward, all of which counts toward eventual permanent residency.

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For many students looking to study abroad, Canada ticks a lot of boxes: It’s safe, progressive, and offers incentives to stay after graduation.

An approach aimed at attracting – and keeping – international students has paid off for the country. According to Canadian federal statistics, the number of international students with study permits has almost doubled since 2011. At the end of 2017, there were about half a million international students across the country, with a 20 percent jump in 2016 alone. While the United States remains the No. 1 place to study for such candidates, Canada (currently in third place) soon could overtake the United Kingdom, according to the 2018 QS Applicant Survey.

Cansu Aydemir, a Turkish student getting a second undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto, says she originally came to Canada to join a friend. But other factors influenced her as well. “When you’re young, it’s really hard to be apart from your family and live in a different country,” she says, “so it’s important to be in a country that welcomes you. You feel that here.”

When Turkish student Asli Zayim was deciding where to pursue an international business degree, she considered far more than just a school’s reputation or alumni connections. American colleges enjoy a certain esteem, of course, but she watched too many friends return home after completing their education there, unable to secure the visas they needed to get jobs. Her own sister spent nine years doing a PhD in Wisconsin before she was able to apply for a US green card.

That’s why she submitted all of her applications to Canadian schools. Canada, she says, not only welcomes foreign students, but makes it easier for them to settle down afterward. “For us it’s about building our future lives, not just having international education,” says Ms. Zayim, who is in her first year of an MBA at the University of Toronto. “I asked myself, where do I want to live? Where can I live? Not some place where one day I wake up and my work or study permit is not approved. I came for this life, not just for this [school] building.” 

That calculus could have worked against a candidate in the past, says Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada, which represents Canadian universities at home and abroad. Today, however, Canada understands it as part of the allure – and its way to compete in the globalized world. In recent years, the government eased rules for international students. They can now work on and off campus while studying and secure three-year visas afterward, all of which counts toward eventual permanent residency – making Canadian academia more international than it has ever been. 

In many minds, a degree here is considered the quickest path to opportunity, and one with the surest footing, as the rest of the world looks more unstable for foreign graduates.

“Canada is safe, secure, and welcoming, and those are important messages,” says Mr. Davidson. “Then taking it up a notch right now, Canada is seen globally as a place that’s progressive, dynamic, that’s inclusive. And those are all attributes that people who are interested in international study find attractive.”

More students, many from China

According to Canadian federal statistics, the number of international students with study permits has almost doubled since 2011. At the end of 2017, there were about half a million international students across the country, with a 20 percent jump in 2016 alone.

Chinese students are the biggest cohort of international students in Canada, based on the government data, representing a third of all, or 140,000. That’s closely followed by 125,000 students with Indian citizenship. Though according to The Globe and Mail, they have now overtaken the Chinese student population in size. 

While the United States remains the No. 1 place to study for international candidates, Canada (currently in third place) soon could overtake the United Kingdom, according to the 2018 QS Applicant Survey.

Universities Canada says interest is up across all degree programs, but they see particularly high enrollment in the STEM discipline, which is where Davidson says Canada needs job applicants.

Applications among international students for MBA programs in Canada are also up, while they are down in most programs in the US, according to the 2018 Application Trends survey report of the Graduate Management Admission Council. 

Sangeet Chowfla, president of the US-based GMAC, says this is part of a longer-term decline owed in part to the growth and quality of business school alternatives closer to students’ homes. But shorter-term politics – particularly among “global strivers,” students who he says want to accumulate global work experience and fear they won’t be able to work after their degrees – has caused a dip in US enrollment. It’s the reason even Harvard University, despite its enduring prestige, has also experienced a decline in MBA applications.

It’s a reversing trend that matters not just for international students and institutions accepting their tuition. “The decline in international students would actually work to the detriment of the educational experience of US students,” Mr. Chowfla says. “It’s not just about a zero-sum game.... Reducing the number of international enrollments to the US higher education system actually reduces the attractiveness of the system to domestic applicants.”

Canada is not immune to political troubles either. Due to a growing diplomatic dispute with China over the arrest of Meng Wanzhou of Huawei on a US extradition request, some university administrators have feared that Chinese students will look elsewhere – a huge economic loss to Canadian institutions. Similarly, after a dispute between Saudi Arabia and Canada this summer, thousands of Saudi students in Canada were pulled home.

Personal connections drive decisions 

On a recent day at the University of Toronto, international students express myriad reasons for choosing Canada as their place of study. A group of Chinese students says the prevalence of guns in the US scared them off. For others, Canadian schools offered cheaper tuition and the chance to work while studying, offsetting costs. For most people, the No. 1 driver is personal – a sister or a friend already studying here.

Cansu Aydemir, a Turkish student getting a second undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto and applying to law schools, says she originally came here because a friend she knew was in Canada. But political factors do make a difference, especially for younger students away from home for the first time. “When you’re young, it’s really hard to be apart from your family and live in a different country,” she says, “so it’s important to be in a country that welcomes you. You feel that here.”

That’s because everyone around her, she says, is just like her: from somewhere else. In fact, the University of Toronto hosts 19,000 students from more than 168 countries, making one-fifth of the student body international.

The government of Canada sees attracting global talent as its path forward, including as an antidote to an aging population and declining fertility rates. Those skilled immigrants could be a boon to Canada as it faces global and technological change, a recent National Bank of Canada presentation highlighted. Among developed countries, Canada has the highest percentage of immigrants ages 15 to 64 with postsecondary education – 60 percent. “Canada has turned out to be the world’s most successful talent poacher,” explained Chief Economist Stefane Marion in the presentation.  

A twist: Canadian students stay home

There is a missing piece in this global narrative, however: Canadian students study abroad less than their peers. Roland Paris, a professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa, co-led the Study Group on Global Education in 2017. The report showed that Canadian students study abroad as part of their undergraduate degrees at rates lower than students from other countries. In France it’s 33 percent; in Australia and the US, it’s 19 and 16 percent respectively. But only 11 percent of students from Canada complete part of their studies abroad.

The group called on the government to make international study a priority, increasing the numbers of Canadians who can go abroad and broadening where they go. “The vast majority of those who are going abroad end up in the UK, the United States, France, and Australia,” says Mr. Paris. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but the profile of where our students are going is not aligned with the world that’s emerging.”

Canada attracts foreign students by embracing multiculturalism, but Canadian students must also be given a chance to gain the skills acquired living abroad and working and studying in a new culture. “Given the multicultural character of Canadian society, many Canadians will be working at home in their jobs with people from different parts of the world,” Paris says. “It’s important to continue cultivating multicultural understanding and respect in this country.”

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