International recruitment – Is Canada facing a big squeeze?

With Canada announcing the opening of its borders on 20 October, no one can fail to be impressed by its meteoric rise in the realms of international education. But past gains are no guarantee of future success and the shifting tides of international student mobility can rapidly change direction.

There has been plenty of talk over the years about some United Kingdom universities being in the ‘squeezed middle’ of being relatively small and not academically top rank. They tend to rely on their reputation as places that are friendly, very welcoming to students and not the most demanding on entry requirements. It begins to sound like a caricature of the Canadian approach to international marketing.

In terms of global ranking, the United States and United Kingdom are streets ahead of Canada in globally ranked institutions and even Australia has 22 in the Times Higher Education or THE World University Rankings top 300 compared to Canada’s 14.

We are beginning to see Canadian institutions under financial pressure in provinces such as Calgary and Alberta opening up to talks with private pathway providers. But the marketing machine continues to offer easier visa channels, post-study work opportunities and routes to citizenship – none of which is a sustainable advantage if other countries choose to compete.

Canada’s rise

The Canadian success story is worth reviewing. Between 2014 and 2018, the number of international students in Canada increased by 68%. In 2018, a total of 721,205 international students at all levels studied in Canada – the largest number ever.

Canada has moved into third place globally behind the United States of America and Australia.

Total income from international students increased from CA$1.25 billion in 2009-10 to CA$2.75 billion in 2015-16. The CA$1.5 billion increase almost exactly offset the CA$1.7 billion fall in combined federal and provincial government funding over the same period.

International student fees now account for 12% of operating revenue and 35% of all fees collected by institutions and that percentage is increasing. Already some large institutions – including the University of Toronto – are receiving more money from international student tuition fees than they are in operating grants from their provincial governments.

In terms of diversity, Canada’s student population is almost twice as dependent on India, accounting for 56% of international students compared to 22% from China, as the US, UK and Australia, where these positions are reversed.

The post-COVID reality

Considering borders reopening and this glowing report card to date, why should we predict trouble ahead for Canada?

• The prospect of a Biden-Harris administration will make the US far more popular.

• The UK seems to have been the main beneficiary (if there is one) of COVID-19, taking market share from all major English-speaking markets (Australia, Canada and the US).

• Australia will not rest on its laurels after losing out on a full academic cycle and will return to the market stronger and more determined to grow, especially in emerging markets.

• Market dependency on India and China, which account for more than 75% of Canada’s international student population. India’s economy contracted by 23.9% in the three months to the end of June, making it the worst slump since 1996 and the worst impacted economy in Asia. This combined with trade tensions with China could spell trouble ahead.

• A lack of jobs due to the global recession may lessen the attractiveness of Canada in terms of post-study work and a route to immigration.

With the UK on the move, Australia hungry to get back in the game and the US possibly resurgent if Biden wins in November, Canada may only have a six-month window to differentiate its offer.

In order to maintain its meteoric rise and fend off the prospect of increased competition from English-speaking counterparts, it would be worthwhile for EduCanada and their partners to think strategically about how they will differentiate and maintain their growth during and following the global pandemic.

Our top tip is to focus on employability, both for students that remain in Canada (the majority of whom are from South Asia) and those who return home. With robust data on international graduate outcomes, Canada would be the first nation to put employability at the heart of their National Inbound International Student Recruitment campaign and lead the pack in terms of evidencing the return on investment of a Canadian degree.

Louise Nicol is director of the Asia Careers Group.