Economic impact of international education in Canada – 2017 update

5. Trends in international student enrolment and economic impacts in Canada

Roslyn Kunin and Associates (RKA) has so far helped to prepare estimates of international student spending and the associated economic impacts in five years – 2008, 2010, 2014, 2015 and 2016 – in four separate studies, dated 2009, 2012, 2016 and 2017. While the studies prepared in 2016 and 2017 essentially follow the same methodological approach as the earlier reports prepared in 2009 and 2012, there are differences in the data sources, assumptions and the model specification, in addition to the use of more recent data for impact estimates in 2014 through 2016. Nevertheless, readers will be able to gain knowledge of the magnitude of the impacts.

In this section, we show comparable values, where applicable, and highlight the trends of international student enrolment and the growing economic impacts of these students on Canada’s economy.

5.1. Comparison of student enrollment

Table 16 below shows how international student enrolment evolved from 2008 to 2016.

Table 16: Comparing the number of international students in Canada, 2008, 2010 and 2014-2016
 Long Term StudentsShort Term StudentsAll Students
2008178,227101,943280,170
2010218,245110,157328,402
2014330,706107,451438,157
2015345,793112,036457,828
2016408,176115,796523,971

Between 2008 and 2016, the number of international students studying in Canada increased by 87.0%, or at an average annual rate of 8.1%. The increase is mainly attributed to the number of long-term students, those who study for longer than six months in a given year. Enrolment in this category of students more than doubled between 2008 and 2016, growing at 10.9% per year.

Between 2015 and 2016, the number of international students grew an impressive 14.4%, most of which was the results of an increase in long-term students from India studying at the college level.

5.2. Comparison of overall spending 2008, 2010, 2014-2016

Table 17 below depicts the values of total annual spending of international students.

Table 17: Comparing the annual total spending by international students in Canada, 2008, 2010 and 2014-2016
 All Students
2008$6.5 billion
2010$8.0 billion
2014$11.4 billion
2015$12.8 billion
2016$15.5 billion

Between 2008 and 2016, the total annual international student spending more than doubled, from $6.5 billion in 2008 to more than $15.5 billion in 2016. This represents an 11.4% increase per year. Between 2014 and 2016, the rate of growth in overall student spending (16.9% per year on average) is significantly higher than the growth in previous years.

5.3. Comparing combined direct and indirect impacts 2014-2016

This subsection summarizes the combined direct and indirect economic impacts of international students in Canada between 2014 and 2016. We note that, in the 2009 study and 2012 update on impacts in 2008 and 2010, respectively, only direct economic impacts were reported; therefore, the impact values were not comparable.

Table 18: Comparing the combined direct and indirect economic impacts of international students in Canada, 2014-2016
 201420152016Percentage Change 2014-16
GDP$9.3 billion$10.5 billion$12.8 billion+37%
Jobs122,680140,010168,860+38%
Tax Revenue$2.1 billion$2.3 billion$2.8 billion+35%

As noted in the table, the combined direct and indirect GDP impact of international student spending increased 37.2% between 2014 and 2016, which equals an annual growth rate of 17.1%. International student spending directly and indirectly supported 168,860 jobs in Canada in 2016, an increase of 38% over 2014. Government tax revenue derived from international student spending rose from $2.1 billion in 2014 to $2.8 billion in 2016, an increase of 34.6%.

5.4. Comparison of overall spending and Canada’s trade

Table 19 below summarizes and compares the value of spending by all international students with the overall values of Canada’s export in 2008, 2010, 2014, 2015 and 2016.

It should be noted that the value of overall international student spending as a percentage of the total value of Canada’s exports in services was not provided in the reports that RKA prepared in 2009 or 2012, but has been added to the table below. Furthermore, the value of overall international student spending as a percentage of Canada’s total exports in merchandise in the table below are different from those reported in previous studies to show that all student expenditures (including those of short-term students) have been accounted for.

Table 19: The increasing role of international students’ spending of International Students in Canada’s trade, 2008, 2010 and 2014-2016
 20082010201420152016
Spending of All International Students as % of Canada’s Service Export8.2%10.2%11.9%12.5%14.5%
Spending of All International Students as % of Canada’s Merchandise Export1.4%2.0%2.2%2.4%3.0%

To put international students’ economic impact into context, it was important to review the changes to the impacts created by international students in some of Canada’s competitive international education markets where data was available. Since our study on the economic impacts of international students was released in 2016, the following countries have also released more up-to-date analyses of international students and their economic impacts in the host countries: the U.S., the U.K., Australia and New Zealand.

According to the latest Institute of International Education (IIE) Open Doors data and NAFSA (Association of International Educators) analysis, in the U.S., international students in higher education institutions added US$30.5 billion to the U.S. economy in 2015 and US$32.8 billion in 2016. This is in comparison with the US$27 billion in exports added to the U.S. economy in 2014.

A U.K. study published in 2014 evaluated the contribution of post‑secondary international education using data for the 2011-2012 academic year.[22] Non-U.K. students directly contributed £10.71 billion to the U.K.’s exports. A recent update indicated that international students were responsible for £10.8 billion of the U.K.’s export earnings in the 2014-2015 academic year.[23]

In Australia, it is reported that “in 2016 preliminary export data shows international education exports hit a record AUS$21.8 billion, making it Australia’s third largest export after iron ore and coal”.[24] This estimated export value of international education followed the release of “data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics reveal(ing) that Australia’s education export income reached AUS$19.65 billion in 2015”,[25] representing an increase of 11.5% over 2014. In fact, based on global education data from OECD, “Australia was the third most popular study destination for international students after the US and UK and one of the few major destination countries to increase its global market share over the last decade”.[26] However, compared with values in the U.S. and U.K. studies, it should be noted that the export values of international education in Australia include not only the spending of international students in formal post-secondary training, but also in grade schools, English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students (ELICOS), vocational education and training (VET), and other non-award students.

In New Zealand, the most recent study of the impacts of international education in the 2015-2016 academic year indicates that the sector was responsible for NZ$3.8 billion in foreign exchange earnings. The student cohort in the study included those in grade schools, institutes of technology, polytechnics, wānanga (ITP), universities, English language schools and other private tertiary establishments (PTE). This is in comparison with the approximately NZ$2.5 billion in export earnings in the 2012-2013 academic year. It should be noted, however, that “total student spending over the last two years outstripped the growth in spending on tuition fees and the growth in student numbers”.[27] The explanation for the increase relates to the change in methodology, in addition to price inflation.


[22] Universities UK, 2014. “The Impact of Universities on the UK economy”.

[23] Universities UK (March 2017): The Economic Impact of International Students.

[24] Cited in an ICEF Monitor briefing dated February 24, 2017 - http://monitor.icef.com/2017/02/foreign-enrolment-hits-new-record-australia/.

[25] Cited in an ICEF Monitor briefing dated February 9, 2016 - http://monitor.icef.com/2016/02/australian-education-exports-top-aus19-billion-in-2015/.

[26] Cited in an ICEF Monitor briefing dated February 9, 2016 - http://monitor.icef.com/2016/02/australian-education-exports-top-aus19-billion-in-2015/.

[27] Infometrics, National Research Bureau (2016), The Economic Impact of International Education in New Zealand 2015/16.