Economic impact of international education in Canada - 2020 update

Appendix 1 - Data sources and adjustments

Data sources


One of the main purposes of this study was to determine the overall economic impacts of total spending by international students, which required the understanding of the number of international students in each province and territory, and in different levels of study: public or private, in the K-12 system, at the college level, as well as undergraduate and graduate students in the university system. It was also necessary to determine the number of international students studying in professional and language training programs.

There is not one complete set of data that fit our definition of international students or reported data on all students. In its Post-Secondary Information system, Statistics Canada collects data on international student enrolment at the college and university levels (including a breakdown of undergraduate and graduate levels) by field of study or by program level. However, the colleges and universities that are covered in the Statistics Canada survey are essentially all in the public system and therefore the data does not yield information on international students in the private post-secondary system.

In terms of the number of international students in the K-12 system, no data is readily available from Statistics Canada for each of the provinces and territories, or from each provincial or territorial ministry of education.

As described in the Introduction section, when no consistent data was available for international students, the alternative was to use the data on foreign students available from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). As international students need to obtain a study permit before arriving in Canada to pursue education and training for a period longer than six months, IRCC's data told us how many study permits holders were in each of the provinces and territories at a given time.IRCC defines foreign students as follows:

Temporary residents who entered Canada mainly to study and have been issued a study permit (with or without other types of permits). A study permit is an official document issued by an officer that allows someone who is not a Canadian citizen or a permanent resident to study in Canada. In general, a study permit is not needed for any program of study that is six months or less. For statistical purposes, a temporary resident is designated as a foreign student on the basis of IRCC's determination of his or her "yearly status"- the main reason for which the person has been authorized to enter and stay temporarily in Canada during the year of observation. Foreign students exclude temporary residents who have been issued a study permit but who entered Canada mainly for reasons other than study.

There are three broad levels of study for foreign students.

  1. Secondary or less: secondary school and elementary school
  2. Post-Secondary: which is further divided into
    • CEGEP
    • College education
    • University education
    • Others
  3. Other Studies

The IRCC data therefore allowed us to use the number of study permit holders as a proxy for the number of international students at a given time in a year. It also allowed for a distinction to be made between broad levels of study. For all these reasons, we relied on IRCC's data for analytical purposes.

One limitation of using the IRCC's data set to represent the number of international students was that the actual number of permit holders registered at a Canadian institution may be smaller than the number of permits issued due to the fact that some permit holders may not be able to, or have chosen not to, enroll in an education program. Another limitation of this data set was that since the term "foreign student" is defined by citizenship, it also includes permit holders who are the children or spouses of attending students, but these are not considered fee-paying international students for the purposes of our analysis.

Finally, another important source of international students that was not fully covered in the IRCC data is the number of students who study in Canada for periods of less than six months, as they do not require a study permit to enter the country. We approached organizations whose members provide short-term vocational training to the public. It should be noted, however, that only Languages Canada collects comprehensive data that is useful for our purposes.

Languages Canada is an association that represents the majority of private and public language training institutions in Canada that encompass the two official languages, English and French. Membership is limited to schools that meet the association's rigorous standards and are committed to upholding them. Currently, there are over 210 member programs across the country, including at universities, colleges and private institutions. The association is not-for-profit and sector driven. Quality assurance is a critical element of Languages Canada and all member schools are required to be accredited under one internationally recognized and comprehensive scheme.

In the rest of the report, we defined international students as those from the two sets of data available to us, with adjustments. Long-term students refer to the individuals who are represented by the IRCC data, while short-term students are those pursuing language training programs of less than six-months in institutions with Languages Canada membership.

Student expenditures

For students in each level of study, we estimated expenditures in the following categories:

  • Tuition and fees
  • Additional compulsory fees
  • Books and other study tools/materials
  • Living expenses
  • Transportation costs
  • Discretionary expenditures

In order to calculate the net economic benefits of international students in the host country, we took into account any financial assistance that international students receive from Canadian governments, as well as from universities or other institutions.

Additional visiting family and friends "tourist" activities

Existing literature on international education points to another area of university activity, which is the important role that institutions can play in attracting visitors to the host country.

In this study, we estimated the number of international students' family and friends visiting Canada based on assumptions used in the 2013 Australian ACPET study on the economic benefits that international students brought to the country.

Canmac followed the methodology for data sources from the original RKA 2015, 2016 studies to ensure compatibility.

Detailed information on tuition and fees for full-time university-level international students in each province is available in Statistics Canada’s annual Tuition and Living Accommodation Costs (TLAC) survey. Note that the TLAC does not provide any data for the territories.

When deriving student tuition and fees for the four levels of study other than “secondary or less” (i.e. post-secondary, which is further divided into trade/college, university, other post-secondary and other), we made the following assumptions:

  • University – We applied separate undergraduate and graduate tuition values from the TLAC to full-time undergraduate students and students in master’s/PhD programs.
    Part-time students were assumed to take a 50% course load for the purposes of calculation.
    In addition to tuition, we have included “additional fees,” which represent the compulsory fees the universities impose on both domestic and international students, such as facility fees, society fees, health and dental fees (for international students only), student pass fees in some cases, and others. We also made an allowance of $1,200 per academic year for books/tools/materials.
    Tuition and fees are for an academic year (i.e. eight months) in the TLAC data, but for the purposes of this study, we have assumed that 10% of students study 12 months of the year.
  • Trade/college and other post-secondary – For full-time tuition, we applied a factor of 75% to the average university undergraduate tuition in each province. The 75% is an approximation based on web research conducted for select college programs in each province to see how they compare to the full-time tuition for an undergraduate program.
    For part-time students, we assumed a 50% course load.
    We also assumed that international students in “trade,” “college” and “other post-secondary” levels of study pay on average the same percentage (75%) of “additional fees” as university-level international students. We also made the same allowance for books/equipment requirement ($1,200) in a year.
    For international college students in the territories, tuition and fees information was derived from colleges’ websites.
  • Other – since we did not have any detailed information on the nature of their study, we assumed the following: that these students may pay tuition and fees equivalent to the average paid by K-12 and college students. Students in this category were also assumed to incur living expenses equivalent to those in part-time college studies.

For short-term international students, estimates of tuition and fees on a weekly basis were derived from information provided by Languages Canada.

Living expenses

  • Secondary or less - we assumed that a student in the public school system pays an average homestay cost of $850 per month (in 2015) for a 10-month period. Essentially, we assumed that students return to their home countries for summer vacation. For those in the private, independent school system, we assumed that three quarters of these students pay an average homestay cost of $850 per month, and one quarter of these students board with the school they attend. Values in 2016 were adjusted upward by 2% to account for price inflation.
  • University – for full-time students, we use Statistics Canada’s annual Tuition and Living Accommodation Costs (TLAC) survey data (to calculate the average costs of on-campus room and meal expenses for an eight month period for students in the undergraduate, master’s and PhD programs). Then, values were scaled up to full-year (12 months) values. That is, we assumed that international students in the university category stay in the country for 12 months, even though they may only take courses for two semesters.

For part-time students, we assumed a monthly homestay cost of $850 in 2015 for 12 months in a year. Values of homestay costs in 2017 and 2018 were adjusted upward by 2%.

We also made allowances for transportation costs for students staying in different provinces and territories. We applied data from Statistics Canada’s Survey of Household Spending (SHS), which details household spending on public transportation, by province and territory. The values we used refer to the average expenditure per household on public transportation (households that did or did not use public transit). Values were adjusted for inflation.

  • For students in other levels of study (trade/college and other post-secondary, as well as those in the “other” category), we assumed that they spend the equivalent of what university students have to pay during an academic year (average room, meal and transportation costs).

The average costs for meals and accommodation at colleges in the territories were derived in the same way as they were in the provinces. Estimates of transportation costs were calculated as the average for provincial transportation costs.

In addition to basic living costs, as presented above, we made an allowance of $2,500 per student per year ($1,500 for K-12 students) for discretionary expenses (such as eating out, recreational activities and entertaining), both in 2017 and 2018. 

For each province and territory, for each level of study, the formula to calculate gross expenditures was as follows:

Estimated number of students in that level of study multiplied by the sum of (average tuition and additional fees, books, average room and meal costs, average transportation costs, average discretionary spending) per year = gross expenditures in one year for international students in the level of study.

Scholarships and awards

In this study, in order to calculate the net economic benefits that international students brought to the host country, we took into account any financial assistance that international students received from Canadian federal or provincial governments, and from institutions.

We conducted extensive web research on the financial statements of universities and colleges across all provinces in order to find such information, but to little avail. We estimated that the support universities and colleges provide to international students is probably no more than 1% of the student tuition collected.

We were also informed that the federal government annually grants $27 million to support international students. As such, we used a factor equivalent to 1% of international student tuition and fees, plus $27 million to represent the deduction. This reduction factor of 1% was applied to students in the trade/college, undergraduate, master’s and PhD programs only.