Economic impact of international education in Canada - 2020 update


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

In this chapter, we highlight the trends of international student enrolment and the growing economic impacts of these students on Canada's economy.

4.1. Comparison of student enrolment

Table 4.1 below shows how international student enrolment evolved from 2015 to 2018.

Table 4.1: Comparing the number of international students in Canada 2015 to 2018
YearAll Students

Between 2015 and 2018, the number of international students studying in Canada increased by 50.0%. The increase is mainly attributed to the number of long-term students, those who study for longer than six months in a given year.

4.2. Comparison of overall spending 2015 - 2018

Table 4.2 below depicts the values of total annual spending by international students. Between 2015 and 2018, the total annual international student spending more increased from $12.6 billion in 2015 to more than $22.3 billion in 2018. This represents a 77.0% increase per year.

Table 4.2: Annual total spending by international students in Canada, 2015-2018
YearAll Students (billions)

4.3. Comparison of combined direct and indirect impacts, 2015-2018

This subsection summarizes the combined direct and indirect economic impacts of international students in Canada between 2015 and 2018.

Table 4.3: Direct and indirect economic impacts of international students in Canada, 2015 – 2018 (billions$)
 2015201620172018Percentage Change 2015 - 2018
Tax Revenue$2.3$2.8$3.1$3.760.80%

As noted in the table, the combined direct and indirect GDP impact of international student spending increased 87.6% between 2015 and 2018. International student spending directly and indirectly supported 218,577 jobs in Canada in 2018, an increase of 56.1% over 2015. Government tax revenue derived from international student spending rose from $2.3 billion in 2015 to $3.87 billion in 2018, an increase of 60.8%.

4.4. Comparison of overall spending and Canada's trade

Table 4.4 summarizes and compares the value of spending by all international students with the overall values of Canada's exports – an increase to 24.5% in services by 2018.

Table 4.4: The increasing role of international students' spending of International Students in Canada's trade, 2015 - 2018
Spending by all international students as % of Canada’s service exports12.50%14.50%22.30%24.50%

Comparison of Canada’s global reach with respect to other countries provides another strategic dimension to the economic impact of international students.

Recent statistics from the U.S. reveal the continued importance of international students to the economy.  As noted in Visual Capitalist[2], international students contributed $41 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018/19.

In Australia, the Education Minister issued a media release stating the Australia education export sector surged by $5 billion to a record high of $37.6 billion[3].

In New Zealand, a recent report[4] noted that in 2016, the economic value of international education was $4.5 billion supporting more than 33,000 jobs and representing an increase of 4.6% over 2015.  A recent Education New Zealand Perceptions Survey noted that in 2017, the economic value had risen to $5.1 billion.

In the U.K. the value of the education sector continues to grow.  A January 2019 Department of Education report notes that U.K. revenue from education related exports increased to £19.9 billion in 2016, an increase of 26% since 2010.  The data includes transnational education estimates[5].

A recent study authored by Dr. Rahul Choudaha entitled “Beyond $300 Billion:  The Global Impact of International Students” provides a comparative analysis across countries.  The US$300 billion estimate reflects the direct and indirect and induced economic impact of the 5.1 million post-secondary students who were studying abroad in 2016.  In 2016 the direct, indirect, and induced impacts, international students contributed by country was estimated as follows:

  • US$57.3 billion to the US;
  • US$25.5 billion to the UK;
  • US$19.8 billion to Australia;
  • US$14.5 billion to France, and France charges no to low tuition fees for international students;
  • US$14.4 billion to Germany, and international students do not pay tuition fees in Germany;
  • US$11.1 billion to Canada;
  • US$5.3 billion to the Netherlands, a country that charges differential tuition fee for EU and non-EU international students.

Dr Choudaha has conceptualized a three-stage evolution over the last 20 years of international student mobility:

  • “In the first wave, 2001–2008, students began considering alternative destinations to the US, and Australia, Canada, and the UK picked up market share. The Bologna Process ushered in a spike in intra-regional mobility in Europe, and Japan became a regional hub in Asia. This wave saw the beginning of the massive outflow of Chinese and Indian students that has continued to this day; in 2001–2008 master’s and doctoral programs were the main beneficiaries of Chinese and Indian students.
  • In the second wave, 2008–2016, US colleges ramped up their recruitment activities and the debate about whether they should be allowed to use commission-based agents began. International branch campuses gained traction and Asian institutions rose up world university rankings; China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Japan, and Singapore could all claim to be regional education hubs by 2016. Intra-regional mobility continued to be a major driver of enrolments in Europe. China sent large numbers of undergraduate as well as graduate students out to other countries for study. The UK, the world’s second-largest destination for international students, tightened post-study work rights as a result of public pushback against immigration, and began to see international enrolments fall.
  • Dr Choudaha’s concept of the third wave – “2016–onwards” – is defined by an increasingly unstable geo-political environment, with anti-immigrant policies and populism in several countries changing the way international students choose destinations. Such policies are contributing to falling market share for the US and UK; in contrast, Australia’s and Canada’s more welcoming stances are helping them to increase market share. The latter two countries have seen enrolments grow so quickly – and particularly when it comes to Chinese and Indian students – that institutions in these countries are now having to grapple with how to manage growth and diversify their source countries for students. In Asia, institutions in regional hubs are dealing with issues of how to integrate international students. And demographic and economic trends in China are beginning to flatten the growth trend from this country. Institutions competing for international students are now turning to new source markets with large youth populations and insufficient higher education capacity such as Nigeria and Vietnam.”

[2] Visual Capitalist “The Impact of International students on the U.S. Economy”.