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Renewing Canada’s IES - Sectoral papers: Colleges and institutes

Published on March 1, 2023


Canada’s Colleges and Institutes sector comprises an important segment of Canada’s international education sector. There are 213 public colleges and institutes in Canada as well as many regulated private institutions, authorized by their provincial or territorial jurisdictions to grant degrees, diplomas and other credentials.Footnote 1 These educational institutions may be called public colleges, specialized institutes, community colleges, institutes of technology, colleges of applied arts and technology, or CEGEPs in Quebec. Diplomas are awarded for successful completion of two- and three-year programs, while certificate programs usually take up to one year. Technical and vocational education and training (TVET) provides specialized skills training leading directly to a career and are aligned to the needs of the labour market. University degrees and applied degrees are also offered in some colleges and institutes, while others provide university transfer programs. 

The sector is represented by a number of different professional member associations including Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICan), Polytechnics Canada, the National Association of Career Colleges (NACC), and a number of provincial associations such as Colleges Ontario and the Fédération des CEGEPs.

Of the 807,750 foreign students with a study permit in Canada at the end of 2022, the college sector represents over 40% or approximately 340,000 international students.

Current trends

The conditional retention rate of international students graduating with a college diploma was higher (58%) than for graduates of bachelor degrees (40%) one year after graduation. The “conditional retention rate” is defined as the proportion of graduates who are present in the tax data and who stay in their province of study.Footnote 2

Both college postgraduate credentials and non-postgraduate college certificates and diplomas saw rapid growth in enrolments and graduations by international students.Footnote 3

  • In 2019, college postgraduate credential programs accounted for 13% of all college graduations in 2019, more than double the share (6%) recorded five years before.
  • The large majority of college postgraduate credentials were completed at Ontario colleges (85%), with the next-largest share being completed in British Columbia (10%).
  • The vast majority of these increases are attributable to Indian international students.

International students with college postgraduate credentials were highly concentrated in international business and business administration programs. This degree of concentration by field is not seen in any other credential type.Footnote 4

More college level students are participating in the Canadian labour market. The labour market participation of international students studying at the college level hFootnote 5

In 2020-21 Polytechnics Canada members had 93,000 international students enrolled, representing over 25% of overall enrolments of 370,000 for-credit students.Footnote 6

International students enrolled in college and master’s programs are among the most likely to become landed immigrants within five years.Footnote 7

India continues to be a major driver of enrolments and new demand for college programs. Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Philippines are increasingly important markets. Nigerian enrolments continue to climb but low study permit approval rates are barriers to growth in this market, as well as in other African countries and Vietnam.Footnote 8

Refusal rates for college study permit applications are higher than for university applications. Of the 283,800 total study permit applications for students intending to study at colleges processed by IRCC in 2021, 131,000 (46%) were refused. By contrast, of 177,500 university applications processed, 61,900 (35%) were refused. Unfamiliarity with the range of Canadian college institutions, their program offerings, as well as the type of students this sector attracts may be a contributing factors in the higher rates of refusal for the sector.Footnote 9

The Student Direct Stream (study permit streamlining program) was expanded in 2021.

Antigua and Barbuda, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Peru, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago were added to the program.

Since 2019, there has been substantive growth in international enrolments in new markets. While not specific to the college sector, The Philippines, Hong Kong, Nigeria, Columbia and India have seen the greatest rate of growth for all international students coming to Canada to study.Footnote 10

Graduates of private career colleges are not eligible for the post-graduation work permit (PGWP). Recently, Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) announced that Graduates are also not eligible for the PGWP if they graduated from a program that was delivered by a private career college under a curriculum licensing agreement with a public PGWP-eligible institution in another province.Footnote 11

Current and future issues

There was significant growth in the share of international students from India attending Canadian colleges. For the period 2015-to-2019, India was the number one source country, making up 67% of international students intending to study at the college level. This growth in the overall share of Indian international students began after 2015. This has resulted in an increasing concentration of source countries in the college sector.Footnote 12

The high reliance on international student enrolments from India, particularly in the Ontario College sector, poses the risks of significant revenue fluctuations if external or geopolitical factors cause a decline from this source country.Footnote 13 Ontario’s share of college level international students went from 34.7% for the arrival cohort of 2000-2004 and climbed to 65.3% for the 2015-2019 cohort. The top 10 source countries for first time study permit holders enrolled in the college sector grew to 85% for the 2015-2019 cohort. This means there is less diversity than previous cohorts. Footnote 14

Public-private college partnerships in Ontario have expanded rapidly in the last 2 years. These partnerships and their oversight have been the subject of media reporting and audits that have called current practices into question.

Eligibility of work integrated learning programs that include international students in order to provide work experience during studies.

Increasing scrutiny of international student recruitment and agent practices and international student experiences in the media highlight misinformation provided to international students about the challenges dealing with Canada’s high cost of living, labour market, or immigration system.


  • How can a federal-level international education strategy support the objectives of the institutions within the college sector? What has been working? What is currently absent?
  • What are the challenges to diversification across disciplines and programs?
  • What is the role of private sector involvement in the college sector, including the expansion of private-public partnerships (PPP) in Ontario?
  • What role can a federal-level strategy play in promoting any regional interests in expanding recruitment of international students outside of traditional destination cities?
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