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Renewing Canada’s IES - Sectoral papers: Elementary and secondary schools

Published on March 1, 2023


The elementary and secondary school sector in Canada is comprised of public elementary, junior high and/or secondary schools managed by the provinces and territories as well as a number of independently managed private schools. The sector is represented by different member associations including the Canadian Association of Public Schools – International (CAPS-I) and the Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS).

Current trends

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) reported there were 81,305 valid study permits at the end of 2019 in the “secondary or less” level of study category and 91,955 valid study permits in the same category in 2022, an increase of 12%.Footnote 1

According to CAPS-I, in 2021-22 there were close to 30,000 long-term international students studying in Canadian public schools, which accounts for the majority of international elementary and secondary students in Canada.Footnote 2 The vast majority of international students study at the secondary level. Footnote 3

The discrepancy between these data points is accounted for by the fact that IRCC counts all study permit holders at the secondary level or below, including children of study and work permit holders. These students do not pay differential fees. CAPS-I’s data includes students in Canada paying international fees to study and requiring additional support (homestays, etc.)

Rising immigration targets combined with a surge in global conflict and crises have had an impact on elementary and secondary school populations. With the additional demand on schools due to the influx of newcomers, there are increasingly less spaces available to international students. This has particularly impacted schools located in larger urban areas.

Elementary and secondary institutions have noticed a significant decrease in short-term program enrollments.Footnote 4

For both short- and long-term stays, 54% of elementary and secondary international students choose to study in British Columbia and 28% choose to study in Ontario.

The overall proportion of international students entering the elementary and secondary system has declined in recent years. In 2019, the share of all first-time study permit holders who intended to study at the primary level was 5%—a drop from the 10% seen in 2000. The corresponding share also declined at the secondary level from 18% in 2000 to 11% in 2019. In contrast, the share of first-time study permit holders for college programs grew from 27% in 2000 to 41% in 2019.Footnote 5

18% of first-time study permit holders were 17 years old or under in the 2015-2019 cohort according to Statistics Canada. This is down from 20.4% from the previous cohort 2009-2014.

Institutions in this sector rely heavily on agents and welcome their involvement in student recruitment. It is widespread practice for an institution to refer international students to agents. Agents guide parents through the application process and communicate with parents in their first language which is often not English or French. In fact, some 80% of international students receive support from agents.Footnote 6

There are 126 Canadian offshore schools in over 20 countries around the world that teach the curriculum of one of Canada’s provinces. There are few linkages between these institutions and Canadian independent schools or school boards. These institutions abroad could be valuable partners for student exchanges and short-term enrollments.

Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

In 2020, CAPS-I measured a significant drop in international students, from 40,000-50,000 pre-pandemic to 15,000. This represented a $220 million loss in tuition fee revenue.Footnote 7

Long-term enrolments are still down approximately 34% from their pre-pandemic peak, and short-term enrolments are recovering more slowly. This is in part due to China sending significantly fewer students. Footnote 8

Elementary and secondary international students most often require homestays with host families. The pandemic decreased available households ready to welcome these students. Many host families’ spare rooms were repurposed to serve different needs during the pandemic, for example with older children returning home or to create a home office.

Since the pandemic, elementary and secondary institutions have shifted more attention and resources to diversifying their curriculum offerings.

Boarding schools have reduced the number of spots for international students per class to accommodate for local students.

Priority target markets

Institutions’ targeting strategies are impacted by study permit application refusal rates. High refusal rates have led institutions to limit recruiting in desirable, emerging markets such as India, Bangladesh, and across Africa.

Global Affairs Canada’s (GAC) annual lead generating digital advertising campaign under the EduCanada brand has been helpful in keeping Canada top of mind as a study destination in Latin American and Asian markets. These campaigns run in collaboration with CAPS-I and CAIS. The advertisements target prospective students and their parents and direct them to a form on Leads are then sent to partner associations for follow-up.

Since the start of the 2019 IES, GAC has run two elementary and secondary campaigns and has another currently in progress. Combined, the campaigns received 124.5 million impressions and generated over 8,200 leads. Campaigns targeted Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Czechia, Finland and Türkiye.

Elementary and secondary institutions are evaluating how to interact with the once high-yielding Chinese market.

During pandemic recovery, the elementary and secondary sector experienced increased interest from students from Japan, Hong Kong and European countries such as Germany, France and Türkiye.Footnote 9 Other markets with increased interest include Mexico, Brazil, Bangladesh, and Taiwan.

Current and future issues

Although Canada has an excellent reputation in the elementary and secondary international market, competitors are gaining traction. Other markets are even more aggressive in their recruitment tactics, such as reducing financial requirements and shortened processing times for study permits.

There are very few scholarship programs in Canada available for elementary and secondary international students and none offered by GAC.


  • What are the anticipated markets of interest for student recruitment in the coming years? What other internationalization efforts are institutions undertaking and in which markets?
  • How can GAC and the Trade Commissioner Service at Canada’s embassies and consulates abroad better support elementary and secondary institutions under the new IES (2024-2029)?
  • In the wake of the pandemic, how are institutions shifting focus with respect to engaging with international opportunities?
  • How can the network of Canadian offshore schools be leveraged to entice more short-term enrollments for international students in Canada and exchange programs for Canadian students going abroad?
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