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Renewing Canada’s IES - Sectoral papers: Universities

Published on March 1, 2023


Canada is home to many world class universities and Canada’s university education is globally recognized for its high quality and cutting edge research. Provincial legislation defines and grants authority on the use of the term “university”.  In Canada the sector is made up primarily of stand-alone public institutions but also includes private institutions (religious or non-denominational), affiliated colleges, and foreign institutions delivering degree programs in Canada. In 2020/21 universities accounted for 64% of all post-secondary full time equivalent enrolments.  In the same year international students represented 16.7% of all university enrolments. The public and private university sector and other degree granting institutions are represented by Universities Canada.

University level international student enrolment was 213,627 in the 2018/2019 academic year growing to 231,291 in 2020/21. This is in spite of COVID-19 pandemic travel restrictions. Enrolments have continued to recover well in 2022 across all sectors including universities.Footnote 1

Current trends

The number of new university international student entrants fell 5.6% from 54,051 in 2018/2019 to 51,006 in 2020/21. The majority of the decline was attributable to a fall in masters level international enrolments. Undergraduate new entrants saw only a slight decrease and doctoral enrolments posted a small gain.Footnote 2 These numbers will likely show an increase in enrollment at the university level once the 2021/22 data is analysed.

International student undergraduate tuition averaged $33,623 in 2021/22 up from $17,399 in 2006/07.Footnote 3 International student tuition fees are now on average five times more than domestic tuition compared with three times more in 2006/2007. Despite international tuition fee increases, international student demand and enrolments continues to grow, reaching an all time high in 2022.

The proportion of international students studying at the masters level in Canada doubled from 5% to 10% from 2000 to 2019. However, the distribution of international students in other university level programs has as remained fairly stable. Undergraduate enrolment represented 13% of international enrolments in 2000 and 15% in 2019. Doctoral program enrolments remained at 2% across the same time-period.Footnote 4

A higher percentage of international students graduate from masters level degrees than domestic students. Between 2010-2016 28% of international student graduates completed a Masters degree compared with 12% of domestic students. International doctoral students are double or 4% of the international student graduates versus 2% of the domestic student graduates over the same time frame.  However, a higher percentage of domestic students (51%) complete undergraduate degrees compared with international students (42%).Footnote 5

Graduate studies are associated with higher cumulative transition rates to permanent residence. 53% of first-time study permit holders taking a master’s degree from 2005 to 2009 transitioned to permanent residence within 10 years. The transition rate of doctoral degree students was 59% and bachelor degree students was 36%. Securing work experience increases the likelihood of transition to permanent residence.Footnote 6

The top 10 source countries comprised 71% of all international university enrolments between 2015-2019. India (21.3%) and China (19.5%) and France (10.1%) are the top three source countries for university programs, although both China and France have seen proportional declines and India has seen major enrolment growth tripling in size from the 2010-2014 cohort of 7.4%. Although still the leading source country, the proportion of international students from India in the university sector is smaller compared with college enrolments in the 2015-2019 cohort which is 67%.Footnote 7

International student graduates are more highly concentrated in fields of business and administration (34%) than domestic graduates (20%), but it is the top field of study for both groups. While roughly similar shares of domestic and international students graduated from programs in the field of social and behavioural sciences and law (17% and 15%, respectively), a much higher share (20%) of international students graduated from programs in the field of engineering and technology programs than the share of domestic graduates (13%). The opposite was true for those graduating from programs in health and related fields (4% for international students and 17% for domestic students).Footnote 8 From 2000 to 2019 there is a trend of increased concentration in programs of study selected by international students.Footnote 9

Recent national international education strategies were launched in AustraliaFootnote 10 (2021) and the USAFootnote 11 (2022), New Zealand (2022) and the UKFootnote 12 updated their 2019 strategy in 2021. Common themes from these recent strategies include:

  • Student centric approach that has an interest in successful student well-being and career outcomes for both international and domestic students.
  • Diversification of international student enrolments by source country, program and institutional type.
  • “Skills aligned” international education that match labour market needs to enrolment and recruitment priorities.
  • Consideration or commitment to expand transnational education delivery models to support greater access and market expansion.
  • Commitment to strengthen quality assurance within the sector and oversight of international education delivery.

Opportunities and challenges

Increasing investment and competition from both traditional and non-traditional countries in the recruitment of international students may have an impact on the ability to attract international students in key high-skill high-need sectors.

Growing interest in Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) may result in both increased and improved internationalization at home efforts for institutions.Footnote 13

Transnational and distance education and joint degree offerings with universities overseas may provide opportunities for growth and provide resiliency and greater access for international students.

Affordable housing, increased mental health support, cost of tuition and a call to streamline and simplify the path to citizenship for international students are priorities for student advocacy organizations.

Protection and security of research and intellectual property of Canadian universities. The integration of national security considerations into the development, evaluation and funding of research partnerships, including the incorporation of the New National Security Guidelines for Research Partnerships launched in 2021.


  • How can the international education strategy support the objectives of the university sector? What has been working? What is currently absent?
  • What are the challenges to diversification across disciplines and programs?
  • What role can an international education strategy play in promoting any regional interests in expanding recruitment of international students outside of traditional destination cities?
  • What are the drivers that influence an institution’s international student cohort mix?
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