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Boom in students isn’t just “Trump effect”, say Canadian educators 

Preliminary figures show Canada is set to see double digit growth in international student enrolments this year, but it’s not all the result of politics south of the border, providers have said.

Metro Toronto (above) and metro Vancouver are already facing capacity constraints, and educators say the challenge is to help international students reach areas where there is more capacity.

The country is on track to reach its 2022 goal of doubling international students to 450,000 "as early as this year”

The country’s low currency, welcoming immigration policies and streamlined visa processing for key markets are finally starting to pay off, according to educators. So much so that many in metropolitan areas are now running into capacity constraints.

“Even if Clinton had won the election, we would still be seeing the same number of students in Canada this year that we are seeing now,” said Mike Walkey, managing director of ELS Canada.

At ELS’s two language schools in Vancouver and Toronto, Walkey expects enrolments to be up 20% on last year, giving a major bump to the group’s growth trajectory.

“Even if Clinton had won the election, we would still be seeing the same number of students in Canada this year that we are seeing now”

“Canada’s done a lot of really good, really smart things recently, particularly with immigration and pathways and work rights, that have helped raise its profile overall,” he said. “Canada has always had a reputation for being welcoming and safe, but I think that’s echoing with people more than ever now.”

Statistics from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada show the country saw an 18% increase in international students to 414,285 as of December 2016 compared to 2015’s year-end data.

The country is on track to reach its 2022 goal of doubling international students to 450,000 “as early as this year”, according to an IRCC representative at the recent BCCIE summer conference in Kelowna.

China continues to be the country’s largest source country but India and Vietnam saw the biggest gains in 2016: a whopping 57% and 55%, respectively.

“Vietnam is an example of good synchronisation with the sector and government policy,” said Walkey, referring to the Canada Express Study Program rolled out in Vietnam last year. “Numbers have gone way up, I’ve heard it’s going to become the third biggest nationality, especially for colleges.”

With short courses (two years) and direct routes to employment after graduation, colleges have also absorbed the growth in Indian students. “Our number one source country right now is India, and they’re choosing Canada and especially Selkirk College because for a publicly funded institution we have very low tuition,” said Danny Beatty, the college’s director of international education & development.

Beatty said that more than pulling students from the US, the college is attracting students from the UK. “Over the last three or four years we’ve had students that are originally from Nigeria, from Vietnam, even from India, who have gone to the UK, they’ve done a degree or a diploma in the UK, but because there’s no postgraduate work option or long term immigration option they come to Canada,” he said.

Higher education institutions expect to see major growth this year as well. Simon Fraser University in Vancouver has seen a sizeable increase in applications from international students for fall 2017 compared to previous terms, according to Bing Lee, director of student recruitment and transition.

“I think a lot of the credit for our growth in interest can be traced back to what Canadian schools offer to international students: a high quality education in a safe and tolerant country that is competitively priced when compared to similar institutions around the world,” he said. “The ability to get a work permit after graduation as well as possibly permanent residency is also very appealing.”

“Because there’s no postgraduate work option or long term immigration option in the UK, they come to Canada”

The value of the Canadian dollar is also a major contributing factor to Canada’s desirability. “It’s a significant element,” commented Daniel Guhr, managing director of Illuminate Consulting Group.

“If the Canadian dollar would level with the US dollar, most Canadian universities would actually become more costly on a total cost scenario than American tiered institutions, including some of the Ivy Leagues.”

There have been some gains as the result of the US’s politics, albeit incremental. Providers report an uptick in Iranian student applications at both the secondary and post-secondary level, likely the result of the country being one of six mostly Muslim countries included in the US’s travel ban.

Interest from US students has also risen. Wendy Luther, CEO of EduNova in Nova Scotia, said smaller institutions in the province have seen a doubling of applications from the US. “The proof will be who shows up in September really,” she said. “We’re being conservative about what the actual outcome is going to be.”

But any rises due to falls in the US will be short-lived, said Guhr. “I expect that most of that will have washed out by next year, simply because the attraction of a very large university system with high quality universities can’t be negated,” he said.

“Keep in mind that we always assume that there are visceral responses relative to President Trump, but the majority of international students hail from countries which would consider President Trump a fairly nice guy relative to what they experience in their domestic landscape.”

The growth doesn’t come without burdens, though. As numbers swell, educators are struggling to provide adequate student services, accommodation, classroom space and teaching staff.

“It becomes a bit of a challenge,” said Ajay Patel, vice president external development of Langara College in Vancouver. “As a country I believe we have capacity, but if you look at the most popular places where international students are – in metro Vancouver and in metro Toronto – I think there’s very limited capacity. So we’ve got to figure out a way, as Canada, how we can allow international students to come in and get them to areas where there is capacity.”

“If you look at the most popular places where international students are – in metro Vancouver and in metro Toronto – I think there’s very limited capacity”

For most institutions in Nova Scotia, for example, “there’s quite a lot of room to grow”, Luther said, but in other areas outside of larger cities, they’re feeling the pinch.

Russel Boris, director of international education at Okanagan College, said the school has seen 20% year on year growth in students over the past five years. “We haven’t set hardcore bottom line capacities for domestic or international students, but we’re starting to. Because of international students, we’ve had to speed up those talks.”

And for colleges in small towns, community engagement has now become a priority. Selkirk College, located in Castlegar, British Columbia, has grown international enrolments from about 120 to 550 students in five years, which has also increased the population of the city by 4%.

“We’re in an area where it’s primarily caucasian-based, so it was a bit of a shock for this number of international students to come in such a short time,” said Beatty. “But I think overall it’s been very positive.”

“I think it’s more positive than it is negative,” agreed Boris. “This isn’t recycled money, this is all new money coming into the community. [It’s an industry] that wasn’t there for anybody in the past.”

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