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New data reveals major slowdown in Canadian growth

New international student intake growth in Canada is slowing, standing at 4.5% in 2015 – less than half the year-over-year growth rates reported in 2014 and earlier. The figures mean that universities can no longer to be complacent when it comes to attracting international students, according to the Illuminate Consulting Group, which compiled the figures.

The figures show international enrolment growth at Canadian institutions is slowing dramatically. Photo: Navitas.

“After a really good, seven-year growth phase, for all the obvious reasons enrolment can’t keep growing like this"

Presenting the topline figures and insights of a 50-page report commissioned by the Canadian government on the fringes of the recent NAFSA conference, ICG’s managing director, Daniel Guhr, warned that universities should act now or face losing students to competitors.

“Admissions can be quite uncompetitive: processing times, engagement, clarity, use of technology can be far behind competitor standards”

“When you look at global competition dynamics, underlying strengths and weaknesses [a year ago], a softening of Canada’s at that time really advanced competitive position was already becoming apparent,” he said.

Based on the research, which is compiled from government figures, association data and ICG’s internal client data, universities wanting to recruit international students should prioritise increasing internal capacity, improving admissions processes and developing more sophisticated marketing strategies in the coming years, Guhr said.

One major obstacle for higher education institutions is a lack of data: public statistics on international students are sparse, with the latest full immigration figures from IRCC published in 2011.

This means that providers have been reliant on partial data, including figures published by CBIE that indicate a 10% increase in international enrollment in 2014.

This means universities are basing their international strategies on a rosier picture of international competitiveness than reality and are therefore being slow to adapt to the changing market, Guhr posited.

“After a really good, seven-year growth phase, for all the obvious reasons enrolment can’t keep growing like this: competitors have cleaned up their act and most Canadian institutions have not invested sufficiently in front-end marketing, recruitment, and admissions,” he told The PIE News. “Institutions seem to think: ‘Why bother if students show up?’”

Guhr presented topline figures and insights ICG's research alongside the recent NAFSA conference

Guhr presented topline figures and insights ICG’s research alongside the recent NAFSA conference

Inefficient admissions processes are denting the attractiveness of Canadian institutions for overseas students, according to Guhr.

“Admissions can be quite uncompetitive: processing times, engagement, clarity, use of technology can be far behind competitor standards,” he pointed out, noting that many Canadian institutions take much longer than competitors to turn around applications, and make offers to students two or more months later.

In particular, many institutions are wasting resources on trying to convert incomplete applications, Guhr said: he pointed to one institution that managed just a 3% yield from initially incomplete applications, but nevertheless spent 50% of overall admission office staff time chasing incomplete applications.

“It’s a simple calculation: throw away every single incomplete application and focus on converting those who are suitable and you still will compete with three, four, five, six other institutions that will make them offers,” he advised.

Many institutions do not have detailed data on admissions and recruitment for each of their source markets, he added, hindering their ability to develop effective strategies.

“To keep growing, Canadian institutions will increasingly have to battle US universities”

Similarly, many institutions have not yet implemented country-specific recruitment strategies and are relying on growth continuing without additional effort, Guhr said.

However, this is all the more urgent now that Australia and New Zealand have “drawn level” on a number of what have traditionally been policy advantages for Canada – such as post-study work and residency – creating an increasingly competitive global environment.

In addition, Canada must also compete with neighbouring US institutions, many of which are marketing themselves more aggressively overseas and are better-known brands globally.

Institutions exhibiting at fairs must ensure they have a “compelling story”, he said. Otherwise, students will defer to US institutions instead.

“To keep growing, Canadian institutions will increasingly have to battle US universities,” he said.

Fundamentally, if Canada is to curb the slowing of growth in its international intake, it must invest in more comprehensive data – both at the institutional and national level, Guhr contended.

He pointed out that the New Zealand government spends seven times the amount Canada spends on international education promotion annually, including on generating comprehensive sector- and market-specific data that enables institutions to hone their internationalisation strategies.

“There has been a significant underinvestment [in Canada]: income often has been plugged into budget holes rather than infrastructure,” he said.

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