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Sonja Knutson, Director of Internationalisation, MUN, Canada

Sonja Knutson is director of internationalisation at Memorial University of Newfoundland, in eastern Canada. She discussed the management of international student growth, the instability of Canada’s seemingly secure position, and the nation’s provincial approach.


"I think we will continue to grow quite significantly as long as we have post-graduate work opportunities"

The PIE: International education in Canada is doing well, isn’t it?

Sonja Knutsson: Canada is really doing well. We’ve met our targets for 2022 (to have 450,000 students) already. We are up to close to half a million international students – that’s K-12, ESL, college and university. There’s a 20% increase just last year. We are benefiting from a halo of safety, multiculturalism, openness. The leadership of federal government right now is seen as very welcoming.

A factor that really impacts that 20% is post-graduate work opportunities. It is becoming much more well known and then there are pathways to permanent residency.

CBIE did a study where they found that 61% of the international students that responded chose Canada because of post-graduate work opportunities. The students are aware they can work anywhere in Canada.

The drop in international students that are going to the US and the UK [has also made an impact]. I think Canada has picked up a lot of those applications because of the post-graduate work opportunities and the perceived openness of the country to newcomers at this time.

“We are looking at how to not rely on the same major markets as the rest of Canada”

The PIE: Is that growth happening everywhere in Canada?

SK: Students are applying and getting accepted to the whole range [of schools], coast to coast. But… I have heard some anecdotal evidence of students getting into a place that is maybe easier to get into, and then applying to other universities in more central areas part way through.

Are they staying post-graduation? Well, not always. You can’t stay on an open work permit for very long if you don’t have a job. In the more rural parts of Canada it’s already challenging for the domestic population to get jobs. Things are much easier if you go to a larger urban centres.

You can’t expect immigrants to stay where domestic people are struggling to find work.

The PIE: Have you seen a growth in specific nationalities among international students?

SK: For [Memorial University Newfoundland] we have seen a growth in the number of Iranian students, partly that was [due to] the travel ban arose last year.

Several Canadian institutions, and I believe we were the first, opened up free application to students from the travel ban [affected] countries. We also opened it up to US students… for free because the most distraught students on campus when the travel ban hit were our US students.

They were the ones that were coming to us and feeling really quite awful about what was happening in their country. We felt that the US students that might be considering going abroad were also impacted by the political situation in the US. We’ve noticed a slight increase in US applications, I’m not sure if that will translate into enrolments – we won’t see that until September.

“Quebec also has policies ensuring that students have bursaries to study abroad”

[Talking about] Canada as a whole, from Vietnam we saw a 90% increase. India [+63%] is a place where we are making huge inroads for students who usually have a natural pathway to the UK.

Brazil, despite the economic downturn in the country, Canada has made really good inroads into the country which would traditionally be a US market.

The PIE: How long will the growth continue?

SK: No situation that is politically determined will last forever. I really believe the huge growth we’ve seen has been because of the UK and the US as well as the most important factor being the post-grad work permit. But Canada could also have a new political system in the next election that might say we want to be more restrictive on the post-grad work opportunities and immigration. Who knows?

When you are dependent on a political regime to give you benefits, that is always fragile. We’ve seen other competitor countries go through ups and downs.

My concern about Canada is that in HE we are doing very well, [but] not depending on showcasing our academic quality. What we are doing well is, ‘come to our higher education and you can transition to the job market and permanent residency. Use us as a pathway to the rest of your life in terms of immigration and permanent residency’. We are not going out with a really strong message of ‘Canada has great quality’.

If you can show the world you have great quality, then that message will persist no matter what political regime you have.

The PIE: In terms of internationalisation strategies, does every province have one?

SK: Most provinces have an approach to international education. In [Newfoundland and Labrador] the approach is around immigration. It’s not necessarily around attracting international students or developing programs for student mobility.

Attracting international students to improve the diversity of the experience in the classroom, making sure that Newfoundland and Labradorean students can go abroad… you don’t hear that discussed at all in our government.

You hear that international students make a great pool of immigrants. For Atlantic Canada, international higher education equals an immigration pathway.

In Ontario it’s quite different. The strategy is looking at transparency of tuition to [guarantee] fairness and equity for international students. It’s looking at study abroad for Ontario students. Quebec also has policies around ensuring that [Quebecker/Quebecois] students have bursaries to study abroad.

It really depends on the province and what they need and whether they understand internationalisation of education in the way that we in the field understand it. It varies across the country.

The PIE: In terms of entrepreneurship programs, is that available across Canada? 

SK: [Newfoundland and Labrador] has severe economic decline and demographic decline. You have a huge territory, you have small communities that need healthcare, transportation. It has dispersed population and a very low tax base so we need people, but we can only really attract people who are willing to see potential and start a company.

Entrepreneurship is interesting for the rest of Canada and is a large focus for all Canadian institutions, as I know it is globally. I think the focus on international students is a focus in Atlantic Canada and is a particular focus of my province.

I have been offering entrepreneurship training to new international students as they arrive. We know that international students have already demonstrated some of the characteristics that make a good entrepreneur [by coming here] – having a vision, seeing potential, taking a risk.

The PIE: How do local residents feel about the surge in international students?

SK: I haven’t heard of any backlash yet, but I’m not living in those urban areas. There is always going to be a populist attitude when it comes to a tipping point of more newcomers than people are comfortable with.

From my perspective here in Newfoundland Labrador, 1.8% of the population being newcomers, you hear some backlash now and again but in general there is an appreciation for newcomers who want to stay.

“You can’t expect immigrants to stay where domestic people are struggling to find work”

The PIE: What do you see in the future?

SK: In Atlantic Canada I think the immigration message will become even stronger. We are looking at data and which students are staying and are being the most successful.

We are looking at how to not rely on the same major markets [as the] rest of Canada and the world might rely on. How can we get into markets where we might attract the kinds of students that… want to stay and give back to our province? For the next five years I think that will be our primary focus.

In the rest of Canada, I think we will continue to grow quite significantly as long as we have these post-graduate work opportunities. I am concerned with Canada not taking seriously enough the small percent of our students that study abroad. It’s great to see Ontario providing subsidies for students to study abroad, I hope that comes to fruition.

*This interview was conducted before diplomatic tensions between Canada and Saudi Arabia developed to their current degree. 

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