Why universities are trying to recruit overseas students from as many places as possible

In 2018 alone, 54.1 per cent of Canadian study permits went to students from only two countries: India and China. Here’s why and how schools are trying to change that.

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Otieno, a student from Kenya, says McGill University helped build his confidence (Photograph by Dario Ayala)

Canadian universities are riding a wave of popularity as destinations of choice for overseas students.

But the high-water moment comes with risks. Of 356,035 Canadian study permits issued to international students at post-secondary institutions in 2018 alone, 54.1 per cent went to students from only two countries: India and China.

“The tide is high, but there’s no telling when the tide goes out,” says Craig Riggs, editor of ICEF Monitor, a leading industry publication that tracks global trends in higher education.

To safeguard against geopolitical uncertainties, and to counter stiff global competition for international students, Canadian universities are adding scholarships, hiring education agents, opening overseas offices, establishing overseas partnerships and recruiting alumni as word-of-mouth ambassadors. Fuelling the effort is a five-year, $148-million federal government plan, announced in August 2019, to expand study abroad by Canadian undergraduates, diversify where overseas students come from and where they study in Canada, and to support Canadian institutions in forming partnerships with their counterparts in other countries.

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The goals of this plan differ from those of the federal government’s previous five-year international education strategy, announced in 2014, which emphasized growth. One reason: by 2018, the post-secondary sector had shot past the government’s goal to add 450,000 international students by 2022. For universities alone, recent growth in demand from overseas students has been remarkable. Last year, the federal government issued 120,000 permits for international students to attend university, a 50 per cent jump in volume from 2015. China and India were the top two sending countries for the post-secondary sector as a whole, but for universities they accounted for 48.5 per cent of total study permits last year.

The government’s new focus for the next five years, says Riggs, “is less on growth, more on diversification, and more on strengthening the quality of the students’ experience during and after their studies.”

In short, the hunt is on for top students—not only from China and India—to enrich campus life and spread the word back home about Canada as an attractive study destination.

By that measure, Kenya-born Odero Otieno fits the bill for any Canadian university.

One of six children whose parents never completed high school, the 24-year-old student from Homa Bay in western Kenya had a fistful of accomplishments before he chose to study abroad. He scored top marks on national high school exams in Kenya, became principal of a girl’s school in his home city and pursued several entrepreneurial ventures.

In 2016, he left Africa for the first time to study at McGill University on a full scholarship from the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program for promising young leaders from Africa. A foundation partner since 2013, McGill plans to enrol 91 young African scholars over 10 years.

Last year, McGill recruited more than 12,500 students from 156 countries, led by China, the United States and France, but had a limited presence in Africa. No one country comprised more than 22 per cent of the total.

“This [relationship with MasterCard] is a way for us to really prime the pump in terms of getting [African] countries up in our participation,” says Fabrice Labeau, deputy provost of student life and learning at McGill. He describes sub-Saharan Africa as “clearly an under-represented region in terms of nationalities” at his university.

Otieno, who graduates next year with a bachelor in engineering and a minor in technological entrepreneurship, says the academic and emotional support from McGill and foundation staff helped him secure internships in Canada, the United States and Kenya. A stint at Google in San Francisco convinced him to build his own company, he says, not work for others.

This fall, he announced plans to open a Toronto-based company developing software for African consumers to use mobile phones to make cost-saving purchases from authorized pharmacies.

He credits McGill with building his confidence.

“Just the fact that I am a McGill student makes me think I am a global scholar or leader and makes me want to do so many things,” says Otieno. When he is back in Kenya, prospective students are eager to hear about his experiences in Canada and, on his return to Montreal, they follow him on Facebook for his posts about academic life on campus.

For universities, a single event last year underscored the reality that diversifying their sources for international students, however necessary, is not without pain.

In a 2018 diplomatic spat with Ottawa, the government of Saudi Arabia abruptly cancelled funding for its post-secondary students in Canada, ordering many to leave their studies.

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“The Saudi experience galvanized [federal] government attention,” says Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada, crediting the Prime Minister’s Office and senior trade officials for the new, muscular international education strategy. “It has been a challenge in a crowded public policy environment for people to recognize the economic value of international students.”

Their value is undisputed, adds Larissa Bezo, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Bureau for International Education, whose members include universities, colleges, language schools and others recruiting from abroad.

“The more diverse the campus, the richer the learning environment,” she says. Students from abroad often supplement domestic class sizes, making it easier for universities to offer specialty courses. As well, says Bezo, international students who stay and work after graduation contribute to the economy.

They also represent a significant source of revenue.

“Why universities have been so active in recruiting internationally is that the demographics are not very favourable at all,” says Pedro Antunes, chief economist for the Conference Board of Canada. He cites the current demographic dip in the cohort of 17- to 24-year-old domestic students eligible for college or university. He expects a rebound in the population of 17- to 24-year-olds to begin in 2025.

For university leaders, the Saudi incident had consequences in and beyond the classroom.

“The impact on us was significant academically and financially, and reflects the importance of being able to have a diversified student population,” says Robert Summerby-Murray, president of Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. Of about 8,000 Saudi students in Canada, about 100 were studying at his school. The pullout translated to a $2-million loss in revenue, he adds.

Navas, a native of Honduras, chose to study business at Saint Mary’s University (Photograph by Andrew Tolson)

What cushioned the financial blow for Saint Mary’s was its growing use of agreements with universities in prime markets such as Asia and Latin America for faculty and student exchanges. They often open doors to recruitment and have helped the school attract students from 115 countries. The school also relies on its own recruiters and overseas agents to visit high schools abroad to identify top candidates.

In Honduras, Mary Navas heard about Halifax when another Nova Scotia university paid a visit to her high school. She knew little of Canada’s East Coast and had turned down a scholarship to study in the United States largely because it was a top destination for many of her friends.

“I am into meeting new people and learning about new cultures,” she says.

In fall 2015, on her first day of class at Saint Mary’s Sobey School of Business, she recalls the professor asking students to name their homelands. “We had 15 countries in a class of 45 students,” she says. “That told me about the amazing opportunity [that] I was going to have here at Saint Mary’s … and that I had found what I wanted in intercultural learning.”

Currently president of her university’s student association, Navas plans to stay and work in Halifax after graduation next spring. When she talks to high school students in Honduras, she brings brochures from St. Mary’s to raise its profile. “At my high school, we mostly heard from the United States and not that much from Canada as a whole.”

At the University of Toronto, which has racked up record levels of applications from almost all parts of the world over the past six years, diversification is more than a numbers game, says Ted Sargent, vice-president, international.

“Our strategy on diversification reflects two goals: talent [spotting] and global engagement for all our students,” he says.

Last year, U of T announced an agreement with Tata Trusts, one of India’s biggest charitable organizations, for an urban research centre and entrepreneurship hub in India. “This is an opportunity for U of T faculty and students to engage reciprocally with leading scholars, students and entrepreneurs in India,” says Sargent.

With a fourfold increase in applications from India over the past five years, he adds, “it makes sense for us to increase our presence.” Over the same period, U of T also recorded a threefold rise in applications from Indonesia, a twofold jump from South Korea and a 52 per cent rise from Latin America, including Mexico.

The university, which generates 34 per cent of its revenues from international students, has other weapons for diversifying its international profile.

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One is reputation: this year, U of T climbed three spots to number 18 in the Times Higher Education global university rankings, and for the fifth consecutive time it is No. 1 in Maclean’s ranking for reputation. Another is its introduction of globally competitive scholarships to attract international high achievers. The university’s Lester B. Pearson Scholarship Program, announced in 2017, provides $60,000 a year for tuition and other costs to an overseas student demonstrating academic excellence and leadership. The program selects 37 recipients a year and “was a great way to announce to the world the U of T’s global engagement strategy,” says Sargent.

Not every Canadian university has U of T’s resources or its location advantage.

At the University of Regina, students come from more than 100 countries, but mainly from India and China. Regina also saw a precipitous drop in Saudi student enrolment last year. Years ago, a once-reliable source of revenue dried up when Nigeria cancelled funding for its scholarship students.

Unpredictable events beyond a university’s control require officials to learn to be nimble, says Livia Castellanos, associate vice-president, international, at Regina.

In August, shortly after the federal government added Pakistan (and later Morocco and Senegal) to a select group of countries eligible for streamlined processing of study permit applications, Castellanos flew to Islamabad to meet Pakistani counterparts and Canadian trade officials to discuss recruitment opportunities for fall 2020.

“I never sit comfortably with the [student] population I have,” she says. “I am preparing the ground for the next market.”

As a mid-size Prairie university far from Canada’s major cities, Regina seeks out niche opportunities abroad. For example, when searching for top students, Castellanos makes a point of visiting smaller cities in Mexico that would likely be bypassed by larger institutional rivals in Canada. In one successful tactic, Regina invites students to attend for a semester before committing to a full-time program.

Earlier this year, Marco Aurélio dos Santos, a student at Santa Catarina State University in Joinville, Brazil, accepted a $7,200-scholarship from the Canadian government for young Latin American leaders. His semester-long scholarship was tenable at Regina, which had a partnership agreement with his university.

Last January, he left Brazil with temperatures of 30° C, arriving in Regina where the thermometer registered -26° C. “I had heard about Prairie hospitality, that it was a more comfortable environment and Regina was not a big city,” he says. “I decided I wanted to go there.”

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Buoyed by support and encouragement from professors and staff, dos Santos decided to stay at Regina this fall for a two-year master’s degree in philosophy that he hopes could lead to a career in consulting.

Meanwhile, even small undergraduate universities set up overseas offices to raise their profiles.

In 2017, Vancouver Island University opened a recruitment office in Vietnam, adding to locations in Germany, China and India.

In 2017-18, VIU recruited 96 students from Vietnam (eligible for fast-track processing of student study permits to Canada); up from 12 in 2013-14.

“There has been a sea change,” says Philip Oxhorn, dean of international education at VIU. “Vietnam is beginning to emerge as a major centre of students.” This November, his office plans to open an office in Ecuador to capitalize on Latin American interest in study alternatives to the United States.

But for diversification to succeed, university officials recognize that they need to play a long game—to recruit the right students, give them a memorable campus experience and stay connected with them when they return home.

“It’s a virtuous cycle,” says Sean Van Koughnett, associate vice-president and dean of students at McMaster University. “We have to provide the best possible experience and that is going to be a recruitment tool for us.” Over the past six years, McMaster has expanded supports for overseas students before, during and after their studies.

In August, Marissa Amaradhasa arrived from Malaysia to begin her first-year studies at McMaster. At Toronto’s Pearson Airport, she and other incoming international students were greeted by a welcoming committee of Mac students dressed in orange shirts.

Later, university officials took Amaradhasa and fellow newcomers on a tour of Hamilton, complete with ice cream and roller-skating, helped them set up bank accounts and held orientation events to introduce them to academic and social life on campus. The university also offers a buddy system to connect freshmen and upper-year students from the same country.

“It’s been an amazing welcome,” says Amaradhasa, a first-time visitor to Canada. “It has helped make the transition as an international student very easy.”

This article appears in print in the 2020 University Rankings issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Playing the long game.” Order a copy of the issue here or subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.