Could new U.S. travel rules bring more students to Canada?

Number of U.S. students applying to Canada for next fall has soared, says Universities Canada

Prince George, BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA: October 14th, 2009 - UNBC students on campus in Prince George on October 14th, 2009. Photograph by Simon Hayter

UNBC students on campus in Prince George on October 14th, 2009.
Photograph by Simon Hayter

OTTAWA – The head of Canada’s biggest university organization says there’s growing evidence that post-U.S. election uncertainty could help boost an important source of cash for the economy: international students.

Universities Canada president Paul Davidson said Thursday that the number of U.S. students applying to Canada for next fall has soared — and the extra attention could bring significant benefits to the Canadian economy.

The overall economic impact from foreign students — including their much-higher tuition fees — was estimated at $11.4 billion in 2014, said a study prepared last summer for the federal government.

That research also found that the combination of tuition, housing and discretionary spending by international students was greater than Canadian exports of softwood lumber, financial services or wheat. They contributed roughly as much to the economy as exports of automotive parts, said the July report for Global Affairs Canada.

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“So, this isn’t just nice for our economy, it’s an important part of our economy,” said Davidson, whose organization represents 97 institutions.

“Our economy needs young, bright people with global connections and there’s lots of capacity in the Canadian university system to absorb these students.”

So far, U.S. applications to McMaster University have climbed 35 per cent, while the University of Toronto has seen a spike of almost 82 per cent — to 1,425 from 784 at this time last year.

Davidson said Canadian universities have also seen more interest this year from countries like India and Mexico, where many of their students have historically applied to study in the U.S. The University of Toronto said applications from India are so far up 45 per cent this year.

He believes the concerns since the U.S. election have encouraged more American and overseas students to consider Canada.

The potential economic bump from an increase in foreign students comes amid considerable uncertainty within the academic community across North America.

Davidson said an executive order signed this week by Trump to ban entry for 90 days of citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries has had an immediate, profound effect on international students and academics who are unable to access or even to return to the U.S., where they are based.

“It’s real, it’s disruptive and we’re working hard to address the needs of those people who are caught up immediately,” Davidson said.

“We don’t want to be seen as taking advantage of the situation, but the number of U.S. students applying to study in Canada for next fall is surging. … We do have an opportunity to attract more international students.”

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A spokeswoman for McMaster said Thursday that the 35 per cent increase in applications from the U.S. this year is an unofficial number at this point and may fluctuate before the final tally is released after April 1.

The surprising level of interest from the U.S. in the Hamilton, Ont., university has caught the administration’s attention, Michelle Donovan wrote in an email.

“It’s interesting because McMaster doesn’t do any recruiting in the United States and traditionally does not have a great number of American students,” she said.

“It hasn’t been an area of recruitment focus for years given the high demand from Ontario students to study at McMaster.”

Davidson said the opportunities for Canada have the potential reach beyond student enrolment.

The unknowns of the Trump administration and in the post-Brexit United Kingdom have also led to “serious inquiries” from “Nobel-calibre” researchers who are considering moving to Canada, he said.

“This isn’t going to happen overnight, but the phones started ringing in mid-November and they haven’t stopped ringing,” said Davidson, who added the interest from academics is likely due in part to years of efforts promoting Canadian universities abroad.

He expects a number of spring visits to Canadian campuses by prominent international researchers, some of whom may participate in guest lectures and conferences. This type of research talent could also attract more foreign direct investment in Canada, he said.