A Win-Win Situation: Post-Secondary Education as one of Canada’s Key Immigration Mechanisms

I recently reviewed three policy documents – one from earlier this year, the other two from 2011 – looking for existing and potential linkages between immigration and post-secondary education in Canada. More specifically, to what extent can international students use their studies in Canada as a vehicle for becoming permanent residents and, later, citizens of this country.

I expected that there must be some evidence linking these phenomena – on the one hand, the desire to emigrate to Canada and identify best mechanisms to achieve this goal and, on the other hand, the existence of a variety of post-secondary programs that can be accessed by international students. What I did not anticipate was to discover how widespread is the idea of encouraging international students to study in Canada specifically for the purpose of making them citizens of this country.

International students

International students (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(i) British Columbia’s (BC) International Education Strategy (2012) indicates that the province’s “emerging labour market challenges [i.e., not enough people entering the labour market] make international education even more important, as we anticipate significant shortages of skilled workers in certain fields.” The BC strategy points out that the engine of the province’s jobs plan and the economy is people – out of an estimated 1 million job openings over the next decade, immigrants are expected to fill a third of these positions.

British Columbia makes it crystal clear that, in order to “gain the greatest possible benefits from international education, we must make it easier for international students to move into careers in BC and take advantage of residency options after graduation. These improvements must in turn be communicated to potential international students.” To create “smoother transitions” for international students who wish to remain in the province after graduation, the BC Government plans to work closely with private sector employers, business associations, settlement organizations and – very importantly – the federal Government to help these students gain work experience and meet the requirements for Canadian residency.

(ii) The second document reviewed is An International Education Marketing Action Plan for [Canada’s] Provinces and Territories (2011) that makes virtually the same point. Even more significantly, this document is written and signed by provincial and territorial Ministers of education and of immigration – a very important group to push such an action plan. They indicated that one of the key expected outcomes of an international education plan for Canada is “a greater number of international students choosing to remain in Canada as permanent residents after graduation.”

The provincial and territorial Ministers plan to work alongside the federal Government to “ensure that annual immigration-level plans allow room for students who wish to remain permanently in Canada” and to “expand opportunities for international students to work off-campus and after graduation.” This document refers as well, just like the BC strategy, to Canada’s demographic pressures and the need to fill job vacancies – this time at a national level – through immigration. The plan focuses on improvements to foreign-qualifications recognition, extending post-graduation work permits and simplifying the process of obtaining visas and residency papers.

(iii) Finally, the report International Education: A Key Driver of Canada’s Future Prosperity (2011), prepared by a national Advisory Panel on Canada’s [future] International Education Strategy, is equally direct: Canada’s “specific goal is to double the number of quality international students within 10 years, from 239,000 today [at all levels], with a focus on attracting top talent who will either decide to make Canada their home or return to their home countries as leaders of the future.” To assist with this approach, the Panel suggested, Canada will need to further increase the amount of graduate and post-doctoral scholarships supporting international students.

The provincial and territorial ministers’ action plan (referenced above) highlighted that more than 71% of all foreign students in Canada (2008 figures) were studying at the post-secondary level or training in the trades, and 45% of international students at the post-secondary level originated from Asia. The distribution of international students in Canada by country of origin reveals that most of them originate from China (23%, 2010 figures), the United States, France, India and Mexico.  Other countries of origin include: South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia.

Overall, these policy documents point out to a strong desire on the part of Canadian private corporations, educational institutions and public authorities to address demographic challenges and labour market shortages through a determined effort to attract international students to Canada. This is definitely a win-win situation: Canada benefits from an influx of qualified and talented individuals, while the latter can pursue their careers and life goals in a very desirable corner of the earth.

China: Canada’s Strategic Educational Partner

  • China is by far the leading country of origin for international students in Canada. It has kept this position for over a decade – and the gap between China and the countries on the 2nd and 3rd place (South Korea and the United States, respectively) keeps growing.
  • In 2004, Chinese students represented close to a quarter (23%) of the total number of post-secondary (university) international students in Canada [Source: Statistics Canada]. In 2008, Chinese students accounted for 24% of foreign students in Canada, at all levels: secondary, post-secondary, and trades [Source: Citizenship and Immigration Canada].

English: International Students

  • International students generated more that CDN$5.5 Billion to the Canadian economy in 2008. “Nearly 40 percent of that revenue came from two countries – China [CDN$1.3 Billion] and South Korea [CDN$846 Million]. As of December 2008 there were 42,154 Chinese and $27,440 South Korean citizens in Canada undertaking a formal education” at all levels [Source: Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, and RKA Inc.].
  • While the proportion of Chinese students (at all levels) remained stable between 2004 and 2008, at about 24% of Canada’s entire international student population, the proportion of students from other Asian countries (e.g., South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong) decreased. The only exception is India, a country that only accounts however for about 4% of international students in Canada – significantly below its demographic potential [Source: Citizenship and Immigration Canada].
  • A comparison of international education services with other top exports from Canada reveals that, as of 2008, education services ranked no. 1 in Canada’s exports to China, at CDN$1.3 Billion. It is followed by exports in goods such as acrylic alcohols ($869M), chemical wood pulp ($858M), rape/colza seeds ($782M), unwrought nickel ($704M), etc. Educational services “contribute substantially to Canada’s total export to countries such as the People’s Republic of China, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia” [Source: Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, and RKA Inc.].
  • The share of Asian students in Canada reached 53% of international students in 2008. Students from Europe accounted for 18% (downward trend from the late 1990s), while students from Africa accounted for 12% (downward trend as well). Most international students study in three Canadian provinces: Ontario (34%), Quebec (26%), and British Columbia (19%) [Source: Statistics Canada].
  • An analysis by China Daily indicates that, given the global economic and financial crisis, “more Chinese students are expected to head overseas because of the pressure to find work and the appreciation of the Chinese currency” [Source: Tan Yingzi, China Daily]. An assessment by University Affairs points out that “leading Canadian universities are now well-placed to fill gaps in the international market caused by the international fiscal crisis” [Source: Leon Trakman, University Affairs].
  • From K-12 to the post-graduate level, online and in a typical class-teacher setting, from the Pacific to the Atlantic coast, Canada presents a tremendous potential to attract thousands of students from all corners of the world. China is and will continue to be, for the foreseeable future, a strategic partner in the educational field. Canada needs to invest energy and resources in attracting similarly large numbers of international students from other Asian nations, and from around the globe.

Canada-Asia Relations: Strengthening Education Linkages

English: Member nations of the Asia-Pacific Ec...

Observers of Asia-Pacific have frequently noted in recent years the rise of the region in world affairs. Asia-Pacific “has become a key driver of global politics,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed out in 2011, highlighting the region’s demographic weight, economic and political significance, contribution to climate change, and emerging military power. [1] Asia has the world’s third largest economy (China), a majority of the top ten largest cities, and a growing consumer base.

Trade and investment levels between Canada and Asia have increased significantly in recent years, particularly between Canada’s Western provinces and China. As Prime Minister Stephen Harper noted during his 2012 trip to Beijing, China is now Canada’s second largest trading partner. Moreover, as Paul Evans noted, “Canada and China are not just linked by trade in finished goods but by global supply chains and manufacturing […] China is not only engaged in the international system, but also altering it in fundamental ways.” [2] These linkages are expected to continue and become even more substantial in the next few decades, a development that requires the consolidation and refining of strategies towards the Asia-Pacific region.

It is estimated that “[o]ver the next two decades, Asia will undergo massive urbanization,” opening significant economic opportunities for its international partners. [3] Maureen Appel Molot points out that countries such as China and India “are not just producers, their populations are also consumers and potential customers: as income levels rise, so will the consumption of a range of raw material, agricultural and consumer goods” [4], as well as services, including international education.

This will create economic opportunities for developed Western countries and will increase international competition in the area of education, as citizens of key Asian nations (China, India, Japan and others) will increasingly seek to study abroad and participate in various education programs beyond their home countries’ borders. Recent data indicate that a vast majority of Chinese university students have considered studying abroad (as many as 80 per cent!) [5] and – in 2008 alone – “some 180,000 postsecondary students left China to study at a college or university in another country” [6].

It is necessary for Canada to identify all key mechanisms through which it can compete with other nations in the education sector, and to pursue its interests vigorously. Applied to a regional context such as Asia-Pacific, this means that Canada has to be strategic in engaging with governments, education institutions, and other non-governmental entities, and to actively and forcefully promote the benefits of higher education in Canada.

Yuen Pau Woo sees in this context an opportunity to advance human capital cooperation [7], while Dominic Barton considers Canada’s education system a potentially major export industry [8]. Likewise, Rana Sarkar considers education a “gateway” to Canada’s growing economic relations with Asia [9]. The education sector – mentioned more frequently in the academic literature and media articles in recent years – is an excellent candidate for closer ties between Canada and Asian countries.

This is due to its largely non-controversial nature and the mutual benefits of allowing young people from the Asia-Pacific region to study in Canada and of increasing the proportion of tuition-paying international students in Canadian academic institutions. As of 2008-2009, more than half of international students in Canada (about 88,000) came from Asia.

Investing in a more coordinated and targeted strategy to attract Asian students and increasing their numbers in Canadian colleges and universities makes a lot of sense, and not just from an economic point of view. These students will end up strengthening Canadian ties to their countries of origin and some will decide to stay here and become proud citizens of this country.

After all, Canada is a successfully multicultural society, with a high quality of life and a first-rate education system that is competitively priced internationally. It now needs to raise its profile as a preferred destination for international education, and to better explain to potential applicants why it is, in many respects, a better choice than the United States, the UK, Australia or New Zealand. (More on the Canadian advantage in future posts).


[1] Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century,” Foreign Policy, Nov. 2011.

[2] Paul Evans, “Responding to Global China: Getting the Balance Right,” Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, vol. 14, issue 2 (2008).

[3] Wendy Dobson, “Canada, China, and Rising Asia: A Strategic Proposal,” sponsored by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives and the Canada China Business Council, Oct. 2011.

[4] Maureen Appel Molot, “Canada and the BRIC States,” Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, vol. 13, issue 2 (2006).

[5] Tan Yingzi, “Overseas universities woo Chinese students,” China Daily, May 21, 2009.

[6] Philip Fine, Foreign students satisfied with programs in Canada,” University Affairs, Dec. 7, 2009.

[7] Yuen Pau Woo, “A Leap-Frog Strategy for Relations with Asia,” in Canada 2020: Rising to Meet the Asia Challenge, Nov. 2011, http://canada2020.ca/

[8] Dominic Barton, “Rising to Meet the Asia Challenge and Opportunity,” in Canada 2020, ibid.

[9] Rana Sarkar, “The Big Challenge: Adjusting to the Asia Century,” in Canada 2020, ibid.