Canada’s Hidden Gem: Asia Pacific International Students

Earlier this week, “construction talks” began on expanding the traditional Chinese door painted in red that is wide open for Chinese international students interested in studying in Canada. The end product is expected to be much larger: a paifang gateway, which often marks the entrance of a Chinatown. On Sunday, Canada’s Immigration Minister, John McCallum, landed in China to begin talks on accepting more Chinese students into Canada. Some 120,000 Chinese students are already studying in the country, and the Canadian government hopes to increase the number, perhaps even double it.

Contribution of international students to Canadian prosperity is multifaceted. They generate money for the Canadian economy through tuition, accommodation, discretionary spending, and associated tourism. In 2010, international students spent close to C$8 billion in Canada. Thirty-seven per cent of this revenue came from two countries in the Asia Pacific: China and South Korea. They are also a great source of talent for the country, being ambitious, skilled, and multilingual. International students from the Asia Pacific also help to enrich the lives, cultural understanding, and networks of local Canadian students and businesses.

Canada as an attractive country for international students from the Asia Pacific

In 2014, Canada opened its doors to 124,625 international students from the Asia Pacific, or close to 60 per cent of all international students who came that year to study. Chinese students accounted for half of the international students (62,455) from the Asia Pacific. A significant portion also came from India (20%), South Korea (12%), and Japan (5%).

Since 2000, both China and India have seen huge growth in the number of international students going to Canada — 511 per cent growth from China and 1,463 per cent from India. South Korea peaked in 2007 with the most number of international students arriving in Canada (29,110), but slowed down after that because of the affect of the economic crisis on South Korea’s economy and middle class. Japanese students’ interest in studying abroad has waned over the years, with a 36 per cent decrease in Japanese international students coming to Canada between 2000 and 2014.

Canada’s internationally renowned and affordable education attracts many of these students from the Asia Pacific. The 2015 Agent Barometer survey, which is the most comprehensive survey of education agents, ranked Canada as the top destination for high-school/secondary school education, and second for vocational diploma/further education, undergraduate study, and graduate/post-graduate study. The primary destinations in Canada for Asia Pacific students are Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta because of their world-renowned universities, as well as the large Asian diasporas in those provinces. From 2000 to 2014, more than half of international students from the Asia Pacific (672,140) went to these three provinces to study.

The number of international students from the Asia Pacific in Canada seems impressive, but is low in comparison to Canada’s competition. To the south, more than 300,000 Chinese international students enrolled in American universities in 2014. That is more than double the number of all international students coming to Canada from the Asia Pacific that same year.

Experiences of Asia Pacific international students in Canada

According to Canadian Bureau for International Education’s 2014 report on international education in Canada, the majority of international students are satisfied with their time in Canada. Many choose Canada because of its image as a tolerant, non-discriminatory society, and are able to experience this in their university and community. Even so, a number still struggle with finding accommodation, cultural and racial sensitivities, and integrating with their Canadian peers. Compared to an international student from an English- or French-speaking country, international students from the Asia Pacific are more likely to encounter these difficulties, and to a greater extent, because of the more apparent differences in culture and language.  

One of the largest difficulties for Asia Pacific international students is immigrating to Canada after graduation. Although they provide a great advantage to Canadian society and Canada’s economy, obstacles are still preventing them from working and settling in Canada. Canadian Bureau for International Education’s 2015 report on international education in Canada found that more than half of Canada’s international students hope to apply for Permanent Residency (PR) once graduating. Yet, most of these international students end up facing difficulties when trying to obtain PR. In 2015, international students who applied for Express Entry, a program used to manage applications for PR, got a median score of around 408 points – short of the 450 points needed to apply for PR. The government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is trying to change this. In March, amendments were made to the Canadian Immigration Act making it easier for international students to become permanent residents. Although this will help Asia Pacific international students obtain PR, it will not guarantee that they will be able to find work in Canadian companies. If unable to settle in Canada, these young, bright minds will take their skills and talents elsewhere in the world, leaving Canada at a loss.

Canadians studying in the Asia Pacific

Student mobility is a two-way street. Asia Pacific international students who come to Canada can encourage Canadian students to forge ties with countries in the region and perhaps even visit, study, or work there. Vice-versa, Canadian students who go abroad to an Asia Pacific country, whether it be South Korea or Malaysia, can promote Canada to potential international students, as well as come back with a more globalized mindset.

Yet, this two-way street is merely an illusion in Canada. Only three per cent of full-time undergraduate students in Canada participate in study abroad programs. Traditional study abroad destinations like the U.S., U.K., France, and Australia remain high on Canadian students’ lists of where to study; the number of Canadian university students going to the Asia Pacific is particularly low as a result. At such a pivotal time for the region, Canada could benefit from having more Canadian students study in the Asia Pacific.

The benefits of increasing two-way student mobility between Canada and the Asia Pacific certainly outweigh the costs. Canada already has quite a large number of international students from the Asia Pacific, but Canada still has a lot to learn from the U.S., U.K., and Australia about attracting and retaining more international students. Addressing the difficulties international students are facing—particularly in obtaining PR and finding jobs in Canada—will encourage more international students to stay in Canada after graduation and continue attracting potential international students to Canada. Perhaps even more difficult is ensuring Canadian students are just as interested as Asia Pacific students in studying abroad.