International Student Flows from Asia to Canada Facing Short-term, Long-term Disruptions

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign did something in 2017 that raised a lot of eyebrows at the time: it took out a C$550,000 insurance policy in the event that its business and engineering programs experienced a 19 per cent drop in revenue from Chinese students. According to the dean of the business school, “These triggers could be things like a visa restriction, a pandemic, a trade war – something like that that was outside of our control.”

Today, that seems like an extremely prescient decision. Last week, a top expert predicted that international student mobility would take a “massive hit” due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and might not fully rebound for another five years. For hundreds of Canadian higher education institutions and programs, a drop in international enrollment will be gravely unwelcome news.

In recent years, international education has been Canada’s fourth-largest export sector, with international students contributing between $15 billion and $26 billion to the Canadian economy from tuition fees (which are considerably higher than domestic student fees), accommodation, and other local expenses. These benefits were shared by universities and colleges, both large and small. Now, according to the BC Council for International Education, “Uncertainty surrounding the length, scope, and trajectory of this disruption renders responses and long-term planning problematic.”

What do we need to know about the medium- and long-term factors that will impact this sector? What should we be monitoring in Asia, a region that accounts for an overwhelming share of Canada’s international students? And how do we find opportunities amidst this crisis? Specifically, how can we widen the scope of our international education focus, looking not just at how to adapt to changes in international student numbers, but also at how to ‘internationalize’ education for Canadian students?

Medium-, and long-term trends

The near-term disruptions to international student flows are manifold and compounding. They include issues related to campus closures, the indefinite postponement of in-person recruitment activities, and delays in standardized tests needed for university and college applications. Even after these logistical and scheduling kinks can be worked out, Canada could face another medium-term challenge: declining demand for overseas degrees, not just because of ongoing concerns about health security, but also because economic conditions in many source countries could put a high-priced Western degree beyond reach for many of Asia’s middle-class families.

In 2018, India surpassed China as the single largest source of international students in Canada. Over a 10-year period, the number of Indian students skyrocketed from roughly 5,000 in 2008-09 to 172,00 in 2018. Many of them are enrolled in Canadian colleges. One reason for this surge is that the size of India’s own higher education sector has not kept up with rapidly growing demand. In addition to India, several Southeast Asian countries – Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam – have been identified by Canada as very promising new ‘markets’ for international students. This is no surprise given that they have a combined population of 532 million and a recent history of rapid economic growth.

Economic conditions in many source countries could put a high-priced Western degree beyond reach.

However, even before it was hit with the coronavirus, there were already signs that India’s economy was “in distress.” And Southeast Asia is now facing the danger of an economic recession. Even China, which has been a mainstay of foreign students, will face an economic slow-down. This is not to suggest that demand for foreign degrees will vanish entirely. But it does mean that Canada will probably be competing with Australia, the U.K., and U.S. for a shrinking pool of applicants.

But there will also be another set of players in that competition: higher education institutions in East Asia. The region’s universities have been climbing in international rankings, especially in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia. These schools have also been focused on becoming international education destinations in their own right, such as by offering degree programs (in English) in popular majors like business and STEM fields. In addition to their rising reputations, they have a few other advantages that will lure some of the international student traffic that might otherwise have headed to Europe or North America.

One is affordability. Even though East Asian schools also charge international students higher fees, the cost of a degree is still generally lower than it is in Canada. This might become more significant as slowing economic growth in sending countries makes students and their families more cost-conscious. Another is proximity and cultural familiarity. Most Canadian students who study abroad for an academic term prefer to go to places that are  culturally or linguistically similar to Canada – the U.K., Ireland, Australia, the U.S., and France. A similar logic is at work for many Asian students. In fact, Muslim-majority Malaysia is seen as especially attractive to students from other Muslim-majority countries, such as neighbouring Indonesia. A third and final advantage some of these places have is that they are emerging from the COVID-19 outbreak with enhanced reputations for their handling of the crisis. Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan in particular have won plaudits for the competence of their governance and public health systems.

Finding opportunity in a crisis

This international education shift toward East Asia is not a reflection of anything Western countries like Canada have or have not done. It is, rather, a natural outgrowth of the region’s broader emergence as a major centre of global power and influence. Rather than treat the emergence of the region’s higher education sector as a source of competition, we should view it as an opportunity for greater connectivity between Canada and Asia.

The current moment is an opportunity for Canada to embrace a more full-spectrum internationalization of its higher education sector, building on the important objectives identified in Canada’s recent International Education Strategy (2019-2024). This strategy made a commitment not only to diversifying sources of international students – including, not least of all, several large countries in Southeast Asia – but also to making sure that Canadian students could get study and work experience in places that will be key to Canada’s trade diversification, especially in Asia.  

Canada has many Asian diaspora communities that can be sources of insight and intelligence.

While the ability to send Canadian students overseas will be paused for the foreseeable future, that does not mean that their learning about this part of the world – its economies, cultures, histories, and political systems – should be paused. Using a bit of ingenuity, there is a lot we can do to build this knowledge base among the next generation of Canadian entrepreneurs, engineers, diplomats, and health workers. For example, Canada has many Asian diaspora communities that can be sources of insight and intelligence into on-the-ground conditions in these strategically important parts of the world.

In addition, international students who are already in Canada have a lot to offer Canadian students in terms of education about cultural norms and language skills. APF Canada’s own programs, such as its curriculum work at the K-12 level (something a majority of Canadians support) and its direct engagement with post-secondary students and young professionals through its Asia Pacific Youth Councils, are examples of efforts to move Canada in this direction. But there are many other programs and people that could be mobilized for this purpose.

Indeed, while Canada could be facing challenges from a drop in its international student numbers, there is a lot we can do to support Canada’s next generation of young professionals to be productive members of a post-COVID-19 global society.