Logo StatCan COVID-19: Data to Insights for a Better Canada Which postsecondary programs had high levels of international student enrolment prior to COVID-19?

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by Marc Frenette, Youjin Choi and April Doreleyers

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Colleges and universities have increasingly relied on international students as a source of revenue over the last decade or so (Usher, 2019). In colleges, the percentage of enrolments that were international rose from 5.2% in 2009/2010 to 13.2% in 2017/2018. University campuses witnessed a similar increase over the same period (from 8.2% to 14.7%).Note This increased reliance on international enrolments has raised concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as physical distancing directives may affect programs that require in-person contact through laboratory or studio work, internships, or music recitals. New public health measures also require all individuals entering Canada to quarantine for 14 days.Note To provide insights into how COVID-19 could potentially impact postsecondary institutions, this article provides estimates of the share of enrolments that were international by academic program and source country prior to COVID-19 based on the Postsecondary Student Information System (PSIS). A more detailed description of the approach is available in Frenette, Choi, and Doreleyers (2020). 

Certain programs relied heavily on international student enrolment in 2017/2018 (Chart 1), most notably “Mathematics, Computer and Information Sciences” where almost one-third of college and university enrolments were international.

In contrast, many programs requiring a certain degree of in-person time, including “Education”, “Visual and Performing Arts, and Communications Technologies”, “Physical and Life Sciences, and Technologies”, “Agriculture, Natural Resources and Conservation”, and “Health and Related Fields”, generally did not rank very high with regards to international student enrolment compared to other disciplines. However, reliance on international enrolment was still substantial in many of these programs (often over 10%). Moreover, “Architecture, Engineering and Related Technologies” ranked fairly high as a group, and laboratory work is often expected in these programs (particularly in engineering, where rates were quite high—often over 30%).

Chart 1

Data table for Chart 1 
Data table for Chart 1
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 1. The information is grouped by CIP primary grouping (appearing as row headers), University and College, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
CIP primary grouping University College
Personal Improvement and Leisure 36.5 16.1
Education 3.9 1.9
Visual and Performing Arts, and Communications Technologies 12.6 9.2
Humanities 13.9 6.9
Social and Behavioural Sciences, and Law 11.7 9.0
Business, Management and Public Administration 17.7 25.6
Physical and Life Sciences, and Technologies 14.7 8.5
Mathematics, Computer and Information Sciences 31.6 30.8
Architecture, Engineering and Related Technologies 24.4 17.4
Agriculture, Natural Resources and Conservation 18.8 12.6
Health and Related Fields 4.9 6.1
Personal, Protective and Transportation Services 2.5 7.3
All CIP primary groupings 14.7 13.2

Although relatively few enrolments in “Health and Related Fields” were international, this was not the case in “Medical Residency Programs – Subspecialty Certificates” and “Medical Residency Programs – General Certificates”, with rates of 21% and 11%, respectively. In contrast, a much smaller share of nursing students were international.

China was the main source country in 11 of the 12 broad university program areas, often by a wide margin. At the college level, India was the primary source in 9 of the 12 areas, with China often a close second.Note

Finally, prospective international students may be more likely to stay home as they have yet to invest in a Canadian postsecondary education. The data suggest that international enrolments comprise an even larger share of new enrolments than total enrolments. At the university level, almost 23.8% of new enrolments were international in 2017/2018, compared to 14.7% of total enrolments. In colleges, 16.3% of new enrolments were international, compared to 13.2% of total enrolments.

Although it is still too early to know what will happen to international student enrolment in the Fall 2020 term and how this will impact postsecondary institutions, there are real concerns that demand for Canadian postsecondary education from abroad will decline. This article has highlighted the degree of internationalization of academic programs across Canadian campuses, which could inform discussions around physical distancing, program delivery mode, and international travel guidelines.


Frenette, M., Y. Choi, and A. Doreleyers. 2020. “International Student Enrolment in Postsecondary Education Programs Prior to COVID-19.” No. 105 Economic Insights. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 11-626-X. Ottawa: Statistics Canada.

Usher, A., (2019). The State of Postsecondary Education in Canada, 2019. Toronto: Higher Education Strategy Associates.

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International Student Enrolment in Postsecondary Education Programs Prior to COVID-19.

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