U.S. Universities Worried As International Student Numbers Fall, While Canada’s Cohort Grows

U.S. Universities Worried As International Student Numbers Fall, While Canada’s Cohort Grows
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Canada’s can-do approach to immigration is seemingly attracting international students put off by U.S. President Donald Trump’s negativity, worrying U.S. colleges and universities.

A growing number of international students are coming to study in Canada.

The number of study permit holders in Canada jumped more than 56.4 percent in just four years, rising from roughly 411,000 at the end of 2016 to more than 642,000 by Dec. 31 last year. 

Not so in the United States. 

In the first three years of the Trump presidency, data from the Institute of International Education shows the number of new international students in the United States dropped almost 7.4 percent, continuing a decline that started during the final year of U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration.

From a peak number of new international students at American colleges and universities at the start of the 2015-16 school year, enrolment had fallen by more than 10.4 percent in the four years that ended in May last year. 

And with the COVID-19 global pandemic closing borders and Trump taking a tough stand on immigration, educational institutions in the United States are fearing the worst.

In a brief released in May, the NAFSA: Association of International Educators captured the degree of the desperation of educational institutions in the United States over the decline in international student enrolment. 

“New international student enrollment was already down before the coronavirus pandemic, and it will most certainly be exacerbated now,” the association wrote in its brief. “An estimated 25 percent decline in international student enrollment for fall 2020 would translate to a loss of approximately $10 billion and 114,000 jobs to our nation’s economy.

“If U.S. higher education institutions are forced to downsize or close due to enrollment declines, that would have a major multiplier effect as many of these institutions serve as key economic engines and job-creators in their communities.”

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Earlier this month, colleges in the U.S. scored a victory over a proposed policy that would have required international students in the U.S. to leave the country or transfer in the event that their classes were held completely online. Led by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the lawsuits included more than 200 colleges. Faced with that court action, the government revoked the guidance.  

Despite that win, schools south of the border are still worried. 

“The fight is not yet over,” said Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. “The threats to immigrants and international students are still looming. 

“We need to continue this fight for international students, their ability to come to the U.S. to learn, study and have the opportunity to work, innovate and contribute to our nation,” she said. 

In Canada, the federal government has instead welcomed international students and put in place several programs to help them during the COVID-19 global pandemic.

“Canada deeply values the international students that have chosen to study in Canada and the contribution they make to our educational institutions, our communities and our country,” states a Canadian government update released during the pandemic. 

“Although the current circumstances are challenging, we hope that you will feel supported by your Canadian host institutions and the communities in which you live, whether you may be a first-year student, a soon-to-be graduating student, an exchange student or visiting researcher.”

In mid-July, Canada’s Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino further sweetened the deal for international students by announcing that Ottawa will fast-track study permits for international students who have completed their applications online.

The new process also allows international students to count the time they have spent studying online abroad towards their eligibility for post-graduate work permits if at least 50 percent of their program is completed in Canada. Ottawa has also put in place a temporary two-stage approval process to reassure international students who cannot submit all their documentation to complete their applications and who are choosing to pursue their programs via distance education. 

“The pandemic has had a significant impact on international students and the Canadian institutions and communities that host them,” said the immigration minister. “This is why we have implemented a series of measures to support them. 

“We value the contribution of young people seeking a high-quality education in Canada, and we’re making every effort to minimize how current challenges affect their plans and dreams for the future,” said Mendicino.

Last year, Canada had more than 650,000 international students in its colleges and universities. So far, more than 58,000 former international students have become Canadian permanent residents.

That record of Canadian success worries officials at American colleges and universities who feel their country may be losing its competitive advantage when it comes to attracting international students.

Earlier this month, MIT president Rafael Reif penned an op-ed in The New York Times warning a failure by America to retain its coveted ability to attract and retain international students could lead to a lowering of the academic standing of its colleges and universities. 

“As a nation, when we turn our backs on talented foreign students, we not only lose all that they bring to our classrooms and laboratories, we also give up a strategic asset,” wrote Reif. “First, we lose the kind of personal drive that built this country: the life force of brilliant young people with the courage and ambition to leave everything familiar in search of a better future. 

“What’s more, most students who come here to earn a Ph.D. stay to build their families and careers, and often companies that create thousands of jobs. Many become citizens,” he noted.

Canada, which already has the third-largest population of international students in the world, is considered to be one of the top countries to which such students are expected to turn when considering alternatives to the United States.

The Canadian Bureau for International Education states there are three main reasons why international students choose to come to Canada: the quality of the Canadian educational system; the country’s reputation for tolerance and non-discrimination; and its safety as a place to live and study. Of the international students who were in Canada for their education in 2018, 96 percent of them said in a survey they would recommend Canada as a study destination. 

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