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Introducing 'Voice of the Sector'

As the global leader in international education, IDP is committed to advancing the sector in collaboration with our university and college partners and with an ever-increasing set of stakeholders and change-makers across education policy. To support this mission, IDP is pleased to announce the launch of our new thought leadership initiative, ‘Voice of the Sector’. This initiative serves as a platform for industry leaders across North America to share insights and perspectives on key topics in international education that currently shape and affect the industry. It aims to spark important conversations within the global educational community to drive change. 

For the first Voice of the Sector piece, we are pleased to spotlight Isaac Garcia-Sitton, Executive Director of International Student Enrolment, Education & Inclusion at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU). As a former diplomat for Panama in Canada and the United States, Isaac has been named a Top 25 Immigrant by Canadian Immigrant Magazine and a Top 10 Most Influential Hispanic Canadian by TLN Media Group. In this piece, he puts forward his thoughts on Canada’s International Education Strategy, the recent immigration policy changes in Canada, and their wide-reaching impact on the international education sector. He speaks here not as a staff member at TMU nor as an IDP Strategic Advisory Board member, but as a highly respected international education (IE) practitioner and scholar focusing on the intersection of IE and immigration policy.

We hope you enjoy our Voice of the Sector series, and that the insights shared by sector leaders spark important conversations in international education.

Christine Wach, SVP, Partnerships and Stakeholder Engagement, North America, IDP Connect

Canada: A Premier Destination for International Education?

By Isaac Garcia-Sitton

Canada has firmly established its emphasis on international education as a national priority, leveraging its immigration policies and international education strategies to become the third largest destination country for international education with a growth rate of nearly 170% over the last decade. However, many have questioned the sustainability of this growth, with increasing concerns around the lack of resources to adequately support international students in terms of affordable housing, food security, job prospects, and mental health. The recent announcement by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) on capping international student enrolment has further raised concerns around the future of Canada in the international education landscape.

While most universities and colleges are committed to meaningful inclusion of international students through pre-arrival support, engaging learning experiences, and safety and well-being on campus, the support provided to incoming students varies dramatically across public and private educational institutions. Unfortunately, many post-secondary institutions have come to rely on international tuition revenues to remain financially viable due to reduced government funding available to finance their operations. Therefore, recent restrictions imposed on international student enrolment, and the resulting decline in tuition revenue, would seriously compromise the ability of institutions to offer quality programming and support services for the students they enroll, unless there is a proportionate increase in funding made available by the provincial government.

Notwithstanding the impact of these changes on the post-secondary education sector in Canada, it is important to realize that many of these measures are driven by the need to protect the integrity of the international student system – which, evidently, has been misused to the detriment of international students. At the same time, the challenges currently dominating the international education landscape would not be magically resolved by a cap on international student enrolment. What we require is a strategic approach and concerted efforts among multiple stakeholders, as well as proportionate investments to support international students.

In principle, a key piece of this puzzle is Canada’s International Education Strategy, led by the Global Affairs Canada (GAC), which is up for renewal in March 2024. In its third iteration, the strategy aims to focus on four pillars — Digital Marketing, Scholarships, Diversification, and Education Agents. Despite the salience of these pillars, there is an underlying emphasis on maintaining the status quo, signifying an approach that underplays the challenges faced by a system that has arguably “gotten out of control”. The situation is further exacerbated by growing concerns around the financial implications of the recent immigration-level changes as well as how they will impact the reputation of Canada as a welcoming destination for international students.

It’s time to reassess the purpose of the renewed international education strategy, given the impact of IRCC’s mandate to stabilize growth and decrease the number of new international students arriving in Canada. Particularly, the newly introduced cap on international student enrolment and changes to the Post-Graduation Work Permit (PGWP) Program should inform how the upcoming international education strategy plans to support the sector in terms of promoting Canada as a destination of choice as well as the role of the strategy in meeting labor market gaps.

The development and implementation of any national strategy that impacts the recruitment and retention of international students in a federation like Canada is inherently difficult as education is a provincial mandate in the Canadian political system. Needless to say, there are going to be significantly heightened tensions between the federal- and provincial-level governments as well as educational institutions competing for international student quotas, particularly in provinces like Ontario which hosts the largest number of international students. This highlights the need for shared objectives and effective coordination amongst relevant policy actors, which is not easy but essential when working with high-impact policy changes.

As work on the renewed international education strategy continues, we would be remiss to ignore the growing impact of the rapidly evolving immigration policy context and geopolitical factors on international student recruitment and retention. Perhaps equally important is to come to an agreement on what are the primary objectives, principles, and values that we, as a country, aspire towards, and what are our responsibilities towards the students who choose to study, and subsequently stay, in Canada. Given the current state of affairs, these may include strengthened integrity in the international student recruitment process, enhanced immigration support, balanced distribution of international students across provinces and cities, and reinvestment of international tuition revenue towards better institutional support services.

Practitioners in international education and those involved in international student enrolment are facing challenging times ahead. With intensifying competition, it will be essential to implement more diversified strategies, both geographically and programmatically, to maximize new enrolment quotas. Additionally, focusing on retention strategies will be key to ensure that international students remain engaged and committed to their institutions. It is also important to recognize that, while Canada is a relatively new player in the international education landscape, there is much that can be learned from other leading destination countries. Key examples include the regulatory requirements governing international education agents in Australia, student mobility programs in the United Kingdom, and measures to support recruitment and retention of skilled graduates in Germany.

The notion that Canada values international students is not best reflected through the volume of international students in the country but rather how well they are supported to thrive. The renewal of the international education strategy provides Canada with an important opportunity to critically evaluate the sustainability of our current approach and identify indicators of success that we collectively value. While Canada has made great strides in terms of attracting a record number of international students, it is evident that our infrastructure and institutional capacity has not kept pace with the unprecedented growth in the volume of international students. Knowing what we know, our inability to adequately prepare for and address these challenges jeopardizes our ability to recruit and retain international students and maintain our position as a premier and welcoming destination for international education.

CP - Image - Isaac Garcia- Sitton
Isaac Garcia-Sitton29 January 2024