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What does an internationalized Canadian campus look like post-COVID? 

Canadian educators invested in internationalization have learned a great deal from operating in the pandemic, according to industry thought-leaders participating in a recent webinar hosted by IDP Connect and Canadian Bureau of International Education (CBIE). New insights will help to reimagine marketing, business models, and program delivery. 

The webinar, entitled “Growth on the horizon: Institutional perspectives on the way forward for Canadian institutions,” featured Christine Wach, IDP Connect’s director of client partnerships; Mike Henniger, a senior consultant at IDP Connect; Rick Huijbregts, vice-president of strategy and innovation at George Brown College in Toronto; and Geoff Wilmhurst, vice-president of partnerships at Camosun College on Vancouver Island.  

Canadian educators need to up their game as the US’s popularity grows 

IDP Connect’s Mike Henniger kicked things off by presenting real-time data charts representing global student search demand. Canada leads major English-speaking destinations in terms of student search demand – but the US, buoyed by President Biden’s inauguration last November – is close on Canada’s heels. “As we look forward into the coming years, we’ll start to see the US eat into Canadian market share significantly,” said IDP’s Mike Henniger. 

Internationalization is due for a rethink 

With competition not just from the US but also the UK and eventually Australia (once that country’s borders reopen), the consensus in the webinar was that Canadian institutions will have to work harder and smarter to attract international students going forward. Camosun College’s Geoff Wilmhurst and George Brown College’s Rick Huijbregts strongly believe that Canadian institutions need an entirely different mindset than before the pandemic.  

Whereas in the past decade, the focus was mostly on growing international enrolments, the imperative now for Canadian institutions is more complex. Consider that: 

  • Many campuses will be stretched in terms of capacity (especially physical capacity) to handle pent-up demand from international students who have been waiting for travel restrictions to ease to study abroad. 


  • Many educators have some programs (e.g., business and administration) over-loaded with international students, while other programs have too many empty chairs. 


  • China is sending fewer students, and the Indian market is to some extent “saturated.” There is a need to enrol more students from a greater number of countries.


For all these reasons, Wilmhurst and Huijbregts think that it’s time to think past the limits of the physical campus and buildings on it. Wilmhurst noted that Camosun is still largely a 9am–5pm campus, and said, “we are thinking about how we might increase our hours to expand capacity and be more flexible.” Huijbregts said that the “vertical campus” of George Brown does not offer enough space for what the college can deliver to international students: “We are bigger than just the physical space we have … we are thinking about how we can deliver the George Brown experience beyond it, even outside of Canada.” 

Even the traditional schedule for international intakes should be questioned, said Wilmhurst. “We’re offering short programming in early November to kickstart students who might only be able to start full programs in January. For that matter, why not lengthen the amount of time students can come in to Canada to start programs? It would also reduce strain on our airports.” 

Hybrid offers room to grow 

Institutions had to quickly adapt to deliver a hybrid model of learning in the pandemic – and that innovation can serve them well past the end of the crisis. Both Huijbregts and Wilmhurst believe that offering complementary online programming on top of in-person experiences is a key way of building capacity and also offering flexibility to students. And as IDP’s Mike Henniger added, major online platforms like Udacity promise students education “when you want, how you want” – and he said, “we’re seeing this kind of technology come in as competition.” There’s an urgency now to being more flexible: “students want education that fits their life,” said Henniger. 

Expanding ideas of diversity 

There’s an increasing need now not just for more diversity in terms of number of nationalities enrolled, but also for spreading international students across more programs. Both Huijbregts and Wilmhurst acknowledged that their business programs are loaded with international students – as is the case on so many Canadian campuses – and said they need to hone their strategies to make other programs more compelling.  

IDP’s Christine Wach noted that marketing campaigns need to link to local and regional labour market demands. As it stands, she said, “there’s a danger of overloading labour market with say, a lot of project management student grads.” She asked, 

“How do we tell the story of those undersubscribed programs and connect that to the Canadian immigration pathway … because really that’s connected to this 3-year plan to bring 1.2 million new Canadians into this country to fill labour market gaps. Is that a marketing problem? 

Wilmhurst concurred, saying that for example, Canada needs more early childhood educators and healthcare assistants. He stressed that the COVID crises revealed the danger of having too few (underpaid) healthcare professionals in aged-care homes – these professionals moved from care home to care home, carrying COVID with them in an unfortunate number of cases.  

IDP’s Henniger noted that all too often, there is not enough attention given to marketing specific programs. He used the example of music versus accounting programs. “A music student – creative, passionate about art – is going to look for a different webpage, a different marketing template, than an accounting student. These students care about different things, they’re going to be influenced by different cues. But all too often, the same template is applied to music program and accounting program marketing.” 

Henniger said the same problem frequently arises when it comes to marketing to different nationalities. “Send a Brazilian prospect a testimonial from a Brazilian student in their own language, for example, and it is amazing what that kind of personalization can do for conversion.”  

“Segmenting communications is just crucial,” he concluded. 

Webinar presenters agreed that institutions need to invest more in agent relationships to help market target programs. Educating agents and working collaboratively with them on strategic goals can make a huge difference. 

Partnerships are essential 

Thinking only about quantity of students is short-sighted, agreed all webinar presenters. As Huijbregts said, 

 “COVID taught us a lot. “It’s essential to look for partnerships, co-creation with industry but then also co-delivery with other institutions around the world and within Canada. If our only conversation is “how many students can we fly to Canada, how can we grow our numbers … it’s too small-thinking, too narrow, and I think in 5–10 years it will be irrelevant. If we don’t invest in new delivery opportunities, business models, partnerships, I will be concerned for the public post-secondary education sector … We still see each other too much as competitors. We need to reimagine pathways and relationships and articulations.” 

 Wilmhurst agreed, saying, 

 “Canada has to become more transnational. At Camosun, we are thinking, “how can we take our education overseas? It’s going to be through partnerships. And there needs to be some kind of national strategy frankly. We need to move students seamlessly between institutions, right across the country. Lots of students want a Toronto experience, then also a Vancouver experience or a Sudbury experience. That should be possible.” 

“Our business is about customer service” 

“We can’t forget that our business is about customer service, about giving students an amazing experience throughout their journey to Canada, upon arrival in Canada, and through their studies. That can make such a difference to Canadian institutions’ brands around the world,” said Wach. 

Henniger provided the example of the “Study Buenos Aires” in Argentina. Through that initiative, international students arrive at the airport and get a QR code on their phone. They then go to a designated locker, open it with their code, and find a backpack waiting for them packed with a SIM card for their phone, maps for public transport, and other materials for their success in their new host country.” Henniger noted, “It just checks so many boxes – and it’s a great example of technology and personalization working together to make the student experience great.” 

Data to fuel customization and segmentation 

Huijbregts and Wilmhurst agreed that data such as IDP’s is a must for informing strategy now and coming out of the pandemic. As they noted, competitors in other countries are all using data to attract the right international students for specific programs, and Canadian institutions that aren’t doing so risk falling behind. Recruitment going forward is simply a more complex operation – not just a numbers game anymore – and data tells institutions where and how much to invest efforts and budget. 

Big thanks to George Brown College’s Rick Huijbregts and Camosun College’s Geoff Wilmhurst for their amazing insights and time.  

For more information about IDP Connect and how we might help your institution in its recruitment goals, please contact canada.info@idp-connect.com.

CP - Author Image - Meghan Krohn
Meghan Krohn29 June 2021