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Our latest IDP Connect study, “International Student Perceptions Following the 2020 US Presidential Election,” surveyed over 800 international students from 40+ countries to find out whether the popularity of the US as a study destination has increased since President Biden won the election last fall. The short answer: a resounding yes. On average:

  • 76% of international student respondents said that their perception of the US has improved, and this rises to 86% of students who said they closely follow US politics

  • 67% said they are more likely to study in the US given the result of the election, compared with 27% who said it will not change their thoughts on where to study

The improved image of the US will create more competition for Canadian educators recruiting international students in the coming year, particularly as the majority of surveyed students intend to study abroad in 2021; 19% expect an April–July start date and 38% want to start in August–October.

Canada established an effective market position as more inclusive and internationally oriented than the US under former President Trump, and the number of foreign students in Canada grew dramatically (+55%) from 2016–2019.

This position may be more vulnerable now because President Biden intends to restore a welcoming environment for immigrants, increase investments in science and innovation, and reestablish close ties with global allies. All these goals align quite closely with Canada’s points of differentiation.

Still, Canada remains the destination most likely to be considered alongside the US for the students we surveyed. Half of students (50%) said that in addition to the US they were considering Canada, compared with 41% looking at the UK and 28% interested in Australia. That 50% is an indicator of serious interest in Canada, and it represents a market segment well worth exploring.

Quality and prestige draw students to the US

The quality of teaching in the US appears to be the main draw for international students, and students are also attracted to individual institutions in the US. By contrast, affordability and safety are not seen as real advantages to studying in the US – a notable finding for Canadian educators as it suggests that these attributes remain key differentiators for Canada.

Market share could shift quickly

The Biden presidency gives US educators a competitive strength they sorely lacked under the previous administration. The election result has already made two-thirds of the students we surveyed more likely to study in the US – and this is before President Biden has implemented many of his campaign promises.

The UK has also upped its competitive game and its institutions enrolled more international students than ever last year – thanks largely to growth from non-EU markets. Notably, the announcement in September 2019 that post-study work rights of two to three years would be restored this summer caught lots of attention in India – Canada’s main student market – and is likely a key reason that the number of Indian students in UK higher education more than doubled from 2018/19 to 2019/20.

But again, at this point in time, our data reveals that more students are considering Canada than the UK, in addition to the US.

How can Canada compete?

Over the past several years, Canada has been the world’s fastest-growing study destination, having increased its international student population by 82% since 2014.

The Canadian government has laid a strong foundation for that growth through policy support in the areas of student visa processes, the PGWP, and immigration routes for students and partnerships between educators. Such policies helped to attract 642,480 international students in 2019 – and that number alone provides hundreds of thousands of opportunities for Canadian educators to recruit new students. Maximizing student satisfaction and empowering alumni and current students to tell their stories of success to students overseas are strategies that should not be underestimated.

Now more than ever because of COVID, prospective students will be looking for evidence that institutions will take care of them, create safe environments, and help them connect their education to real career opportunities. These are messages that need to be communicated.

Affordability is also key for students who may be facing increased financial pressure as a result of COVID, and it’s a feature that often gives Canadian institutions an edge over US competitors. Scholarships could be an important strategy this year to promote to students who are also looking at US institutions.

Finally, there is an urgent need for data-driven recruitment strategies. Finding out which programs resonate in which markets, where students are being lost to other countries/institutions, which communication strategies are most effective, and where students are either converting or dropping out of the enrolment funnel is simply crucial. Data can also indicate where just one more email or phone call might convince a student to choose your institution over another, and where a particular incentive could make all the difference.

With the US on better footing again, it’s time to pull out all the stops.


IDP Connect Core Members and Data Subscribers can take a closer look at the data from this survey by utilizing the Demand Tracker tool.

Please feel free to reach out to chat with us about how IDP Connect can provide you with the insights you need to recruit successfully in 2021 – and beyond! We’d love to hear from you.

CP - Author Image - Meghan Krohn
Meghan Krohn04 March 2021