Canada / Coronavirus Insights
Future Challenges Facing Higher Education in Canada

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by Eva Koronios, Industry Research Analyst
Jun 26 2020

Due to the various social distancing mandates that were put into place by the Canadian government to control the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus), colleges and universities across all Canada swiftly cancelled their in-person classes and moved the remainder of their spring terms online. To this end, revenue for the Colleges and Universities industry in Canada (IBISWorld report 61131aCA) is projected to decline 1.4% over 2020 as institutions face pushback from students for tuition refunds and lowered tuition rates in light of what essentially amounts to an online education.

As of the time of this writing, some Canadian universities are tentatively making plans to reopen in the fall. For instance, on June 10 the Ontario Colleges and Universities Minister Ross Romano unveiled the province’s intent to gradually reopen its post-secondary campuses over the summer, although the schools will restrict the number of individuals allowed on campus at any one time.

However, despite this development the majority of Canadian higher education institutions remain wholly uncertain regarding what the future holds for them. This is particularly evident when considering Canada’s globally-regarded status as a hub for international study, in addition to the question of whether international students will continue to serve as a reliable source of revenue generation for the country’s higher ed institutions. Read on for IBISWorld’s analysis of one of the biggest challenges facing Canadian university administrators in a post-coronavirus world.


Tertiary education in a globalized world

In recent years, Canada’s international student population has expanded. For instance, according to CIC News, in 2019 Canada had over 640,000 international students, signaling the tripling of its international student population over the past 10 years. Moreover, international students in Canada come from over 175 countries, with the top five being India, China, South Korea, Vietnam and Brazil.

Yet the majority of Canada’s current international students have had to return home due to the pandemic; in addition, its intake of new international students has already begun decreasing. According to the same source, Canada’s intake of new international students has been lower during the first four months of 2020 compared with this time last year.

This poses a financial challenge to Canadian universities, since international students tend to pay substantially higher tuition fees than domestic students. For the 2019-2020 academic year, Statistics Canada reported that tuition for the average international undergraduate student was $29,714. Concurrently, tuition for the average domestic undergraduate student was $6,463.



Since Canada’s highest proportion of international students comes from countries that have been significantly affected by the coronavirus (e.g. China and South Korea), it isn’t difficult to imagine that student populations from these countries will begin decreasing in the short term. However, this would erode a base of revenue generation at a time when industry operators need it the most, especially as the future of provincial and federal budgets for post-secondary education also remain up in the air.

As of the time of this writing, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has stated that it will continue to process study permits for international students as long as resources permit. Consequently, international students will likely be able to enter the country for the fall 2020 term, though the question remains as to whether international students will feel comfortable coming to Canada from abroad to begin their studies. With the federal government recently announcing reforms that would enable international students to begin their study programs online and still remain eligible for a Post-Graduation Work Permit, it seems as though the government has already begun planning for how it can best maintain its global status as a destination for higher education despite the novel coronavirus.