North sees 34% drop in international students due to COVID-19

Northern institutions, specifically in Yukon, had been successful in growing the number of students coming from abroad in recent years. But the COVID-19 pandemic changed all that.

Across the country there were about 92,000 fewer students from abroad on Canadian campuses

The drop in international students was felt more at Yukon University than elsewhere in the North as it went from 215 in 2019 to 130 this past year. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

A new report shows 34 per cent fewer international students came North in 2020 compared to the previous year.

Robert Falconer, author of the report and a research associate at the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy, says it may partly have been due to the ensuing travel restrictions after the pandemic began last March. 

"While the numbers, of course, are quite smaller for the territories relatively speaking, they've been the most impacted — more than any other jurisdiction in Canada," Falconer said.

Northern institutions, specifically in Yukon, had been successfully growing the number of students coming from abroad in recent years, according to numbers gathered by Falconer. In 2017, the number of international students had grown to 187 from just 47 in 2016. Each year after, that number increased, with 206 in 2019.

Falconer says the territories were impacted partly because of the international travel restrictions layered on top of territory-specific travel restrictions.

"For good reason," he said, "but I think that does have an impact on the arrival of international students."

Yukon hit the hardest

The drop in foreign students hit Yukon in particular, according to the numbers from Falconer, which shows that the majority of international students in the North are studying there.

According to Falconer, the territory had 45 international students in 2016. By 2018, it had 200 and in 2019 it was up to 215. Then in 2020, the number of foreign students in the territory dropped to 130.

Yukon University anticipates having an 18 per cent drop in international enrolment for the current academic year (2020-21), based on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to spokesperson Micheal Vernon.

He says overall, the university's total enrolment is down by 10 per cent this year.

"We will not have a full sense of the financial impact of the drop in international enrolment until the end of the fiscal year," Vernon said in an emailed statement to CBC.

He says the institution's international enrolment is capped at 15 per cent of the total number of students enrolled.

Less impact in N.W.T.

Institutions in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut seemed to have seen less of an impact, including Aurora College in N.W.T.

"Since Aurora College's main student demographic has been and continues to be Northerners, the effect of the drop in international student numbers attending post-secondary institutions in Canada has had a minimal effect on the college," said Jeff O'Keefe, vice president of student affairs, in an emailed statement.

"As Aurora College transforms into a polytechnic university, we look forward to developing additional programs and research that will help us welcome more international students to study alongside our core Northern learners."

Falconer says he expects the drop in the number of international students coming to the North to continue for as long as travel restrictions are in place.

Canada-wide plummets

Across the country, there were 92,000 fewer international students, or 28 per cent, on university campuses in 2020 compared to 2019.

"That's a significant drop, of course. And that has a number of implications," Falconer said.

In the report, it says international students make up 14 per cent of all post-secondary students in Canada, yet they pay about 40 per cent of all university tuition. They also make up about 20 per cent of students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and almost 50 per cent of graduate students.

The majority of international post-secondary students who come North study at Yukon University which is why the institution saw the most significant drop in international enrolment this past year. (Laura Howells/CBC)

The results of the drop in those students includes a reduction in tuition revenues by upwards of about $1.6 billion dollars, said Falconer.

"If universities are already facing restraints … due to funding cuts from provincial governments, that could exacerbate the impact," he added.

"Not to mention the associated sort of impact of students on the general economy."

Impacts on students

Falconer says it doesn't mean all students outside of Canada looking to study in the territories walked away — some might have chosen to stay in their home country and study from there.

But he says it could have a negative effect on those who chose to learn online and not in the country. 

"Certainly there is a difference between being on campus learning, and studying online," Falconer said.

"That difference is exacerbated when you take into account time zones, online learning, perhaps even English as a second language. That's all exacerbated when a student is studying online from abroad."