Nova Scotia

International students changing makeup of Maritime university courses

As fewer students from the Maritimes enrol in universities in the region, schools are relying on international students to fill the spots and that's leading to a shift in what students are studying.

Students from outside Canada are half as likely to take courses associated with bachelor of arts degree

There are half as many students studying general arts and humanities at Cape Breton University as there were 10 years ago. (CBU)

There's been a dramatic shift in the types of courses undergraduate students are taking in Nova Scotia and the growing number of students from outside the country is contributing to the change. 

Enrolment in the humanities — subjects such as English and history — is down by more than a third over the past decade. Last year, only one per cent of international students enrolled in those fields at Maritime universities.

Dale Keefe, vice president academic at Cape Breton University — where humanities enrolment has fallen by 88 per cent over a decade — says the school has "filled that void" with international students.

The challenge for the university is the new cohort of students aren't studying the same fields. 

The Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission tracks enrolment, including what fields students are majoring in and where they came from. (CBC)

See a breakdown of what international students are studying compared to overall enrolment.

Struggling 'to keep the lights on'

"With declining local demographics and with funding not keeping up with the necessary costs, universities had no choice but to grow international students — and to grow programs that were attractive to international students to, in some cases, keep the doors open and keep the lights on," said Keefe, shortly after returning from a recruiting trip to India.

According to numbers from the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission, about 29 per cent of students from the Maritimes focus in fields that typically fall under a bachelor of arts degree, while about 15 per cent of international students do. 

Meanwhile, the number of students from outside the country studying in the region has increased 71 per cent in the last decade — a sharp contrast from the declining number of students from the Maritimes.

The number of students from Nova Scotia is down 18.5 per cent over the same period. 

Typically, international students pay much higher tuition than Canadian students as well.

Keefe says it's been a challenge for his school keep up with the demand for business, hospitality, tourism, nursing, engineering and technology courses.

Marketing arts programs internationally

Documents obtained by CBC News through access to information requests show some schools have taken steps to strengthen the links between international students and arts courses.

Some Maritime schools are trying to set up partnerships to draw international students to their arts programs. (Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press)

Saint Mary's, Cape Breton and Acadia universities have all been in discussions with Beijing Normal University in China on whether shared programming at the schools "might result in increased revenues, or savings." 

The documents also say Saint Mary's University has an agreement with Beijing Normal University to bring a cohort of students to the province next year to study social sciences.

Brook Taylor, the dean of arts and sciences at Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax, says programs such as human nutrition and business have "grown significantly" because of international students and the school has started exploring how to boost the numbers of international students in arts courses as well.

International students drawn to business, engineering

According the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission, 39 per cent of international students at the region's universities studied business management and public administration in the 2014-2015 school year.

Engineering and architecture-related programs were the second most popular, attracting 15 per cent of international students. Social and behavioural sciences and law drew about nine per cent of students from outside the country.


Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC in Halifax. Over the past 12 years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. Please send tips and feedback to


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?