More international students choosing Ottawa to study computer science

The University of Ottawa, Carleton University and Algonquin College are all reporting a jump in the number of international students applying to study computer science — possibly because of policies in the United States.

U.S. policies could be driving students northward

Gurpreet Singh has just arrived in Ottawa from India to begin his graduate degree at the University of Ottawa's computer science program. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Gurpreet Singh was a senior software engineer at Samsung in Bangalore, India, where many of his colleagues dreamed about moving to Silicon Valley or Seattle to make big bucks for Google or Microsoft.

Now, that dream — at least for Singh — has shifted northwards.

"My parents worried about the U.S.," said Singh, noting they had concerns about violence, guns, and whether a foreigner from India would be welcome there.  

"I wanted a better quality of life. So Canada came to mind."

This fall, Singh will be embarking on a master's degree at the University of Ottawa. It's stories like his that may partially explain a jump in the number of international student applications at Ottawa's three computer science schools: Carleton University, Algonquin College, and the U of O.

A new school year begins with a bump in international interest in Carleton University's computer science program. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

All three schools are seeing a surge in the number of those applications compared to 2016.

It's a good time to be in charge of IT programs." - Chris Janzen, Algonquin College

Algonquin College has reported a 57 per cent increase in international student applications to its three largest computer science programs, while the University of Ottawa says there's been a 48 per cent increase at its electrical engineering and computer science school.

Carleton University, meanwhile, says they've received twice as many international student applications to its computer science program this year compared to 2015.

As a result, all three schools are boosting first-year enrolment levels for those programs:

  • Algonquin College is increasing enrolment by 12 per cent.
  • The University of Ottawa is increasing enrolment by 25 per cent.
  • Carleton University is increasing enrolment by three per cent.

Interest up province-wide

"It's a good time to be in charge of IT programs," said Chris Janzen, the dean of the Faculty of Technology and Trades at Algonquin College, which offers college-level programs in computer science and a bachelor program in conjunction with Carleton University.

Janzen said the enormous interest from international students has the faculty trying to figure out what's going on.

"I'm hearing from my colleagues around Ontario at other colleges that they're also seeing quite a significant growth from international students this year," said Janzen.

Claude D'Amour with the University of Ottawa's School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, says this September's expanded enrolment 'presents some challenges.' (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

U of O school over capacity

Claude D'Amour, the director of the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Ottawa, said the international student component of the first-year class has risen from 33 per cent in 2016 to close to 40 per cent this year.

"We're happy about the popularity of the program," said D'Amour, noting nonetheless that the school has had to hire teachers and reallocate resources.

"There's a cost to that."

The University of Ottawa's School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science has expanded first-year enrolment by 25 per cent this year. (Amanda Pfeffer)

The school, which once faced a shortage of students when Ottawa's IT sector collapsed following the demise of Nortel in the early 2000s, is now bursting at the seams.

Built to accommodate 150 first-year students in each of the software engineering and computer science programs, the school will now allow some 200 students into each program this fall.  

Carleton program plans to expand

Carleton University has also received an increase in international applications, but has decided not to expand first-year enrolment more than three per cent this year.

Michel Barbeau, the associate director of recruitment and outreach at the School of Computer Science, said they'll nevertheless be hiring "four or five" professors this year — and plan to continue expanding.

"Every year we are getting new applications," Barbeau said, adding that the chance at lucrative work in the field will continue to draw students to the school.

Michel Barbeau said Carleton University will be expanding its computer science program next year if interest continues to grow. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Almost 100 per cent job placement 

Students at all three programs share a job placement rate close to 100 per cent. 

"If you look at the top ten jobs that a student with a bachelor can get in terms of salary, you'll find software engineer, you'll find programmer, you'll find data scientist and system analyst," said D'Amour.

Companies are constantly calling the school to get access to their students, he added.

Applications to Algonquin College's computer science programs are up more than 50 per cent this year. (CBC)

The rise in international student applications has schools and employers trying to understand whether the situation in the United States — typically the first choice for those students — is having an impact.  

It does lead one to wonder whether the practices and policies [of] our friends south of the border are having that impact.- Chris Janzen, Algonquin College

This week, U.S. President Donald Trump once again suggested there could be new obstacles for international tech workers, such as a new interview requirement in addition to the one-year delay for economic-based green card applications. 

There had already been concerns by U.S. recruiters over changes to NAFTA and proposed limits on immigration, particularly from Muslim countries. 

Iversoft, an Ottawa mobile and web development agency, said it's seeing an influx of job applications, and plans to recruit 10 more people this year.

Stephanie Daudlin, who's responsible for recruiting, said Ottawa's sector makes for a dynamic environment — and the uncertainty about entering the U.S. doesn't hurt. 

"I definitely think that something positive could come out of all this turmoil that's going on in the states," said Daudlin.

Janzen said he didn't have any "direct evidence" to suggest that Trump's stances were driving the rise in international student applications.

But he also wasn't ruling it out.

"It does lead one to wonder whether the practices and policies [of] our friends south of the border are having that impact," he said.


Amanda Pfeffer has worked for the CBC across the country, including Montreal, Vancouver, Fredericton, Quebec City and Ottawa. She welcomes story ideas and tips at, or twitter @onthebeat1.