While COVID-19 has greatly affected post-secondary students and institutions across Canada, new research shows the pandemic has resulted in only a small decline in international student enrolments nationwide.
This is especially the case for students applying for study permits to the Yukon, with international student enrolment at Yukon University — the first university in Canada's North — now returning to pre-pandemic levels.
The study was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and published this month in the Higher Education Quarterly. The study looks at how government policy in the U.S. and Canada addressed the challenges experienced by international students during the pandemic, and whether or not international student enrolments changed as a result of that.
Elizabeth Buckner, a professor with the department of leadership, higher and adult education at the University of Toronto (U of T) is part of the research team. She said an important reason international student enrolment did not decline much during the pandemic is due to changes to post-graduate work permits announced by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), including international students who complete their entire post-secondary program online being eligible for an open work permit after graduation.
The team's research shows this was in contrast to policies supporting post-secondary students in the U.S., which required many international students to remain in the country for their education.
"Our message to international students and graduates is simple: we don't just want you to study here, we want you to stay here," former Federal Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said in a media release last February.
The release announced the new rules for international students in Canada.
According to Buckner, IRCC's policy change "incentivized international students" because so many of them enrol in Canadian post-secondary institutions with "a desire to get permanent residence and transition to citizenship."
"It both has helped institutions that maintain their revenues from international students, which is very pragmatic, but it's also allowed international students who are enrolling in Canadian universities to continue to have those same aspirations and plans and be able to count on that," she said.
Especially effective in the Yukon
Data from IRCC shows this policy has been especially effective in the case of the Yukon, with the total number of study permits for the territory declining to 115 in 2020 from 135 the previous year, but increasing to 165 in 2021 and now exceeding pre-COVID levels.
According to data provided by Yukon University, there are currently 137 international students enrolled at the institution right now, with winter enrolment still in progress.
Along with changes to IRCC's policies, Buckner said post-secondary institutions in Canada's North are seeing this increase in international student enrolment because they're able to provide better and more targeted support, especially during the pandemic.
"They're able to provide small, often very supportive spaces for their students," she said. "It's that idea of the small personal connection, personal community that many students don't get when they're just one of a very large class."
Ramez Abdulhadi is an international student who moved to Canada from Jordan earlier this year. He started his postgraduate studies at Yukon University in January, and said he's felt extremely supported by the institution since he got here — especially since many international students like him have found employment within the university itself.
Erica Bourdon, the co-department head and instructor with the Student Success Division at Yukon University, said the university recognizes that COVID-19 has been financially difficult for many students, and especially for those from other countries who may be paying higher fees and incur costs in both moving and living away from home.
"I know that we definitely maintained our student leadership and employment options on campus," she said. "There were still students — especially those who are living in campus housing — that were able to be employed."
According to Jonathan Driscoll, an international student advisor at Yukon University, many international students were also able to find work or keep working off-campus during the pandemic because the territory did not face lockdowns and restrictions as severely or for as long as some other provinces and territories in the country.
Abdulhadi said he arrived in Canada with five other students from Jordan, all of whom moved to bigger universities in other cities such as Ottawa and Toronto. He said most of those other students have not received the same support he has.
"[My friends] said their university is closed 24/7, there's no welcome centre, no academic support centre [they can visit in person]," Abdulhadi said. "They do everything on their own."
Innovative programs and research opportunities
Along with being better at providing targeted support, Buckner said post-secondary institutions in the North like Yukon University are gaining traction due to their ability to provide innovative programs and research opportunities as well. She said this is different from big universities like the U of T and the University of British Columbia who are positioning themselves in reference to global rankings.
"We know a lot of international students do look at rankings," Buckner said. "But colleges and universities in the North are not going to be positioning themselves based on ranking so much as what they have to offer that's innovative or novel."
"[Northern universities] have a lot to contribute in terms of just very distinctive degrees and or degree programs that we see in terms of the focus on Indigenous students and environmental sustainability," she added.
Inderjeet Kaur, another international student at Yukon University, moved to the country from India in January 2020. She is completing her diploma in northern science this December and said what drew her to the university was the research opportunities she would get to take on as part of it, especially since she already has a master's degree from India.
In spite of the pandemic, the university has also given students the opportunity to attend in-person labs for their courses as well, which Kaur said has been very important for her studies.
"I'm grateful because my friends [at other universities] had online labs and I can't even imagine having a lab on camera," she said. "Imagine biology or chemistry labs and watching the instructor adding chemicals [online]."
For Kaur, like Abdulhadi, studying in the North has meant receiving support that many international students at bigger universities in other provinces and territories have not.
Buckner said some of her research looks at alternative models to higher education in Canada. She said institutions like Yukon University are important because in spite of their size, some of them are showing the same potential as larger institutions.
"Northern colleges and universities have a really unique appeal for international students," she said.
This story is funded by the Emerging Reporter Fund on Resettlement in Canada by Carleton University's Future of Journalism initiative.