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International Enrollment in non-STEM Programs in Canada

Non-STEM is the study of disciplines not pertaining to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, collectively referred to as STEM. Non-STEM, therefore, comprises the study of business management, finance, luxury, fashion, and many other programs. Non-STEM is a vast field and probably has more subjects than STEM.


In this article, we will discuss non-STEM programs and how they generally drive international enrollment in Canada.

Key Takeaways:

  • Most international students choose their course first based on employability
  • A majority of international students in Canada chose Level 4, 5, and 6 non-STEM courses in 2018/19
  • Data indicates that shorter courses with pathways to higher levels of education would be beneficial to HEIs and agents

A subject-first approach

Results of a QS study show that 60% of international students choose the subject they want to study before choosing the country and higher education institution (HEI). A slightly lower number (50%) will choose the specific program or country first. 


A majority of respondents (60%) choose a particular course because it “allows them to learn new skills.” The report goes on to equate this to the belief that this would make them “more attractive to employers.”


Given these indications on the motivations of international students when choosing a course, I believe it would be beneficial to HEIs and agents in Canada to know what programs they have chosen.

Focus on 2018/19

I chose the enrollment period 2018/19 for two reasons. First, it is the latest available data from Statistics Canada. Second, it is to make the illustration easier to understand. My intention is not to establish a trend, but simply to identify the courses international students choose currently. In this case, the closest to current is 2018/19. 


I will note, however, that this period is not representative of the enrollment trend from 2015/16 to 2018/19. As I indicated in a previous article, the average percentage point increases for that period were 14.7 and 14.5 year-to-year for STEM and BHASE programs, respectively.  In 2018/19, it was 13.6 and 17.3 percentage points for STEM and BHASE programs, respectively. 


Let us now look at the choices international students make when it comes to the course or program.

Some terms explained

Before I plunge into the numbers, I would like to explain a few terms used in this article. I based the entirety of my data on figures provided by Statistics Canada. That organization uses the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) established by the UNESCO Institute of Statistics to describe a standard framework for educational levels. The nine levels as described in ISCED 2011 are as follows:


  • ISCED Level 0: Early Childhood Education
  • ISCED Level 1: Primary Education
  • ISCED Level 2: Lower Secondary Education
  • ISCED Level 3: Upper Secondary Education
  • ISCED Level 4: Post-Secondary Non-Tertiary Education
  • ISCED Level 5: Short-Cycle Tertiary Education
  • ISCED Level 6: Bachelor’s or Equivalent Level
  • ISCED Level 7: Master’s or Equivalent Level
  • ISCED Level 8: Doctoral or Equivalent Level

The descriptions for each of these levels are extensive. Most of these levels are commonly understood, however, so for the sake of brevity, I will only focus on the two levels that most people might find confusing: Level 4 and 5.

Level 4

Level 4 or Post-Secondary Non-Tertiary Education refers to programs that are “typically vocational and terminal programmes that prepare for the labour market.” These would be courses that broaden the knowledge base of students that have completed Level 3 (Upper Secondary Education) to prepare them for employment. Most people know this as trade or vocational courses and may allow graduates access to Level 5, 6, and 7 programs under certain circumstances.

Level 5

Level 5 or Short-Cycle Tertiary Education courses, on the other hand, are academic programs that are “practically-based, occupationally-specific and prepare students to enter the labour market” that may provide graduates with a path to higher tertiary education levels. Some terms for courses at this level include technical training, community college, vocational education, and associate degrees.

Level 4 and 5 courses dominate

Now that you know the difference between Level 4 and 5, we can proceed to determine what courses most international students enrolled in for 2018/19.

intl student canada chart
*Unclassified, which includes programs without enough information to be classified as either a STEM or BHASE course.

Source: Statistics Canada


The chart above represents all international students that enrolled in a program in a Canadian HEI per level in 2018/19. The percentages for each level are based on the number of students that enrolled in a STEM or non-STEM (BHASE and Unclassified) program divided by the total number of students that enrolled in that level. 


For example, a total of 24,951 students enrolled in a Level 4 program in 2018/19. Of that, 3900 or 15.63 percent enrolled in a STEM course, 18,045 or 72.32 percent enrolled in a BHASE course, and 3,006 or 12.05 percent enrolled in an unclassified course.


At a glance, you can see an interesting pattern in the choice of courses. Those choosing Level 4 and 5 courses overwhelmingly enrolled in the BHASE (non-STEM) classification. The number of students in these two levels represents 35.71 percent (113,628) of the total international student enrollments (318,150) for that year.


In the Level 6 or Bachelor degree classification, BHASE courses continue to dominate, although to a lesser degree. Of the 144,309 (45.36 percent of total) students that enrolled for a bachelor’s degree or equivalent program, 62.1 percent (89,622) enrolled in a BHASE course as against the 37.45 percent (54,039) that enrolled in a STEM program. 


When it comes to the higher levels, STEM courses begin to gain some ground. At Level 7, STEM numbers almost catch up with the BHASE ones at 48.9 percent (19,989) and 50.87% (20,793), respectively. At Level 8, STEM dominates the field against BHASE at 65.98 percent (12,762) and 33.95 percent (6,567), respectively.


The data makes it clear that in Level 4, 5, and 6, and, to some degree, Level 7, enrollments are the reason that 63 percent of all international students in Canada are under the BHASE classification in 2018/19.  A significant number of international students choose STEM programs at Level 8, but that is a relatively low population, representing just 6.07 percent of the total population.

Some food for thought

Why is it beneficial for HEIs and agents to know these things? For one thing, it shows that a majority of international students choose shorter courses, particularly those in non-STEM programs. The possible reason for this is it will lead to employment sooner. 


It is no secret that international students make a significant investment in their education, so shorter courses make better practical sense. HEIs that offer more of them will attract more students and agents that focus on pushing the benefits of certificate or associate programs will have an easier time in recruiting.


For another, it indicates that HEIs should offer shorter courses (certificate and associate degrees) with pathways, e.g., academic credits, to higher learning. While students tend to choose Level 4 and 5 courses, there is still significant interest in Level 6 and 7 programs. Providing students with access to these higher-level courses through shorter courses will likely make an HEI more attractive to both students and agents. (SUNEETHA QURESHI)


#PartnerForLife #InternationalEducation #InternationalStudents #MSM #GlobalEducationForAll

MSM VP Global Suneetha Qureshi

MSM President-Global Marketing Office (GMO)

Suneetha has more than 10 years of experience in the international education sector. As president of MSM GMO, she fortifies its business development outreach globally, particularly in the face of MSM’s foray in edtech-based recruitment via MSM Unify. She preserves the premium, value-adding services provided to each GMO partner institution, including dedicated teams on the ground, agent management, lead generation and inquiry management, application pre-screening, and student and parent support through pioneering pre-departure briefing sessions.


She has an impeccable track record of successfully launching the representative offices in Asia and Africa of many North American and European higher education institutions. Her key strengths include hiring, training, and developing teams as evidenced by the successful results of the dedicated in-country college and university client teams.

Suneetha also has taken the lead in developing several initiatives at MSM, including building robust standard operating procedures, the Rise ‘n Shine team engagement platform, and the organization’s data analytics and audit segments.



Government of Canada, S. C. (2021, July 14). Data. Government of Canada, Statistics Canada.



International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED). UNESCO UIS. (2017, September 14).



International Student Survey 2021 – US edition. QS. (2021, May 25).



International Students in Canada Prefer BHASE Programs. M Square Media. (2021, July 9).



U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (n.d.). Employment outlook for occupations requiring an associate’s degree, certificate, or some college: Career Outlook. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.




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