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Student Visa Trends for Canada

We read about it all the time. The general societal disruption caused by the prolonged pandemic has affected the international education sector in more ways than one. More in some countries than in the others, in fact. In Canada, the situation may be worrying, but it is far from being dire.


In this article, I will discuss some important trends in Canadian student visas in the past couple of years, from pre-pandemic times to last year. These trends can give us an idea of where Canada’s international education sector is poised to go in the coming months, and even through the post-pandemic era.


Trends in student permits

Canada had been enjoying double-digit increases in international student enrolments in the five years prior to the pandemic. It is currently the country with the third highest number of international students in 2020, beating out Australia.


Notwithstanding its past popularity, a report from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) reveals a 17% drop from 2019 to 2020 in the overall number of international students holding study permits in Canada. It is the first time in two decades that the number of foreign students dropped.


student permits granted chart for 2016-2020

A breakdown of the decline shows that the drop in student permits granted dropped most significantly in key sending countries by similar percentage points. About 17% fewer Indian and Chinese students received a student permit in 2020 compared to 2019.


It does not take much imagination to conclude that this is most likely due to challenges students face resulting from the pandemic, rather than a loss of interest in Canada as a destination country. Given the trends in visa applications as specified in the next section, it is almost a certainty.

Trends in visa applications

However, the decline in student permits is not necessarily a reflection of a decline in interest. Despite the challenges facing foreign students wishing to study in Canada such as travel bans and consulate closures, the number of new applications to study in Canada actually increased for many of the top sending countries.


Comparing apples to apples, the graph below shows the number of new applicants for the first quarter of 2020 and 2021 – the latest information available from the IRCC as of this writing. For example, there was a 128% increase in 2021 (63,749) over 2020 (27,930) of new applications from India. While applications from China were much fewer, the increase was still impressive at 108% in 2021 (8,443) over 2020 (4,080).

q1 new visa application
Source: IRCC

With vaccine rollouts accelerating in most countries and the pandemic slowly receding into history, it is likely that travel restrictions and visa approval delays will ease.

Trends in approval rates

Now, the drop in student permits vis-à-vis the rise in applications indicates a serious drop in approval rates. This would seem to be borne out by a 2019 article by ICEF Monitor that put the student permit refusal rate at 39% from January to May 2019.


That is a distinct rise from 2018’s 34%. With consulates and embassies closed, making it impossible for many students to get the all-important visa interview, the refusal rates will most likely spike significantly in 2021. Then again, the government’s headstrong initiative to support Canada’s struggling international education sector may well be the deciding factor that could turn this around.


More interesting is the types of student visa applications in terms of degree or program that received the most refusals from Canadian immigration. According to figures received from the IRCC, GSRA reports that 53% of students applying for undergraduate (bachelor) degrees from January to May 2019 got a refusal, followed by 46% general and vocational college (CEGEP), and total college and university applications at 43%. Doctorate applicants got the most breaks with just an 11% refusal rate.

doctorate applicants chart
Source: GSRA

The likely reason for these high refusal rates in this context is that business was booming during that period. Canada could afford to turn away half of the applicants because there was a high demand for places. The reasons for refusal vary greatly, from incomplete documents to a belief that the academic plan of a student makes no sense.


One could argue that the demand is still high as evidenced by the spike in student visa applications in the first quarter of 2021. However, with embassies closed or operating in a limited capacity due to the pandemic and a likely backlog of past applications in the pipeline, the possibility of a refusal is a long way down the road.


It is almost impossible to predict how student visa trends will pan out forCanada in 2021 despite the apparent uptick in interest in enrolling for the Fall 2021 semester. There are simply too many unpredictable factors tilting the balance first one way and then the other. However, if Canada continues with its relatively liberal policy of allowing international students into the country and eases up on its refusal rates, Canadian HEIs can look forward to a sharp increase in enrollments in the next few intakes. (SUNEETHA QURESHI)


#PartnerForLife #InternationalEducation #InternationalStudents #MSM #GlobalEducationForAll

Suneetha has more than 10 years of experience in the international education sector. As the Vice President of MSM Global, she leads MSM’s extensive back-of-the-house operations, including MSM’s human resources, financial management, information technology, and marketing, communications, and social media activities. 

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. 



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