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Guest column: Atlantic universities are international talent magnets

Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador St. John's Campus.
Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador St. John's Campus. - Kenn Oliver

Universities are driving the attraction and retention of new immigrants to Atlantic Canada, and by doing so, creating a more diverse population across the region.

Results of a recent member survey by Universities Canada indicate that 96 per cent of Canadian universities include internationalization as part of their strategic planning; more than 80 per cent identify it as one of their top five planning priorities.

This is certainly the case for Atlantic Canada’s universities who collectively recorded a 15 per cent year-over-year increase in recruitment of international students, according to the Association of Atlantic Universities (AAU) 2018-2019 Preliminary Survey of Enrolments.

There are now close to 16,000 international students studying at universities across the region — an increase of more than 2,000 students from 2017-2018.

While the growth in international student enrolments is impressive, Atlantic Canada’s success still lags the rest of Canada. Nationally, 84 per cent of international students are enrolled in Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec. Nova Scotia leads Atlantic Canadian provinces with a three percent national share while New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador each attract about one per cent of the Canadian total.

According to the Canadian Bureau of International Education, Canada has one of the most diverse international student populations with 186 nations represented in 2017.

The Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission reports the top source countries for international students among Atlantic Canadian universities are: China, Saudi Arabia, India, the United States and Nigeria.

So, what have we learned of the international student experience in our region?

In a 2017 AAU survey, international student graduates said that they felt welcomed (94 per cent); enjoyed their time (92 per cent); made close friends (84 per cent) and, met people of the same culture (79 per cent).

More importantly, 65 per cent of those same students hoped to stay in Atlantic Canada following graduation. Their primary reasons for wanting to stay are the region’s cost of living and its quality of life as well as it being a great place to raise a family.

In addition to be the best source of new immigrants to our region, international students already have a profound economic impact.

A 2017 study conducted by the Council of Atlantic Ministers of Education and Training revealed that international students studying in universities and colleges across the region annually contribute $795 million to the Atlantic economy. Each international student annually spends more than $34,000 on their university studies, goods and services.

Attraction and retention of new Canadians to supplant the region’s rapidly declining and less than diverse population remains the biggest challenge facing Atlantic Canada.

Corporate Research Associates 2018 Atlantic Quarterly survey reveals that many Atlantic Canadians still have a way to go in understanding the need and importance of attracting more immigrants to the region and diversifying the population.

In May 2018, 26 per cent of those polled felt that Atlantic Canada is “neither more nor less diverse” compared with other parts of Canada. Twenty-one per cent believe that immigration is neither very important nor at all important to the regional economy.

The important role universities play as a talent magnet in the region should not be underestimated. Their collective effort makes a measurable contribution to Atlantic Canada’s economic growth and, social and cultural development.

The Atlantic Immigration Pilot program has been designed to help those many international students who have a strong desire to stay in the region following graduation. Created by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, it is unique to our region and a cornerstone of the Atlantic Growth Strategy. It connects qualified and motivated international students to employment opportunities and, future citizenship. As of September 2018, 1,484 employers were designated under the Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program.

International students increasingly look to Canada and the Atlantic region as an education destination of choice, with the top attraction factor being the strong reputation of our universities for high quality and unique student experience.

Governments, employers and community organizations all play an important role in the successful retention of international students in Atlantic Canada. It is a team effort. However, central to that effort is the hard work of our universities who continue to improve their competitiveness at attracting high-level international talent to communities across the region.

Peter Halpin is the executive Director of the Association of Atlantic Universities. He writes from Halifax.

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