Measuring the economic value of Canada’s international education “industry”

FAITcdnYesterday, Canada unveiled a report assessing the economic contributions that international students make to the country. Entitled Economic Impact of International Education in Canada, the report was presented by Stockwell Day, the Minister of International Trade and Minister for the Asia-Pacific Gateway, at a meeting of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC).

Highlights from the report include the following:

  • In 2008, international students to Canada contributed $6.5 billion (CAD) to the national economy, provided 83,000 jobs, and contributed $291 million (CAD) in government revenue
  • This estimate is based on tuition fee payments, accommodation costs, and discretionary spending for international students from the K-12 to post-secondary levels
  • While all provinces receive incoming students and report financial gain, Ontario and Quebec receive the lion’s share, with nearly two-thirds of all international students coming to Canada going to these two provinces
  • Nearly 40% of all revenue comes from the top two source countries: China and South Korea
  • The total value of international education is higher than the value of national exports in coniferous lumber ($5.1 billion) and coal ($6.07 billion)

Three other entries have recently been made on this blog on similar research conducted in different national contexts: Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. That Canada has joined these countries in the calculative process of determining the economic value of international education is significant for a few reasons.

First, while the state has multiple rationales underlying its promotion of international student mobility – ranging from international diplomatic and academic exchange ideals, to generating both short and long-term as well as direct and indirect economic benefits – the public discourse in Canada has hitherto tended to emphasize education as a (largely) publically-funded sector. In commissioning a report that emphasizes the economic contributions of international students, and the relative economic contribution of education services (e.g., see Table 15 from the report below), the Government of Canada seems to be showing a growing willingness to frame international education as an emerging export industry.


Second, education is a provincial responsibility in Canada, so policies and initiatives have tended to be decentralized. The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade’s (DFAIT) interest in developing a national agenda for international education has been manifest in the past few years, most clearly evidenced with the launch of the “Education in-au Canada” branding campaign last year. In commissioning a report that quantifies the overall export industry’s value, one can assume that this report serves in part to support the continued inclusion of education as a component of DFAIT’s Global Commerce Strategy. Moreover, the report prominently displays the financial contributions that international students make to provincial government revenues, a distinction that I have not seen made in other reports. One can further speculate that this inclusion is due to continued debates within and between various levels of government on the value of supporting the expansion of international education. (It should be noted that the report also says the provinces of British Columbia, Manitoba, and Nova Scotia had previously conducted similar research on their own.)

Lastly, it is worth reflecting on the fact that the report was commissioned by DFAIT but prepared by Roslyn Kunin & Associates, Inc., a private consultancy firm. As GlobalHigherEd has noted in previous entries on this topic (e.g., on New Zealand), other jurisdictions have adopted similar arrangements, but this still raises questions about private firms acting as knowledge brokers for the state, producing reports that can act both as analytical devices and lobbying tools. Given that each of the national reports reviewed on GlobalHigherEd are drawn from very different data sources and based on different modeling techniques, it also raises questions about the international comparability of such figures, and their potential role in benchmarking a country’s position vis-à-vis “competitor states” in the global international education market. For example, Canada’s report (that was produced from secondary data sources) cites annual contributions as $6.1 billion (CAD), whereas the US returns (as noted in a previous entry) are calculated to be $15.5 billion/yr (USD). Considering that some estimates put the United States as receiving 22.8% of all internationally mobile students, while Canada receives just 3%, there are clearly different data, assumptions, and perhaps intentions, underlining these reports.

Kate Geddie

Editor’s update: link here for the press release of the newest US report (‘International Students Contribute $17.6 Billion to U.S. Economy‘) which was released by NAFSA on 16 November 2009. The report was produced by Jason Baumgartner who wrote a 13 May 2009 entry (‘Economic benefits of international education to the United States‘) in GlobalHigherEd.