Provincial and Territorial Ranking

International Tertiary Students

Key Messages

  • P.E.I. is the top-performing province on the share of international students, scoring a “B.”
  • The share of international students varies widely across Canada, ranging from 14 per cent in P.E.I. to 5 per cent in Saskatchewan.
  • The Canadian government has set an ambitious goal to double the number of international students in Canada by 2022.

Putting provincial international student rates in context

In a globalized economy, countries and provinces are recognizing that international students can confer many advantages to the host country, such as stimulating economic growth through increasing access to diverse markets and increasing the economic stability of universities, among other things. This indicator considers how attractive provincial post-secondary systems are to prospective international students.

How are international students counted?

Data on the number of international students in Canada are available from several sources. Statistics Canada collects information from individual colleges and universities, which report the number of students enrolled in their programs on a specific day of their choosing that falls between September 30 and December 1.1 Based on these data, there were 165,960 international students studying at the tertiary level in Canada in 2010. Note that Statistics Canada data exclude international students in apprenticeships.

Information on the number of international students is also available from Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Since this federal department issues student visas, it is able to keep a record of the number of international students studying in Canada. In 2010, Citizenship and Immigration Canada reported that there were 217,995 international students in Canada. However, the data do not distinguish among levels of education. The numbers include a limited number of high-school students and apprenticeships in addition to university and college students.

The OECD obtains its data from Statistics Canada. For that reason, we use Statistics Canada data in this report card because of its international comparability.

How does provincial performance compare internationally?

Australia has the highest share of international students, at more than 20 per cent of all tertiary students. The U.K. is the runner-up, with 16 per cent. P.E.I. is the best-performing Canadian province, with 14 per cent international students, earning it a “B.”

The province with the lowest share of international students is Saskatchewan, which, along with Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador, earns a “D” grade. Saskatchewan does score higher than five of Canada’s peer countries, however, including the United States. While the U.S. has by far the largest number of international students in total, the immense size of its education system means that international students do not make up a large share of the total student population. There are significant variations in the percentage of international students in U.S. schools and states. For example, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign2 and the University of Southern California3 international students make up about 20 per cent of the total student body, much higher than the country’s overall share of 3.4 per cent.

How do the provinces compare relative to each other?

In addition to ranking the provinces against Canada’s international peers, the provinces have been compared with each other and placed into three categories: “above average,” “average,” and “below average.”4

P.E.I.’s is the sole above-average performer thanks to its strength in the college system: 27 per cent of P.E.I. students enrolled in college programs are international students. Since total enrolment in tertiary education is low in P.E.I., it does not require a large number of international students to give the province a high share. Only 0.36 per cent of all Canadian students attend a post-secondary institution in Prince Edward Island. Yet the province attracts 0.71 per cent of all international students in Canada—in other words, it draws twice its share.

Ontario and Quebec are average performers in terms of the share of international students. While they have large numbers of international students, they also have a large number of overall students, so the share of international students is diluted. Ontario is attracting roughly its share of international students: 40 per cent of all Canadian post-secondary students study in Ontario, while 41 per cent of all international students in Canada study in the province.

How has provincial performance changed over time?

In the last five years, P.E.I. more than doubled its number of international students, moving up from a “C” to a “B” relative to the international peers. Several provinces moved up or down one letter grades over the last five years. British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador both dropped a letter grade, from “B” to “C” and “C” to “D,” respectively.

Which levels of post-secondary education are attracting the most international students?

In Canada, 72.2 per cent of international students are studying in undergraduate programs, 19 per cent are enrolled in college, and 9 per cent are graduate students. However, the distribution varies by province. P.E.I. has more international students enrolled in college programs than undergraduate programs. In Nova Scotia, however, almost all international students (97 per cent) are enrolled in undergraduate programs.

Considering the current distribution of international students, one area that provinces could consider addressing is how to bolster the number of international students in college.

Where are international students coming from?

For top-performing Australia, 81 per cent of international students come from Asia—34 per cent are from China alone. Asian counties are also the largest source of international students in Canada—54 per cent of international students in Canada are from Asia (25 per cent from China). The U.S. and France are the second-biggest sources of international students, with each country having a 7 per cent share of Canada’s international student population.

Within Canada, the origin of international students varies from province to province. Over 70 per cent of P.E.I.’s international students come from China. Ontario has a large number of students from China (25 per cent), India (9 per cent), and South Korea (5 per cent). Quebec attracts international students from notably different countries, likely because of French language skills. Specifically, 34 per cent of Quebec’s international students are from Europe (including 29 per cent from France). The second-largest source area of international students in Quebec is Africa at 25 per cent.

Is Canada doing enough to attract international students and to encourage Canadians to study abroad?

In Canada, education is a provincial responsibility; however, the federal government has a significant interest in education. Consequently, in January 2014, the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development Canada published its International Education Strategy. A key element of the strategy is to double Canada’s number of international students from 239,131 in 2011 to more than 450,000 by 2020.5 Increasing numbers of international students is seen as desirable for a number of reasons including:

  • greater diversity in the student body
  • improved revenues and technology transfers from international students that can help offset declining public financial support for higher education6
  • reduced skills labour shortages
  • improved trade and economic development opportunities when international students return to their home countries.

While Canada has primarily focused on attracting international students, other countries have placed a strong emphasis on sending students abroad.7 Norway’s Association of Norwegian Students Abroad has provided students with grants and loans to study abroad for over 60 years.8 Recently, Norway announced an initiative to increase the number of Norwegian students studying in American, Canadian, and Asian post-secondary institutions.9 These regions were specifically targeted to improve Norway’s trade relations. Norway is not alone; Russia has committed US$165 million over three years to enable 2,000 students annually to study abroad in the fields of technology, science, medicine, business, and social science.10 The overall goal of the program is to boost international research collaborations and, eventually, the performance of Russian post-secondary institutions.

It is increasingly recognized that flows of international students are a benefit to both sending and receiving countries. Canada’s International Education Strategy briefly discusses the need for more Canadian students to study abroad, and it has devoted some resources to that end. Provinces and post-secondary institutions can also play a role in building partnerships and offering supports to increase the number of international students that Canada receives and sends.


1    Statistics Canada, Table 477-0019, Post-secondary enrolments, by registration status, Pan-Canadian Standard Classification of Education (PCSCE), Classification of Instructional Programs, Primary Grouping (CIP_PG), sex and immigration status, annual (number), CANSIM (database) (accessed April 1, 2014).

2    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Facts 2012–13: Illinois by the Numbers (accessed February 28, 2014).

3    University of Southern California, About USC (accessed February 28, 2014).

4    To compare the performance of Canadian provinces relative to one another, we first determined the average score and standard deviation of the provincial values. The standard deviation is a measure of how much variability there is in a set of numbers. If the numbers are normally distributed (i.e., the distribution is not heavily weighted to one side or another and/or does not have significant outliers), about 68 per cent will fall within one standard deviation above or below the average. Any province scoring one standard deviation above the average is “above average.” Provinces scoring less than the average minus one standard deviation are “below average.” The remaining provinces are “average” performers.

5    Government of Canada, Canada’s International Education Strategy (Ottawa: Department of International Affairs, Trade and Development, 2011), 11.

6    Glen Hodgson and Ben Tomlin, Opportunity Begins at Home: Enhancing Canadian Commercial Services Exports (Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada, 2006), 11.

7    Alex Usher, International Education Strategies—How Others Do It, January 23, 2014 (accessed February 28, 2014).

8    Association of Norwegian Students Abroad, ANSA in English (accessed March 6, 2014).

9    Expat Forum, Norway Launches New International Education Strategy, January 8, 2013 (accessed March 6, 2014).

10    ICEF Monitor, Russia Announces US$165 Million Programme for Study Abroad, June 12, 2014 (accessed March 6, 2014).

Image of an open book Definition

The percentage of international students in tertiary education. Tertiary education includes college and university education; it does not include trade and vocational programs. Tertiary education is a subset of post-secondary education, which includes all trade, vocational, college, and university programs.

Please note:
The data on this page are current as of June 2014.

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