Students at Toronto UniversityImage copyright UoT
Image caption Canadian universities are promising overseas students a warmer welcome than the US

Canadian universities are seeing a surge in applications from overseas students, with the country’s liberal, migrant-friendly image appearing to be an important attraction.

Students who might once have headed for the United States now seem to be reconsidering and seeing Canada as a North American alternative.

The University of Toronto, one of Canada’s top-ranked universities, has seen interest rising sharply, including a 57% increase in applications from India.

This interest has converted into acceptances, says the university – with an overall 20% increase in overseas students accepting places for the autumn.

Wilfrid Laurier University says it has had a 32% increase in overseas students and McMaster University has seen an annual rise of 33%.

This is a valuable market, with overseas students bringing in tuition fees and local spending power. A study last week suggested that overseas students were worth $36bn (£28bn) per year to the US economy.

Tolerant image

But Canadian universities are seizing an opportunity from the Trump administration in the US and the Brexit vote in the UK to present themselves as a more outward-looking alternative.

There are more than 350,000 overseas students already in Canada, with research from the Canadian Bureau for International Education suggesting that the image of a “tolerant and non-discriminatory society” is a major attraction.

Image copyright UoT
Image caption The University of Toronto has promoted a more inclusive image

Perception is a powerful force in this market and Canadian universities are contrasting their warmer welcome to international students with the tough messages on immigration being transmitted by the Trump administration.

The University of Montreal has set up its own travel fund for its international students who would once have attended conferences in the US, but now face difficulties getting into the country.

An Iranian student who says he spent two hours being “interrogated” at a US airport was among those who would be funded to go to conferences elsewhere.

International cities

Professor Ted Sargent, responsible for the University of Toronto’s international outreach, says the response of overseas students to such changes in the US has been to “go back to first principles”.

“Events in the US and the UK have reverberated around the world,” he says. “It makes people go back and think again.”

Image copyright UoT
Image caption Canada is challenging the traditional student destinations of the US and the UK

Canada can offer top-ranked universities, he says, but the country is also sending a “message about being open to the world”.

Prof Sargent says that half of the population of Toronto is non-Canadian born and that Canada’s strategy has been to “attract the brightest and the best” from around the world.

A spokeswoman for the University of Montreal says: “Of course, it is also difficult to ignore what is going on south of our border.

“The US political climate might indeed be one reason why more students are choosing to come to Montreal and Canada generally.”

The idea of an “open and welcoming city” has a strong appeal to students coming to Montreal, she says.

“They can have a North American study experience here, in a safe environment.”

Best student city

This year saw Montreal getting top place in the QS Best Student Cities rankings, replacing Paris which had been in first place for the four previous years.

Among the measures were Montreal’s access to employers, safety, pollution, desirability for student life and sense of tolerance.

Another advantage for this part of Canada is that it can offer courses in both English and French.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Montreal is this year’s top-ranked city for students

There is also a rising stream of US students heading to Canada.

Apart from any political considerations, those heading over the border will also be attracted by tuition fees, which can be cheaper for US students than studying at home, even at overseas student rates.

But the US university system remains a powerful magnet for overseas students, with numbers rising to more than a million students last year, with almost 330,000 from China alone.

This annual increase, up by about 7% in 2016, was valued as being worth another £3bn to the US economy.


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There have been fears in US universities that recruitment will be much tougher this year.

But a snapshot survey of US university admissions, published by the New York-based Institute of International Education, claimed overseas recruitment was holding up better than expected.

Nonetheless there is a distinct trend. Since 2001, the US’s global share of the international student market has slipped from 28% to 22%. Canada, which barely registered in 2001, is now up to 8%, behind the UK and Australia on 11%.

Canada, promising a safer and friendlier version of the North American university experience, is snapping at the heels of its rivals.

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