Do you have a program suitable for women in Bangladesh? Image: The Daily Star

There are very few online international students in Canada (or even out of province)

In the most recent national survey of Canadian post-secondary institutions (Johnson, 2019), institutions were asked the location of their online students (in-province, out-of-province, international). The results, for me, were very surprising:

  • over one third of institutions were unable to answer this question because they do not track this data
  • of the two-thirds that did track these data, over half reported less than 5% of their for-credit online enrolments were out of province. Only 18% of institutions have 20% or more of their credit students who live out of province, never mind internationally.

The report concluded that ‘ultimately, the majority of online students are from the same province in which the institution is located.’ This is despite the fact that over 85% of institutions reported that online education is strategically important for attracting students from outside their traditional service area.

Once again, the CDLRA has identified an area where institutions need to improve the data they collect about their online students if they are to develop appropriate strategies for online learning. But nevertheless what data are available suggest a clear gap between policy and reality.


I found these results very surprising, although the relatively few people I talked to in institutional international offices did not share my surprise. 

Why was I surprised? When we offered the first online post-graduate certificate in technology-based distributed learning at UBC in 1996 (a predecessor of its MET program), over one third of the UBC enrolments were from outside Canada and Mexico. The program was also offered in partnership with Tec de Monterrey in Mexico, which offered a version of the program in Spanish for Mexican students (Bates and Escamilla de los Santos, 1997). Nevertheless some of the Mexican students opted to take UBC’s English version. So there is clearly demand for such international online programs. MOOCs are another example where international enrolments have been high.

However, when we transformed the continuing education certificate into a master’s degree at UBC, the number of international students dropped dramatically, because of UBC’s Faculty of Graduate Studies admission policies. In other words, they would not recognise the undergraduate qualifications of many students applying from abroad. (This included students from abroad who had passed the certificate exams with flying colours, many of whom were faculty in other international universities). So institutional admission policies is one barrier.

However that does not explain the large numbers of undergraduate international students on Canadian campuses. Hinojosa (2020) reports that although international undergraduate students account for about a fifth of British Columbia’s university enrolment, they constitute nearly half of the undergraduate tuition revenue in the province.

Canada has been doing extremely well in recruiting campus-based undergraduate international students in recent years. Usher (2019) reports that undergraduate international students in Canada grew from just under 40,000 in 2000 to 245,000 in 2016. As Usher (2019) says ‘the main reason behind the growth is that international students pay much higher tuition fees than domestic students and are thus seen as a way of offsetting stagnant government funding’. Although fees vary from province to province, generally fees for undergraduate international students are four times higher ($24,000 compared to $6,000) than for domestic students.

And this is one reason why Canadian institutions have not pursued more aggressively online international students. There is a fear that this might kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. In other words, there is a fear that online international enrolments will eat into the highly profitable on-campus market by offering online courses at lower cost. Even if the fees are the same, there would be considerable savings in travel and living costs for international families and students.

However, there are other reasons, too. Online courses are rarely marketed to international students (although given the heavy investment made by many Canadian institutions in marketing overseas, it would be a very marginal cost to include online courses or programs in marketing strategies).

Most of all, international students studying online would miss out on the social connections that campus-based programs offer, and in particular the opportunity for work and hence Canadian citizenship once established as an international student on a Canadian campus.

Lastly, what would be the immigration and professional status of international students who obtain a Canadian qualification overseas, solely by distance education, even if from a Canadian institution? Would they still have the same opportunities as on-campus international students? Institutions should be very clear on this issue before marketing to international students. We have seen the problems that professional associations such as the professional engineers and law societies put in the way of anyone with distance education qualifications, whether Canadian or international. We must not suggest to international students benefits that will in practice be denied, and institutions must ensure that international students are not taking online courses based on misconceptions of the possibilities that a Canadian qualification can provide.

A missed opportunity?

Despite more restrictive admission policies for international students, the established on-campus market, the networking issue, marketing difficulties, and prejudices against online and distance education in Canada, I still believe there is a potentially huge and profitable international market for Canadian online programs, particularly at the professional masters’ level.

First, online programs would target a different social and economic demographic internationally. The very high costs of on-campus programs for international students means that the majority of students come from relatively high income families, often constituting less than 10 per cent of a country’s population. Below that demographic is a much larger population eager and willing to obtain qualifications from Canadian institutions, and able to pay the tuition fees, but not all the other costs involved.

Indeed, institutions could still offer online programs to international students at much lower tuition costs than on-campus programs and still full recover their costs or even make a profit. It’s a different – and much bigger – market than the on-campus international market.

Making it work

However, this would mean offering whole programs that can be taken online. Offering just some courses online with the rest to be taken on-campus in Canada is another possibility, again opening up a wider segment of the market, but possibly at the cost of some on-campus fees. Although the number of fully online programs is growing, they are still relatively few in Canada. Marketing to international students though could make the difference between breaking even or even losing money on purely domestic online programs. 

The main challenge will remain institutional acceptance of overseas qualifications, particularly for online graduate programs, but for this target group institutions could be more flexible since the tuition fee should more than cover the marginal cost of international students, and acceptance for an online course would not deny qualified Canadian students access. Quality would be assured through the assessment process, which should be the same for all students. More importantly, offering online programs internationally would open up to a new demographic the opportunity to take high quality Canadian programs, with at worse covering costs and at best bringing in more much needed revenues for institutions.

Another challenge is ensuring the suitability of online programs for both international and domestic students. As Lee and Bligh (2019) state: ‘There is a pedagogical imperative – distinct from the economic imperative – to better understand online international students and their learning needs and experiences.’ Such an approach could open up the curriculum and course design to internationalisation and cultural issues, benefiting Canadian as a well as international students. 

However, it really needs a strategic decision to target international students for online programs, a comprehensive business plan, clarity and flexibility on admission requirements, and specific marketing strategies to succeed. Above all, it needs to be aligned with Canada’s immigration policies so students are clear about the possibilities and limitations of studying at a distance from a Canadian institution.

Some guidance on how to do this can be found in the references and further reading below.

References and further reading

Johnson, N. (2019) Tracking Online Education in Canadian Universities and Colleges: National Survey of Online and Digital Learning 2019 National Report Halifax NS: Canadian Digital Learning Research Association

Hinojosa, R. (2020) Health-care fee hike adds to international students’ budget woes, Globe and Mail, January 2

Lee, K. and Bligh, B. (2019) Four narratives about online international students: a critical literature review Distance Education Vol. 40, No. 2

Harrison, R. et al. (2018) The experience of international post-graduate students on a distance-learning program Distance Education Vol. 39, No.4

Usher, A. (2019) State of Post-Secondary Education in Canada Toronto: Higher Education Strategy Associates

Bates, A. and Escamilla de los Santos, J. (1997)  Crossing boundaries: making global distance education a reality International Journal of eLearning and Distance Education, Vol. 12, No. 1/2

Jung, I. and Gunawardena, C. (2014) Culture and Online Learning: Global Perspective and Research Sterling VA: Stylus Publishing


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