By John Ibbitson – Opinion Column, Globe & Mail online – October 19, 2018 [Re-posted on Facebook Oct.21]

Earlier this week, the Trump administration moved to impose fixed time limits on student visas, making Canada an even more attractive destination for students from abroad.

When Surya Sivakumar decided to pursue a graduate degree in engineering outside India, Canada was his first choice. Even before the new restrictions, the United States had become less welcoming to foreign students, as had Britain, and he’d read reports of racial intolerance in Australia.

But “in Canada, that’s not an issue,” he says, and there are better-paying job opportunities here than in India. After two months at the University of Ottawa, Mr. Sivakumar doesn’t regret his choice for a minute. Except for one thing. “The stores close too early here,” he said. “In India, everything is open at night.”

Mr. Sivakumar is part of a massive shift under way in Canada’s education and immigration systems. More than 500,000 international students are expected to study in Canada this year, in primary schools through to universities, more than four times as many as were here in 2000.

“The increase is a huge success for international education in Canada,” said Larissa Bezo, interim head of the Canadian Bureau for International Education.

Because of rule changes introduced by both Conservative and Liberal governments, 40 per cent of all economic-class immigrants accepted by the federal government are now international students who have graduated and who want to stay in Canada.

“International students are well-placed to integrate into Canadian society,” Ms. Bezo observed. “They are already familiar with Canada, they speak one or both official languages, and they have networks both in Canada and abroad.”

Plus, they’re young − payers of taxes rather than consumers of government services.

There are many reasons why Canada has become such a desirable destination for international students. For one thing, tuition levels are reasonable, compared with the competition − especially these days, thanks to the relatively low value of the Canadian dollar.

It also helps that the competition is shooting itself in the foot. Enrollment of new foreign students in American universities fell by 7 per cent in 2017, according to one report, thanks in part to stricter conditions imposed by the Trump administration. And with the imposition of time limits, enrollment could decline even more.

International student enrollment flatlined in Britain after the government imposed new rules limiting a student’s right to work after graduation. And the confusion over Brexit makes studying in Britain an uncertain prospect.

Australia is even more aggressive at recruiting new students than Canada. Enrollments increased from just over 300,000 five years ago to more than 540,000 this year, though some students worry about stories of racial intolerance in Australia. A series of assaults led to a protest by the Indian government in 2009.

Canada’s international student program offers powerful incentives. Under Canadian rules, students can work part-time while studying; they automatically qualify for a work permit of up to three years upon graduating; and they are given preferred status if they apply to become permanent residents.

Nayara Schmitz, who is also a graduate student in engineering at U of O, doesn’t know yet whether she will return to Brazil. “I’d like to, but I’m not sure yet,” she said. When she first arrived at University of Ottawa from Rio de Janeiro, “I was, like, ‘I’m staying here forever.’ But now I’m feeling a little homesick.” She will reassess after graduation, and the experience of an Ottawa winter.

Foreign students “look to Canada because of our reputation of being a multicultural society, as well as being a country that is open and receptive to immigration,” said Kareem El-Assal, a senior researcher at the Conference Board of Canada.

China is the largest source country, accounting for about three out of 10 international students, followed by India, which accounts for one in four.

Some critics worry that international students crowd out domestic applicants. But a 2017 U.S. study revealed that the opposite is true.

“Overall, foreign students appear to increase domestic enrollment,” wrote Kevin Shih in the Journal of Public Economics. The high tuition paid by foreign students subsidizes additional space for domestic students, the report found.

Because of Canada’s low fertility rate, international students are needed to prevent institutions from cutting programs or even closing their doors. In Ontario, for example, more than 100,000 student spaces disappeared from the public-education system between 1998 and 2016.

Foreign students have become an increasingly important part of the economy, contributing $15.5-billion and 170,000 jobs to Canada’s GDP in 2017, through tuition and accommodation and Red Bull.

“There’s a tremendously positive economic impact,” Mr. El-Assal said.

With parts of the developing world becoming increasingly affluent and well-educated, the number of international students looking for a place to study is expected to double to 10 million over the next decade.

If Canada holds onto its share, that could mean a million foreign students in Canadian schools. Mathieu Genest, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, said Ottawa is planning to tweak existing policies to give such students even more incentives to apply for permanent residence, putting them on the path to citizenship.

An even larger cohort of well-educated, well-integrated new Canadians will be ready to make their mark.