Evaluation of the International Student Program - Summary

Executive summary

Policy and program context

International students are attractive to Canada. They bring economic, social and cultural benefits to the institutions at which they study, to the organizations in which they work and to the communities in which they live. Their Canadian education and work experience also make them sought after as potential immigrants.

CIC’s International Student Program has been evolving since the introduction of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) in 2002. One of IRPA’s objectives is to facilitate the entry of temporary residents into Canada, and subsequent program and policy changes to the ISP have been designed with a view to facilitating study and work opportunities for international students, as well as their potential transition to permanent residence.

IRPA’s regulatory framework includes specifications on who can study in Canada with or without a permit, work privileges and application requirements, and sets out a legal description of what constitutes studies. However, responsibility for education in Canada lies with the provinces and territories, and thus, the federal government has no jurisdiction to regulate the quality of education, or its providers.

Evaluation objectives and methodology

Guided by an Evaluation Framework, CIC conducted an evaluation of the International Student Program (ISP) to examine its relevance and performance. The evaluation used multiple lines of evidence, including both qualitative and quantitative research methods, and presents findings on the results of the ISP (post-IRPA) for the 2003 to 2008 reporting period.

Profile of international students in Canada

The number of international student entries is growing; it increased from 69,712 in 2003 to 79,509 in 2008, with consistently more males than females arriving. The largest percentage of international students arriving during this period was studying at the university level (39% of entries in 2008); and the second largest percentage was studying at the elementary/secondary level (25% of entries in 2008).

South Korea (ROK) and China (PRC) were consistently the leading two source countries during the reporting period (accounting for 35% of all entries in 2008), and Ontario and BC have been the two most popular provinces of destination (with 66% of all entries destined to these provinces in 2008).

International students are increasingly using the work permit programs. The number of off-campus work permits issued increased from 731 in 2004 to 16,525 in 2008, and the number of post-graduation work permits issued increased from 2,808 in 2003 to 17,810 in 2008.

Summary of findings


  • In general, partners and stakeholders indicate a strong need for the ISP, identifying the many economic, cultural and social benefits that international students bring to Canada.
  • The ISP is aligned with GoC and CIC objectives and priorities, and consistent with provincial activities. However, there are some inconsistent program and policy objectives among the lead departments – CIC, DFAIT and CBSA.
  • The federal government plays an appropriate role with respect to international education in relation to its mandate to support national security, international trade and Canada’s economy.


Social, cultural and economic benefits
  • International students bring with them many benefits to Canada, including increased revenues to educational institutions and communities and enhanced diversity to learning environments and smaller communities.
  • The economic benefits to Canada of international students are extensive. A recent study commissioned by DFAIT estimated international student expenditures in 2008 at over $6.5 billion, and suggested that international education is one of Canada’s more lucrative exports.
  • The longer-term economic benefits are also being recognized. Increasingly, international students are staying to work post graduation or reside in Canada. However, the number retained is still relatively small compared to the total number of those studying in Canada.
Global competitiveness
  • Although globally competitive in terms of its study/work offerings, Canada’s leading competitors have attracted a larger share of the global international student population. Issues with study permit processing and promotion were identified as hindering global competitiveness.
  • The quality of education was viewed as most important by international students in their decision-making. Though not as important, opportunities for post graduation work and permanent residence also factored into the decision-making of many students.
  • International students are taking advantage of work opportunities in Canada with an increasing number of off-campus and post-graduation work permits being issued annually. However, the extent and quality of the work experience gained by these students is less clear.
Program integrity
  • CIC’s policy framework currently leaves the International Student Program vulnerable to potential misuse. Non-genuine students and questionable educational institutions are primary concerns in the student application caseload.
  • CIC does not have a complete inventory of legitimate educational institutions in Canada, nor the authority to ensure their quality.
  • In general, there is reported fraud and misuse in the International Student Program. Its extent is unclear due to a lack of data and consistent reporting, and efforts to mitigate the risk of fraud and misuse are quite varied.
  • Apart from CIC, many partners and stakeholders do not believe that there is consistent decision-making on student applications. Quality assurance activities are inconsistent across the department, making it difficult to objectively assess the overall quality of decision-making.
Program management and delivery
  • There is a consistent understanding of the objectives of the International Student Program among program partners and stakeholders. However, there is less clarity surrounding roles and responsibilities.
  • CIC NHQ and regions are satisfied with communications and information-sharing within CIC. However, survey results suggest that communications and information-sharing among visa offices abroad and between visa offices and other areas of CIC are infrequent.
  • Although the information and support provided within CIC and to educational institutions are generally useful, there are issues with their adequacy and timeliness. Of note, visa offices identified a need for information and support related to genuine/non-genuine educational institutions and programs.
  • Stakeholders are positive about the changes to Canada’s study/work package. However, some stakeholders have experienced issues with the study and work permit application processes.
Application processing
  • In 2008, 65% of study permit applications were finalized within 28 days in visa offices abroad. Findings showed that there is a perception that processing times are slow for Canada.
  • Processing times and refusal rates for study permits finalized abroad vary considerably by visa office. The perception of fraud, type of educational institution and visa and medical requirements are important factors in this variability.
  • Relative to the other temporary streams, overall costs of the study permit program are consistent with the level of effort and time required to process student applications.


A number of partners, all with distinct objectives, are responsible for different aspects of the ISP. Three key issues emerged in this evaluation: the global competitiveness of the ISP; program integrity; and CIC’s processing capacity. Findings showed various linkages between these issues and the roles of the different partners in achieving program results: the global competitiveness of the ISP is related to the processing capacity of CIC; the promotional efforts of DFAIT; and the quality of education regulated by provincial/territorial governments. Findings also highlighted how CIC processing capacity may be affected by program integrity issues, such as fraud.

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