Evaluation of the International Student Program

Executive summary

Purpose of the Evaluation

This report presents the results of the evaluation of the International Student Program (ISP). The evaluation was conducted in fulfillment of the requirements under the Treasury Board of Canada Policy on EvaluationFootnote 1, and focuses on activities undertaken, outputs, and immediate outcomes achieved from 2009 to 2013, as well as the introduction of new regulatory changes in 2014. The data collection for this evaluation was undertaken by the Research and Evaluation Branch of Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), between February and September 2014.

Program Profile

International students provide social and economic benefits to the education sector as well as the communities in which they reside. Along with temporary foreign workers and International Experience Canada, international students make up one of the three temporary economic resident classes included under CIC’s Strategic Outcome 1: Migration of permanent and temporary residents that strengthens Canada’s economy. While a number of federal and provincial partners share responsibilities with respect to international students, CIC’s International Student Program is primarily responsible for facilitating the entry of international students via the processing of study permits. In June 2014, CIC instituted a number of regulatory changes to the ISP to strengthen program integrity including the creation of provincially-approved lists of designated learning institutions and requiring students to actively pursue study while in Canada on a study permit.

Between 2009 and 2013, 495,214 foreign nationals entered Canada with study permits (on average 99,043 per year). The demographic profile includes the following:

  • Gender: Study permit holders were slightly more often male (55%) than female (45%)
  • Age: Study permit holders were mainly between 18 and 25 years of age (62%)
  • Level of Study: Most were studying at the university level (42%)Footnote 2 or at another post-secondary level (21%)Footnote 3
  • Source Country: China and India were the most frequent source countries for students (22% and 11%, respectively)
  • Province/Territory: Ontario received the largest share of students (42%), followed by British Columbia (28%) and Quebec (16%)

In terms of the program costs, the annual federal cost (including CIC and other government departments) for the ISP ranged from $34.04M to $47.81M per fiscal year between 2009/10 and 2012/13, with an annual average of $41.13MFootnote 4.


The evaluation examined the International Student Program, as well as the use of the Off-Campus Work Permit Program and the Post-Graduation Work Permit Program; however, the outcomes of these work programs were not included in this evaluationFootnote 5. In addition, the evaluation addressed the five core issues identified in the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) Directive on the Evaluation Function.

In order to meet departmental evaluation coverage requirements, the evaluation was calibrated and scaled down to adopt the following approaches:

  • Limiting the methodology to three lines of evidence - key informant interviews, document review, and administrative data reviewFootnote 6;
  • Focusing solely on assessing the Program's immediate expected outcomes including addressing issues identified in the previous evaluation regarding program integrity as well as application processingFootnote 7; and
  • Conducting the evaluation in-house with a moderated level of effort in terms of number of Full Time Equivalent (FTE) staff and days allocated to complete the evaluationFootnote 8.

Due to the timing of the regulatory changes which took effect in 2014, the evaluation is expected to serve as a benchmark for the evaluation of the ISP planned for 2018/19.

While the evaluation encountered several data limitations (as described in Section 2.4), it is important to note that none had a significant impact on the evaluation findings.

Evaluation Findings

Evaluation findings were grouped into four themes: relevance, performance management, processing, and resource utilization.


The evaluation found that there is a continuing need to facilitate the entry of international students, as they provide economic and socio-cultural benefits to Canada. The evaluation also found that the ISP aligns with federal roles and responsibilities to manage the entry of international students to Canada; however, there is also a strong role for provinces and educational institutions to play in terms of supporting program integrity. In addition, it was found that ISP is strongly aligned with Government of Canada and CIC priorities to strengthen the Canadian economy.

Performance – Program Management Outcomes

The evaluation found that there is a lack of an effective whole-of-government approach between federal departments regarding international students. Many interviewees expressed that there has been a lack of a coordinated approach to dealing with international students across the federal government.

Regarding the coordination with external stakeholders, the evaluation findings indicate that while it is sometimes difficult for provinces and territories to know where to direct complex questions regarding the ISP and their clients, CIC’s engagement with provinces and territories has been effective. In addition, CIC’s engagement with educational institutions was also found to be effective; however, there is a need to provide educational institutions with guidance on their reporting requirements as per the 2014 regulatory changes.

The evaluation findings suggest that there is a need to improve coordination and internal communications to address gaps relating to: information sharing on program integrity; referral protocols between processing offices; and departmental guidance on CIC’s role in supporting promotional activities.

CIC has taken measures to address issues identified in the previous evaluation related to program integrity and application processing, primarily by creating lists of designated educational institutions, requiring international students to be actively pursuing their studies and through the implementation of initiatives to modernize its processing network. Although CIC undertook many program integrity assessment activities across the department, there are opportunities for better sharing of program integrity tools, procedures, and reporting across CIC’s network.

In addition, some program issues and data gaps were identified through the evaluation. As the policy context surrounding international students has evolved and given the recent changes to the ISP, several data and program issues emerged, suggesting there may be an opportunity for CIC to review its program priorities and objectives.

Performance - Processing Outcomes

Between 2009 and 2013, the number of international students in Canada increased by approximately one third and since the previous evaluation, processing times has increased for both study permit applications and study TRVs. While CIC is meeting its service standard for study permits, it is not meeting its service standard for study TRVs.

Early modernization-related findings suggest mixed results regarding the impact of modernization initiatives on the timeliness of application processing. Compared to paper applications, e-applications and Visa Application Centres seem to represent faster processing methods for study permits; however, this is not the case for study TRVs.

Performance – Resource Utilization

Between FY 2009/2010 and FY 2012/2013, total ISP costs have decreased by roughly one third, largely as a result of reductions in support and other government departments (OGD) costs. However, direct program delivery costs have increased by around one quarter over the same period. The total cost per study permit application decision has decreased, suggesting increasing cost effectiveness.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Based on the evaluation evidence and findings presented in this report, the following conclusions and recommendations are put forward.

The ISP remains relevant as it responds to a continuing need, aligns with federal and departmental priorities, and is aligned with federal role and responsibilities.

Recommendation 1 - CIC should work with federal partners to:

  • Increase OGD coordination around program delivery and to further clarify departmental roles and responsibilities regarding the ISP; and
  • Ensure compliance and enforcement of the 2014 ISP regulatory changes.

Recommendation 2 - In light of GOC priorities for international students and the evolving CIC policy context, CIC should review and clarify the program logic for the ISP and more particularly its expected outcomes, also taking into consideration relevant temporary and permanent resident programs.

Recommendation 3 - CIC should review its policies and operational guidance regarding minor students and custodianship.

Recommendation 4 - CIC should strengthen information sharing across its processing network regarding program integrity (tools, best practices and reporting) and case referrals.

Recommendation 5 - CIC should monitor and report the impact of modernization initiatives on the ISP and identify opportunities to improve ISP processing times.

Recommendation 6 - CIC should develop and implement a strategy to address ISP data quality issues.

These recommendation components are elaborated in Section 7.

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