The path of international students in Francophone minority communities (FMCs)

Social Research and Demonstration Corporation
February 2016

Copies of the full report are available upon request to Research-Recherche@cic.gc.ca.

Executive summary

The purpose of the research project on international students in Francophone minority communities (FMCs) is to further the knowledge of the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) on ways to attract, retain and integrate this population—socially, culturally, and economically—where French is the minority language.

The study focused on existing challenges in three FMCs across Canada: Moncton, New Brunswick; Ottawa, Ontario; and Edmonton, Alberta. Each community has a university that offers programs of study in French and an adequate pool of French-speaking international students: Université de Moncton, University of Ottawa, and the University of Alberta's Campus Saint-Jean.

Portrait of French-speaking international students within the FMCs

Twelve Francophone nations are among the top 50 source countries for international students in Canada. With nearly 16,500 students with valid study permits in 2013, France led the way among Francophone nations and, in 2013, ranked fourth among the sources for Canada's international students (IRCC, 2014). Some Francophone nations that the federal government has identified as strategic economic markets are also among the 50 leading countries of origin, such as Vietnam, the Francophone nations of the Maghreb (Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria), Egypt and Lebanon.

From 2005 to 2014, the Université de Moncton took in international students from 57 nations worldwide, including 27 nations on the African continent (including the Maghreb). In 2014, nearly three quarters of the international student population at the Université de Moncton came from Sub-Saharan Africa. In the last decade, this population's representation at the university has grown much faster than any other, rising from 135 to 644 students. The substantial increase in the number of international students at the Université de Moncton during this period is almost entirely attributable to the increase in the number of students from nations in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and the Maghreb.

At Campus Saint-Jean, the number of French-speaking international students increased nearly 40% from 2010 to 2014, rising from 36 to 50 students. The growth is primarily attributable to countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Of the 33 source countries, 13 are on the African continent and, in 2014, accounted for nearly half of all the international students registered at the campus. Asian nations are also growing in representation, from 6% in 2010 to 26% in 2014.

Between 2010 and 2014, the University of Ottawa received international students registered in French programs from 75 different countries, 33 of them in Africa and 28 in Sub-Saharan Africa alone. France sends the most French-speaking international students to the University of Ottawa, but the proportion of French-speaking international students declined during this period. The decrease is partially due to an increase in the population from Francophone Africa, from countries such as Morocco, Ivory Coast and Senegal.

The path of French-speaking international students in FMCs

The development of student support programs and services must be based on a solid understanding of students' path, their needs in each phase of the path, and the factors that make it possible to support international students in each phase.

Recruitment

The recruiting of international students gained momentum in the 2000s. Cooperation and coordination among Canadian stakeholders succeeded in increasing the population of international students at Canadian post-secondary institutions (DFAIT, 2014). French-speaking international students are recruited in three phases:

  • The individual decides to study abroad: This phase is influenced by domestic factors, such as the home country's economic health and the quality of its education system, as well as personal factors, such as the opportunity to learn English and acquire international experience.
  • The individual selects the destination country: This phase is marked by Canada's reputation and appeal. The development of the Canadian brand under the Edu-Canada program has made it possible to coordinate the strategies and initiatives undertaken by the federal government, provinces, and Canadian post-secondary institutions to recruit international students and promote Canada's post-secondary education system. French-speaking international students cite Canada's safety, access to its job market, its status as a diverse and multicultural nation, and the quality of its post-secondary education system as the primary draws.
  • The individual selects the establishment: Stakeholders identified two pull factors as the most important ones in attracting French-speaking students. The first is the institution's reputation, including the quality of its programs and, above all, the positive experience of its graduates. The second factor concerns support for financing and is related to either a more attractive financial package compared with what other institutions offer, or financial assistance in the form of bursaries offered by the institutions or governments. Note, for example, the University of Ottawa's partial tuition exemption, which had a striking impact on population in its first year.

Support for integration

The integration of a newcomer is an ongoing process that begins with the welcome and continues through their experiences in Canada and in their host community. For international students, adapting is not something that is done solely by the individual; the host community and, in particular, the post-secondary institution also adapt. Clearly, French-speaking international students are part of a multi-dimensional population that has both common and varied needs. The services and programs available to them must factor in such diversity.

Integrating international students is pointless unless it is preceded by successful educational integration. After interviewing key stakeholders, we identified three programs, services and strategies that could improve the educational performance of French-speaking international students.

  • Transition semester: University representatives suggest implementing a transition semester for international students to allow them to acclimate to the Canadian university system's parameters and requirements. The semester could include language training and an introduction to the program of study.
  • Improvement to services for all students: From an educational standpoint, the challenges of the classroom are not limited to international students. According to a variety of stakeholders, the key to international students' success lies in improving support services for all students.
  • Skill assessment: To be able to place students in courses that are appropriate to their skill level, some teachers have developed skill assessments. These exams are distributed to all students at the beginning of the term and allow professors to steer students toward basic or more advanced courses in accordance with their core skills, or to steer them toward tutoring services, as required.

Cultural and social integration occurs in the community as well as on campus. Given that they take in several hundred international students, and given the multicultural nature of Canadian students, universities must be able to meet students' needs in order to facilitate cultural integration. Our analysis pinpoints four areas that play an important role in students' cultural and social integration:

  • University services: University administration and student associations have a shared responsibility for providing services to international students with respect to welcoming and supporting French-speaking international students.
  • Interculturalism: Courses and outreach activities on interculturalism facilitate cultural interaction between the newcomer and the host society, improving the understanding of people from different cultures about how they act and react to the same events, in a variety of contexts.
  • Courses to raise the awareness of university staff: The challenges students face in terms of acculturation and adaptation are also experienced by teaching and administrative staff. Our consultations show that courses, such as the course put together by the University of Ottawa's Centre for University Teaching and Teaching and Learning Support Service, would be needed to equip teaching and administrative staff to better support international students in the classroom and on campus in general.
  • Access to language training: French-speaking international students quickly discover that English is the ideal tool for smoothing their integration into the host community, broadening their circle of friends, and getting into the job market where French is a minority language. Formal second-language courses and informal language activities allow students to develop their English skills and build a social network in their host community, facilitating long-term integration.

Some challenges limit support for international student integration. According to study respondents, restrictions on eligibility for off-campus settlement services that limit the offering of services from community establishment organizations, the lack of resources to finance university-based projects, and the low participation rate in integration workshops offered by the university are the biggest challenges.

Retention

As temporary residents, for French-speaking international students, the path to the job market is smoothed by the various work permits available to them: off-campus work permit, the co-op student work permit, and the post-graduation work permit. Despite programs to facilitate the transition from the post-secondary system to the job market, students are not sheltered from the challenges facing French-speaking newcomers. Three major challenges are among them: the lack of a professional network, limited access to bilingual employment in some professions, and employer recognition of graduate students' prior experience.

For some international students, studying in Canada is just the first step in a long-term residence process. According to a survey conducted by the Canadian Bureau for International Education, more than 66% of students surveyed reported that the possibility of getting permanent residence was an important or essential factor in their decision to study in Canada (CBIE, 2013).

For international students, the two most popular permanent residence programs are the Canadian Experience Class and the Provincial Nominee Program (PNP). To increase the pool of French-speaking immigrants, the Ontario government developed a French-speaking stream under the PNP to pave the way to permanent residence for skilled workers with minimum competencies in French.

Since January 2015, permanent residence applications are being handled by Express Entry. The system speeds up and simplifies the permanent residence application process while making sure that the top-ranked candidates in the pool and those most likely to succeed in the Canadian economy are first. The introduction of Express Entry has raised a lot of criticism, particularly from groups arguing for the rights of international students. Criticism mainly focused on certain changes, such as the elimination of the edge provided to international students educated in Canada and the implementation of a lottery system with a single variable, as well as the system's inability to identify French-speaking candidates and the allocation of half the possible points to a job offer when French-speaking international students face many challenges in the job market.

Student perspective

The student perspective is key for the purposes of this study. Based on the testimony of French-speaking international students, three observations are among the most important.

  • Desire to learn English: The potential for being able to improve English language skills is one of the most important factors in selecting a Francophone or bilingual university in a minority context.
  • Importance of pre-arrival contact: Pre-arrival orientation services are crucial, providing important support to international students throughout their transition to Canada.
  • Retention through economic integration: The determining factor in their decision to stay in Canada is the possibility of getting employment that is related to their studies.
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