OTTAWA â€” The head of Canada's biggest university organization says there's growing evidence that post-U.S. election uncertainty could help boost an important source of cash for the economy: international students.
The number of U.S. students applying to Canada for next fall has soared â€” and the extra attention could bring significant benefits to the Canadian economy, Universities Canada president Paul Davidson said in an interview Thursday.
The overall economic impact from foreign students â€” including their much-higher tuition fees â€” was estimated at $11.4 billion in 2014, said a study prepared last summer for the federal government.
That research also found that the combination of tuition, housing and discretionary spending by international students was greater than Canadian exports of softwood lumber, financial services or wheat. They contributed roughly as much to the economy as exports of automotive parts, said the July report for Global Affairs Canada.
"So, this isn't just nice for our economy, it's an important part of our economy," said Davidson, whose organization represents 97 institutions.
"Our economy needs young, bright people with global connections and there's lots of capacity in the Canadian university system to absorb these students."
So far, U.S. applications to McMaster University for next fall have climbed 35 per cent, while the University of Toronto has seen a spike of almost 82 per cent â€” to 1,425 from 784 at this time last year.
Davidson said Canadian universities have also seen more interest this year from countries like India and Mexico, where many of their students have historically applied to study in the U.S. The University of Toronto, for example, said applications from India are so far up 45 per cent.
He believes the concerns since the U.S. election have helped encourage more American and overseas students to consider Canada.
The potential economic bump from an increase in foreign students comes amid considerable uncertainty within the academic community across North America.
Davidson said an executive order signed this week by Trump to ban entry for 90 days of citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries has had an immediate, profound effect on international students and academics who are unable to access or even to return to the U.S., where they are based.
"We don't want to be seen as taking advantage of the situation, but the number of U.S. students applying to study in Canada for next fall is surging."
The opportunities for Canada reach beyond student enrolment, he added.
The unknowns of the Trump administration and in the post-Brexit United Kingdom have also led to "serious inquiries" from "Nobel-calibre" researchers who are considering moving to Canada, he said.
"This isn't going to happen overnight, but the phones started ringing in mid-November and they haven't stopped ringing," said Davidson, who added the interest from academics is likely due in part to years of efforts promoting Canadian universities abroad.
He expects a number of exploratory spring visits to Canadian campuses by prominent international researchers, some of whom may also participate in guest lectures and conferences. Boosting the level of research talent could also help lure more foreign direct investment to Canada, he said.
A spokeswoman for McMaster said Thursday that the 35 per cent increase in applications from the U.S. this year will likely fluctuate before the final tally is released after April 1.
The number, however, has been a bit of a surprise.
"It's interesting because McMaster doesn't do any recruiting in the United States and traditionally does not have a great number of American students," Michelle Donovan wrote in an email.
Ted Sargent, vice-president international for the University of Toronto, said this year's spike in interest from Americans is likely due to a combination of factors: the institution's high North American rankings for quality of education, graduate employability and its big efforts in recent years to recruit in the U.S.
U.S. students looking to Canada may also be prioritizing a place that's welcoming, diverse and inclusive, Sargent said.
"So, I do think they all play together."
While the economy could benefit from an increase in foreign students, not everyone agrees that they should pay more than Canadians.
The Canadian Federation of Students opposes universities charging higher tuition fees for international students for the same education. Federation spokeswoman Emily Niles said foreigners pay, on average, 3.7 times more per year, often resulting in huge debt loads.
In 2015-16, international students paid an average of $21,932 in tuition fees for undergraduate studies, an increase of 30 per cent from five years earlier, according to Statistics Canada.
â€” with files from Jordan Press
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Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press