Canada – the Latin American dream

Published 27/02/2023

Canada recently released news that it had smashed its 2014 target of hosting 450,000 international students by 2022 – over 800,000 are now on its shores.

One emerging demographic that has crept up in the student population is from the countries of Latin America.

While over 55,000 in 2022 come from the region and only make up just under 7% of all international students in the country, demand for Canadian study has shot up in the last 10 years.

Skyrocketing numbers

All but two countries have seen over 100% increase in the amount of students being sent to study – Mexico has over 200% more, with 14,440 students in 2022 compared to the 2012 figure of 4,955.

Another huge jump, putting it in line as an emerging source country, is Colombia. In 2012, just 1,540 students from the country were in Canada for their studies. In 2022, that figure has exploded – 12,440 are currently in Canada – and it only seems to be continuing on that trajectory.

“Application trends for Fall 2023 indicate an increased interest from some new markets in the region… such as Colombia,” noted Isaac Garcia-Sitton, executive director of international student enrolment at Toronto Metropolitan University, speaking to The PIE News.

The founder of Study Union International in Colombia, Ana Maria Betancur, also told the PIE that as the founder of an agency that’s been reviewing the market for 25 years, she can tell the interest in the country in not dying down any time soon. We have all “seen the evolution” of Canada as a destination, she says.

Colombia was listed as one of the priority countries in Canada’s updated international education strategy in 2019 – along with other Latin American countries Brazil and Mexico, as part of its aim to diversify the student nationalities coming to Canada to study.

After only having 350 students in 2012, Ecuador now has over 2,500 in Canada. While in absolute terms, the numbers are not large, Representaciones Académicas – one of the country’s largest education agencies – talked about how Ecuadorians see Canada as a viable destination, not only for study but beyond.

“Canada is very interesting for both its quality of life and its studies; in many cases today, they want to have the opportunity to have a bachelors or masters degree as well as the possibility of staying in the country, they are attracted by the quality of life and security,” marketing director Carmen Jaramillo explained to the PIE.

Garcia-Sitton’s assessment of the pull also hinged on the quality of life that can be found studying in Canada – an affordable currency and “overarching values of multiculturalism, tolerance and inclusivity” also help its case.

While recent months have seen some controversy at smaller colleges oversubscribing students, and some even seeming to need full time jobs to afford their lives there, the general consensus among students is that it’s largely practicing what it preaches – a useful, safe and interesting experience.

Visa processing rears its ugly head

Like countries across the world, Canada’s visa processing speeds became extremely slow in the last three years. It was one of the destinations that failed to catch up like others did – and in Latin America, where embassies and consulates are few and far between, the impact was heavily felt.

“Ecuadorians are very interested in Canada, but the visas are taking longer than normal”

“Ecuadorians are very interested in Canada, but the visas are taking longer than normal, so we request to students that they apply as soon as possible so they can arrive on time,” Jaramillo said.

Ecuador is far from the only country affected. Speaking to The PIE, Shannon O’Brien, a born-and-raised Canadian working as an education agent in Bolivia for Minerva Consultos Académicos, also said the problem affected them greatly.

“The huge limiting factor for Canada is the visa processing time. As a proud Canadian I hate to admit when the US has anything which is considered better than its Canadian counterpart but when it comes to visas, the US wins hands down.

“I can guide a student through the US student visa process in a month whereas the Canadian Study Permit process takes upwards of four months. We often hear that they will be streamlining the process and should this actually occur then the applications for Canadian universities and colleges will surely increase,” she explained.

As late as September 2022 there were reports of students indeed waiting up to four months for a visa to process, and some students are losing out completely – even financially – because of disconnects between universities, provincial officials and the IRCC.

Pandemic-driving interest

While the pandemic hit Ecuador hard, it only mustered more interest for overseas study, according to Jaramillo: “It is unfortunate, but the pandemic has caused many people and families to leave their country of origin and seek better opportunities.”

This is quite true of Ecuador – not only are they sending good numbers to Canada and the US, but they sent the second most international students to Spain in the latest figures from Study in Spain.

Sarah O’Sullivan, based in Brazil and the Latin American consultant for SOS Education Consultancy, told The PIE what she’d seen in terms of landscape – and that the biggest countries weren’t necessarily the biggest recruitment drivers.

“While student numbers from Brazil to Canada grew by more than 180% in 10 years, pre- and post-pandemic numbers are relatively static, from 10,230 in 2019 to 10,405 in 2022,” she explained.

“Meanwhile, student numbers from Peru grew exponentially since pre-pandemic days, from 685 students in 2019 to 3,200 in 2022 – growth of nearly 370%.”

Peru is clearly seeing the benefits of being listed as one of the three countries in Latin America to be put on the Student Direct Stream in 2021 alongside Brazil and Colombia, with interest continuing to shoot up in the Andean country.

She also mentioned that from 2019 to 2022, there was 200% growth in Bolivia, 128% in Colombia, 124% in Argentina and 113% in Ecuador – which, despite a pandemic, bodes well.

While growth in 2021 wasn’t as stark for Toronto Met, emerging from the pandemic has given the institution a boost, according to Garcia-Sitton. Compared with an 8% increase in fall 2021 – the middle of a pandemic – 2022 saw over a 40% increase in applications.

“[Universities] are quite interested in adding the Latin Culture to the mix”

“Many colleges and universities are also trying to diversify their student population and have accepted large numbers of students from India and China in the past therefore they are quite interested in adding the Latin Culture to the mix,” O’Brien noted, from her own experience liaising with universities.

Job shortages which have largely materialised as a result of the pandemic could also provide an opportunity for these students – O’Brien highlighted that the smallest towns need skilled workers.

“I believe as long as Canada has a labour shortage that the population of international students will continue to increase.”

Onward trajectory – up and up?

Canada has seen explosive growth from countries like India in recent years, to the point that there has been worry that it might bring the system to its knees.

While Latin America is not sending students as such a high rate, will the upward trajectory continue and see it begin to take a larger share of the student population?

“With regular geopolitical unrest in the region, Latin American students will increasingly opt for destinations that illustrate this return and that carry through on long-term promises,” O’Sullivan pointed out.

“Canada’s recruitment success in Latin America is dependent on several factors. To retain and increase market share it is vital that long term immigration options remain available and attainable.”

“To sustain the region’s growth in Canada, it is important that we work on federal policies”

Noting the popularity of Spain and Portugal with Latin American students – as demonstrated by Ecuador’s high ranking at Spanish universities – Canada is constantly competing with the US and UK, Garcia-Sitton warned.

“To sustain the region’s growth in Canada, it is important that we intentionally work on both federal policies and institutional practices to develop our capacity to attract, retain, and support international students from the region.”

For agents on the ground in Latin America – as well as the increasing number of in-country offices universities are opening – it’s about what will be available in Canada when students arrive.

“In the future there will surely be more students, but one of the problems we are having is the lack of housing and high costs,” Jaramillo said.

“We are trying to get students to apply to the centre of Canada [the Prairie Provinces] where they can maintain the same quality of life and find better housing and job costs,” she explained.

“I see the huge potential for growth in this sector and benefits for both students and the country of Canada. Latin students are incredibly sociable, caring and hard working. The students solve problems easily and are able to adapt quickly to new situations,” noted O’Brien.

While Latin America’s student population in Canada is still in its early growth stages, it’s clear that it’s time to make way – the students will come, and Canada will need to be ready for them.

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