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Students walk on St. George Street. near the University of Toronto on Nov. 23.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

The number of Canadian study permits issued to students from China has dropped significantly since 2018, a period marked by a deteriorating diplomatic relationship and COVID complications, but China’s place as the top source of foreign university undergraduates has been only moderately diminished.

International tuition fees are crucial to the operation of Canada’s universities, which rely on the more than $6-billion that foreign students contribute annually in such payments.

Much of the decline in permits has been among students below the postsecondary level, where numbers have been down by about half over the past four years.

A little more than 52,000 study permits were issued to Chinese students through the end of October this year, according to new figures provided by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. That’s down from more than 90,000 in 2018. With two months of visa processing still to be tallied, it remains to be seen whether this year’s total will surpass the 62,000 visas issued in 2021 or mark a fourth straight year of decline.

In December, 2018, Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested while passing through Vancouver airport, and Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were jailed in China in apparent retaliation, sparking a diplomatic crisis.

There were concerns subsequently that China might encourage its students to study elsewhere, and thereby threaten a key source of Canadian university funding. A similar situation arose when Canada clashed with Saudi Arabia over human-rights issues and it pulled many of its students from Canadian schools.

Then, the pandemic further threatened to derail the educational link between the two countries, as severe lockdowns in China and uncertainty about the viability of in-person lectures in Canada hampered student movement.

Despite the upheaval of the past several years, China had more than 22,000 university undergraduate students approved for study permits in the first 10 months of this year. That’s down from more than 28,000 in 2018, but still the largest number for any single country. It also had 1,876 PhD student visas approved, up slightly compared with 2018.

There has also been a leap in study permits issued to students from Hong Kong, which are counted separately from those from mainland China. In 2022, more than 9,600 permits were issued to Hong Kong applicants, compared with just 2,600 in 2018.

The most significant growth in international students in recent years has been among students whose primary goal is a path to Canadian permanent residency. Those students, with the largest cohorts from India and the Philippines, tend to take shorter programs at the college level, rather than four-year university degrees.

India, which had 197,000 student visas approved, had just 12,700 permits (about 6.5 per cent of its total) at the university bachelor’s degree level. Still, the 80-per-cent growth in Indian student visas since 2018 is significant, and the numbers might have been even higher were it not for significant visa-processing delays over the summer.

The vast majority of Indian students are pursuing shorter schedules, which are less costly and include a pathway to a postgraduate work permit and permanent residency. More than 65 per cent of Indian students approved this year enrolled in college diploma or certificate programs, which are one- to two-year courses, with a further 7 per cent in university master’s programs of similar duration.

The Philippines also had a large share of students (about 60 per cent of 21,000) enroll at the college diploma or certificate level, compared with about 3 per cent at the university bachelor’s level.

Andre Jardin, associate registrar of admissions at the University of Waterloo, said the impact of the pandemic makes it difficult to judge the significance of any declines in Chinese university students. At the University of Waterloo, the number of students coming directly from China is down noticeably in recent years, in the range of a little more than 10 per cent, he said, but up a little this year compared with last year. There has also been an increase in the number of Chinese students entering after a year or two at a Canadian high school.

“For quite a few universities, China is still an overwhelming force, just based on population and a long history of sending students abroad,” Mr. Jardin said.

But it’s been three years since Waterloo and many other schools were in China recruiting in person, he said. Add the Chinese government’s message of caution around COVID-19 and uncertainty about whether classes would be delivered in person in Canada and it’s understandable to see some decline in the numbers, Mr. Jardin said.

“I would argue that this is still not the barometer year. We’re still in the midst of COVID response. I think next year will be a bit more the test. Will we see the trend line go back up or have the last few years changed things permanently?”

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