Skip to main content

Commerce grad Jasrene Padman hugs a friend after convocation Tuesday at Dalhousie University. She is heading back to her homeland of Malaysia.Devaan Ingraham/The Globe and Mail

Jasrene Padman is one who got away. Next week, the 23-year-old Dalhousie University graduate is flying home to Kuala Lumpur with a commerce degree tucked in her suitcase – and dreams of landing a job with a Malaysian airline.

She is excited to be returning to Malaysia. "I missed my family and … I was missing a lot of things, a lot of events back home," she says.

But not everyone is so thrilled she is going. As Atlantic Canada grapples with a gradually decreasing and aging population, keeping students such as Ms. Padman here, working and contributing their skills to the labour force after they graduate, is seen as a possible key to revitalization.

With 16 universities in the four tiny provinces, university and government officials are looking more and more at these institutions as the region's best immigration policy tool.

Recently, the four Atlantic premiers, the provincial immigration offices and the Association of Atlantic Universities commissioned a $15,000 study of the experience and aspirations of foreign students here. It was on the agenda at the recent meeting of Atlantic premiers as part of continuing discussions about recruiting and retaining immigrants to help create a skilled work force.

The AAU study found that 60 per cent of those surveyed wanted to stay in the Atlantic region when they graduated; 32 per cent chose a Canadian university because they wanted to live in Canada after they finish school. On the flip side, it revealed 35 per cent were not interested in staying because of "limited work" opportunities; and 21 per cent wanted to be closer to their families and home.

"International students are a fantastic source of future immigrants for Canada," says Ava Czapalay, a senior official with Nova Scotia's Department of Labour and Advanced Education.

East Coast universities, which aggressively recruit in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Brazil, have no trouble attracting foreign students. Studies show that students from abroad like the quality of the education and often cite personal safety and security as reasons to study here. These students provide much needed funds to the cash-strapped institutions – paying double the tuition fees that Canadian students do – and spend money on cars, clothes and food. They are estimated to contribute $565-million to Atlantic Canada's economy.

Paradoxically, the region's decreasing population could be a boon for the universities. "The real driver for our universities is the fact that our domestic population of university-eligible students is declining," says Peter Halpin, executive director of the Association of Atlantic Universities. "So we do have the capacity to absorb more students, whether they come from other parts of Canada or other parts of the world."

The trick, however, is figuring out how to keep them.

"There have to be jobs – if we have the jobs, people will stay," says Colin Dodds, president of Saint Mary's University in Halifax. His university has among the highest proportion of foreign students of any institution in the country – nearly 30 per cent of its 6,400 full-time students are from outside Canada.

Lack of a job – or at least the perception that full-time jobs are difficult to come by – played into Ms. Padman's decision to leave. "I kind of feel like it's a little hard to get a job in Halifax. I would go to Toronto or Calgary … In a way it is hard to find a job here as international students."

Problems with visas and identification such as drivers' licences make it hard for foreign students to get hired, Ms. Padman says.

The AAU's Peter Halpin says his association's research has also found that students are not aware of immigration programs like the Canadian Experience Class, created in 2008 by the Harper government to help temporary foreign workers and foreign students who have worked in Canada get permanent residence in the country.

The private sector, too, has an important role to play by hiring students, Mr. Halpin says. And more work needs to be done to match graduates with employers, he notes.