Opinion: Canada’s small cities and rural communities need more immigrants. Colleges and universities can help.

Mark Mann
January 15, 2020

Universities and colleges play a critical role in economic and social prosperity, especially in small and remote areas of Canada. A key challenge to Canada’s long-term economic growth lies in declining fertility rates and an aging population. As Canada’s population grows older and retires from work, there will be fewer young people to contribute their time, skills, and ideas to Canada’s economic prosperity and to the support of the social and health care services that we value today.

Canada’s smaller, rural and more remote centres are already facing this challenge. Their populations are getting older at a faster rate than the national average. By way of comparison, in Ontario communities with populations greater than 500,000, 108 young people enter the workforce for every 100 who retire. In smaller cities and towns, however, this ratio drops to 72 and 68 young people entering the workforce for every 100 retiring, leaving employers in dire need of more young people — that is, vital talent and energy — to fill the gaps.

Universities and colleges in smaller centres are well-poised to solve this dilemma. They drive local economic growth in several ways: by buying and hiring locally, and by creating and commercializing innovations. But they can also strengthen their communities by taking bolder steps to attract and, even more importantly, retain more international students to their cities and towns.

In 2018, the total number of international students studying in Canada climbed to 572,415, representing a 154% increase since 2010. Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal host over half of the international students studying in Canada. Smaller centres are also seeing a rise in the number of international students, such as in Atlantic Canada. However, only a small percentage of these students decide to stay and transition to permanent residency.

Century Initiative recently convened a group of exceptional thinkers and educational leaders to participate in a discussion to examine this issue and potential responses to it. This discussion produced a series of recommendations to encourage an increase in the number of international students drawn to smaller cities and towns in Canada. At the heart of these recommendations, is the need for educational institutions to more effectively anchor their missions in long-term community development.

Job opportunities and community belonging are among the key factors influencing international students’ decisions to stay in Canada following graduation. By definition, larger and more culturally diverse metropolitan centres have more to offer, but universities and colleges in smaller, remote and rural areas have their own unique advantage. Namely, they can more easily match curricula to local economic realities and create stronger bridges for students to access local industry and business, through employer support programs and co-op, internship, and bridging programs. From an employers’ perspective, such programs create a pool of talent that’s familiar with local labour market trends and areas that require focused research and innovation. From a student’s perspective, these solutions offer a chance to build a real-life social network and a clear and faster pathway to employment and citizenship.

A closer alignment between educational institutions, industry and talent could foster stronger retention and integration for graduating international students in search of economic opportunities in a socially cohesive community. The result would be a boost in economic and social prosperity not only for the community but for the entire country.


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