Educational institutions in Atlantic Canada are often the first places newcomers call home in our region. Schools foster students from around the world and are where the newcomers first gain footing in the country. Schools help them to grow into productive, prosperous citizens who help us all. And there is certainly no shortage of international students in Atlantic Canada with more than 25,000 of them attending universities within the region.
The numbers become bleaker, however, when we look at retention rates. How many of those 25,000 students stay in the region after graduation? A recent study shows that it’s not a whole lot. Observation of post-graduation retention rates from universities in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador show that on average only 16 per cent of international students remain in the province where they studied.
These statistics are highly problematic in a region where overall population trends are grim, fuelled by an ageing population, a falling birth rate and a declining population lagging far behind the rest of the country. The last thing our region needs is a brain-drain of hard-working, dedicated students.
Eri Sasahara, a student from Japan who moved to Halifax in 2015 to study at Saint Mary’s University, offers insight into international students and their reasons for leaving.
She originally moved to Halifax to further develop her English skills and gain a Canadian university degree, highly valued in many students’ home countries.
Eri has plans to stay and develop her professional life in Halifax as long as she possibly can, but also acknowledges the aversion many international students have towards staying in the region. She says many prefer the big city, urbanized environments found elsewhere in Canada. These cities offer many work opportunities that may not be available to new graduates and foster environments and communities where they may feel more at home.
It is no secret that Atlantic Canada has a labour shortage. Stats Canada says 23,000 jobs in the region do not have people to fill them—perhaps an appealing fact to those students who want to stay. However, this labour shortage is found mostly in industries where students are unable to put their hard-earned degrees to use, with the Top 3 sectors facing shortages being in manufacturing, retail and construction.
The federal government has made moves to tackle this labour issue, most notably by introducing the Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program. This program allows companies to hire workers from overseas without the usual lengthy approval processes, as well as offer assistance through settlement plans tailored to them and their families. The efforts are there to bring newcomers here, but what about retention of those who have studied and already set some roots in Atlantic Canada?
Sure, government programs and the like offer help to our demographic woes. But as East Coasters we are known for our hospitality and we need to put that remarkable trait of ours to work. We must welcome our international students with open arms to ensure they feel at home and make them keen to stay here. An environment that promotes a culture of acceptance and recognizes that diversity is our strength ensures these students will be confident in establishing lives here, and be unafraid to innovate and put those degrees to work.
Once this happens, we all reap the benefits.
Let’s face it, our region has a demographic problem. We also have a solution right under our noses with 25,000 professionals with vast potential who have studied and established themselves living right here. With some effort, our East Coast charm, and a bit of external help, we can be sure they will call our great region home for years to come.