The 2021 Annual Report on Language Education in Canada, released today by Languages Canada, provides a clear picture of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Canada’s English and French language education sector. 2020 numbers, while drastically lower than 2019, included a healthy first quarter. 2021 data, however, tell the full story of the impact of border restrictions, visa delays, costly testing and quarantine requirements, provincial lockdowns, and classroom capacity limits.
In 2021, Languages Canada members enrolled 57,423 students – the lowest number since the association began collecting student data via the annual members’ survey in 2008 and approximately one third of the number of students in 2019. This included 52,754 students studying English and 4,669 studying French and an incredible fifty-one percent of student weeks delivered entirely online (both in and outside Canada). Another 20% were delivered in a blended online/in-person format.
Proportionally, public sector members experienced a much more drastic drop in student number – a 28.4% decrease from 2020 versus a 5% decrease in student numbers for private Languages Canada members. Many English and French language programs within public colleges and universities were deemed non-essential for face-to-face learning up until the fall 2021 semester and were limited to virtual course delivery. Coupled with lack of access to federal wage and rent subsidies, the significant drop in student numbers and revenues was particularly impactful for public language programs.
Student demographics shifted notably as a result of the cost and complication of entering Canada. Put off by mandatory quarantine-upon-arrival requirements, which remained in place for much of 2021, short-term students were few, and the average length of study was 12.6 weeks, up from 11.7 weeks in 2020 and 10 weeks in 2019. The sector also experienced a sharp drop in the number of junior students, which had been a growing market segment prior to the pandemic, from 13% in 2019, to 5% in 2020, and only 3% in 2021.
Up until September 7, 2021, all international students required a study permit in order to enter Canada. Not surprisingly, the majority of students in 2021 had a study permit – 56%, versus 44% in 2020, and only 29% of students in 2019. However, this was not true for all segments of the language education sector; public programs experienced a drop in the proportion of study permit holders, offset by an increase in domestic student numbers. Fifty-four percent of students enrolled in public Languages Canada members in 2021 were from Canada, either citizens or permanent residents.
Source markets that typically send more short-term students on eTA or TRV saw a steeper decline in student numbers. Coupled with restrictive travel policies in some Asian source countries, 2021 saw a reordering of Canada’s top source markets. Brazil, which has been the top source country for several years, dropped to 2nd place in 2020 and 5th place in 2021, with student numbers decreasing by 44% from 2020 to 2021. Student numbers from China decreased by 32% from 2020 to 2021. Japan was the top source country in 2021, up 15% from 2020, followed by Colombia, which saw a 72% increase in student numbers over 2020, making it the first time this country has been in the top five source countries. And, for the first time, Canada was a stronger source country for language students than South Korea, moving into the 6th largest source county, speaking to the growing importance of the domestic market for Languages Canada members.
The language education sector workforce experienced a small recovery in 2021 in the number of full-time and seasonal staff, following a drastic cut to the workforce of nearly 60% from 2019 to 2020. The ability to rehire/retain employees was due in large part to the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, which was utilized by half of Languages Canada members.
Visa processing delays and refusals were the most frequently cited challenge faced by Languages Canada members in 2021, an issue which has continued into 2022 and is currently the single biggest factor impacting the sector’s recovery.
Despite the financial hardship faced by the sector, in 2021 Languages Canada’s membership grew from 206 to 216, speaking to the value of the public affairs efforts of the association during the time of crisis. The sector made a direct economic contribution to Canada of $448 million.
The language education sector emerged from 2021 with optimism for recovery and growth into 2022. With most border restrictions and quarantine requirements eased by fall 2021, Canada is positioned as a top choice destination for English and French language students. In fact, Canada gained global market share in the English Language Travel sector over the pandemic, from 12% in 2019 to 17% in 2020 (the most recent year available) and experienced less decline in student numbers in 2021 than competitor destinations UK, Australia and Ireland.
With the newly introduced semi-annual reporting that has recently been launched by Languages Canada, the association looks forward to providing a ‘pulse check’ on the sector’s recovery in the first half of 2022.