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The Role of Universities in the Economic Development of Atlantic Canada: A Focus on Immigration
January 2006

To be presented at the 6th Atlantic Conference on the Future of Public Administration in Canada

Denis Lebrun & Sarita Rebelo

The authors, Denis Lebrun and Sarita Rebelo, gratefully acknowledge several people whose contributions and support has greatly enhanced the quality of this research study. First and foremost, we wish to thank Wade AuCoin, our supervisor, for his guidance, patience, and optimism throughout the course of this project. We have also benefited greatly from the continuous support and expertise of James Wheelhouse, Maurice Mandale, and other members of ACOA’s Immigration Working Group. We extend our appreciation to Mary Fifield, Program Advisor, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, for providing insightful suggestions and comments on immigration issues. As well, we thank ACOA’s Website Developers and Library Staff for their valuable and timely assistance. Finally, we express gratitude to the International Student Advisors we interviewed, for without their cooperation and contributions, we would not have the comprehensive study we have today.


This analysis reflects the views of the authors and does not represent an official position of any kind by ACOA. Errors, omissions, or misrepresentations should therefore be wholly attributable to the authors.

Table of Contents

  1. Executive Summary and Introduction 5

Part 1

  1. The Role of Universities in the Economic Development of

Atlantic Canada 12

2.1 Background 12

2.2 Raising knowledge levels of the general population 14

2.3 Research and Technology transfer 19

2.3.1 Research in Atlantic Canada 21

2.3.2 Main Research Sectors in Atlantic Canada Universities 22

2.3.3 Technology Transfer 24

2.4 Involvement and Interaction with Community Groups to

Support Local Development 26

  1. A New Economic Role for Atlantic Canadian Universities 30

3.1 The Importance of Immigration and International Students 33

3.2 Global Competition in the International Education Market 33

3.3 Competition for International Students: What Atlantic Canada Universities

Have to Offer 38

Part 2

  1. The Demand for International Students 41

4.1 International Students Surveys: Results from Australia, Canada, New Zealand

and the UK 43

  1. Results from the First Survey of International Students

In Atlantic Canada 52
5.1 Background Information 52

5.1.1 Survey Respondents 52

5.1.2 University 55

5.1.3 English Fluency 57

5.2 Making a Choice About Where to Study 59

5.3 Educational Experiences in Atlantic Canada………….. 61

5.4 Services and Facilities……………………………………………. 65

5.5 Support or Help that you Might Receive in Atlantic Canada 69

5.6 Your Relationship with People in Atlantic Canada………….. 71

5.6.1 Friendships………………………………………. …………….71

5.6.2 Discrimination……………………………………… 73

5.7 Life in Atlantic Canada……………………………………………. 74

5.7.1 Perceptions of cities and Towns………………… 74

5.7.2 Benefits in Atlantic Canada………………………….. 75

5.7.3 Difficulties with Atlantic Canada……………………………………………..76

5.8 Future Plans……………………………………….………….. 77

  1. Recommendations 83

6.1 Recommendations: Relating to the Role that Universities Play in

Atlantic Canada’s Economic Development 83

6.2 Recommendations: Relating to International Students 84

  1. Future Exploration 89

  2. Conclusion 89



1.0 Executive Summary

This report has been prepared as a contribution to the ongoing efforts of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) to develop and implement strategies targeted at helping the region deal with its demographic challenges and its growing need for qualified workers.

In today’s knowledge economy, higher education institutions have a key role to play in Atlantic Canada’s economic development. The first part of the study revealed that universities had a direct impact on the economy of their region, but this impact goes beyond the revenues generated and the jobs created. They benefit the region by raising the knowledge level of the general population, university research accounts for most of the activity in the R&D sector in Atlantic Canada, universities play an essential role in the community, providing such facilities as theatre, museum, art gallery, concert hall, conference centre, exhibition centre, library or sports complex, and universities also interact with the various local stakeholders to support community development.
This report also shows that immigration is emerging as the new economic role for Atlantic Canada’s universities. With trends indicating that the United States’ market share of international students is shrinking, international education represent a big opportunities for the region. However the global competition for international students is very strong.
In order to obtain characteristics of international students in Atlantic Canada and to help the ACOA better define the role that universities could play with regard to immigration (attraction, integration, retention) an international students survey was administered.The results of this survey are shown in the second part of this report.
Major Findings of the International Student Survey

On August 10, 2005, a self-administered online questionnaire was sent via Listserves to the international student populations of Acadia, Dalhousie, Memorial, and University of Prince Edward Island. One hundred thirty-five international students completed and returned the surveys by the end date of August 25, 2005.

Atlantic Canada as a Study Destination

Fifty one percent of students chose Atlantic Canada as their first choice of study destination. However, forty-nine percent of students indicated Atlantic Canada was not their first choice of study destination. The most important factors in selecting Atlantic Canada were one’s own ‘personal preference’ followed by ‘English speaking country’. Also, among the most influential factors were safety, university website, and cost. Moderately influential factors included international recognition of Atlantic Canada’s qualifications, the quality of Atlantic Canada’s education, internet search engine, and direct contact from an Atlantic Canadian university.

Educational Experiences in Atlantic Canada

The majority of respondents (80%) described their academic progress as good (47%) or excellent (33%) with less than 1% indicating their progress was poor. Most students reported that they did not find the tasks difficult at all. Managing one’s workload was considered ‘moderately difficult’ by twenty six percent of students. There were a few activities that were considered ‘slightly difficult’: studying in different education system (26%), giving opinions to teachers (24%), and making oral presentations (23%). Progress, satisfaction, and the ranking of task difficulty were similar across the provinces.

Students evaluated their programme of studies (course content, feedback, quality of teachers and assessment procedures) in the average to good range.
Thirty three percent of students ‘mildly agreed’ that they felt included in their classes and cultural differences were respected at their institutions while thirty percent ‘mildly agreed’ classmates were accepting of cultural differences. Perceptions of cultural inclusiveness varied across provinces
Services and Facilities

When asked to assess the overall quality of services and facilities at their universities, sixty four percent of students thought the services were ‘good’ to ‘excellent’ and thirty three percent graded the services as ‘poor’ to ‘average’. Despite these positive evaluations, students appeared relatively uninformed about the actual availability of some services. A number of students were unaware if there were language laboratories (38%), ‘buddy’ or mentor programs (36%), financial advice services (27%), and learning support services (26%). These findings suggest that universities must find new ways to distribute information about available services and facilities effectively.

Fifty one percent of students do not believe or are ‘not sure’ if Atlantic Canadian education is good value for money. Fifty two percent of students would recommend Atlantic Canada as a place of study to friends and family and forty five percent would ‘not’ or are ‘not sure’ if they would. Regional variances did not emerge. With the high number of students undecided and unsure about the value and recommendations of Atlantic Canada, there is still time to positively influence their study experiences in the region.
Social Relationship and Social Support in Atlantic Canada

Overall, the international students in Atlantic Canada were ‘neutral or indifferent’ towards friendships in Atlantic Canada, however this would not be entirely true. Surprisingly there were regional variances as students from Prince Edward Island had neutral opinions of intercultural friendships while international students from Newfoundland and Nova Scotia were more likely to agree that:

  • They wanted more Atlantic Canadian friends;

  • Atlantic Canadians are friendly towards foreigners; and

  • They try their best to make Atlantic Canadian friends.

Although unfair treatment does not occur often, Atlantic Canadian students are most frequently the source of discrimination followed by members of the community. As the findings represent perceptions only, they might not represent the attitudes and actions of Atlantic Canadians. Multiple sources of social support were available for international students, and they appeared to rely both on sources in Atlantic Canada and in their home countries. People from students' home countries were particularly important for providing emotional support. Staff in educational institutions was seen as most widely available to assist with practical problems.

Future Plans

When asked about their future plans, fifty percent of international students planned to remain in the region after completion of their current course of studies. Twenty-one percent of the international students planned to continue their education in Atlantic Canada, 4% planned to return home for additional studies, and 7 % planned to continue their education in another country overseas. Twenty-nine percent anticipated seeking employment in Atlantic Canada, 10% in their home country, and 3% abroad.

The majority of students (67%) were interested in applying for permanent residency (PR) in Canada and residing in Atlantic Canada, more specifically. There were no regional differences. Full time employment in Atlantic Canada is one of the most important factors when deciding to apply for PR in Canada. More than half the students found full time employment, welcoming community, social supports, cost of living, and quality of life as ‘very’ or ‘extremely important’ when considering applying for PR in Canada. However, the lengthy immigration process and inability to find/absence of job appear to have significant influence over students’ decisions not to apply for PR in Canada while the availability of support services and a welcoming community barely factor into the PR decision.
Recommendations Relating to International Students

The following recommendations are put forward to assist Atlantic Canada in integrating and retaining more international students as a means of addressing the region’s demographic challenges and providing a new source of skilled labour:

  1. Universities:

    • Target students from source countries that have existing communities in Atlantic Canada;

    • Strengthen English as a Second Language programs including industry specific language training and cultural training programs in partnership with Settlement Agencies in Atlantic Canada;

    • Integrate cultural diversity into course materials and provide cultural competency training to faculty and staff; and

    • Partner with the business community to ensure successful employable skills are gained to bridge the skills gap after graduation.

  1. Federal Government :

  • Invest and build community capacity to improve support services;

  • Make the application for work permits more flexible, allowing

graduates to work immediately after finding employment;

  • Process Permanent Resident Status applications on Canadian


  • Give Regional CIC Offices the resources to process work permits


  • Provide potential employers with work permit information and

processing times;

  • Improve accessibility to information on the immigration process for

international students;

  • Improve accessibility to information on the immigration process for

international students; and

  • Adopt a procedural framework for visa officers.

  1. Provincial Government:

  • Invest and build community capacity to improve support services;

  • Permit universities to nominate/ recommend international student

graduates for the Provincial Nominee Program; and

  • Educate potential employers on the benefits of hiring international

students/ immigrants.

  1. Settlement Agencies:

  • Strengthen ESL programs and cultural training programs in

partnership with Universities in Atlantic Canada.

  1. Private Sector:

  • Provide work internships and mentorships to international students; and

  • Actively target international students for the Provincial Nominee

Program- and develop a strong market, and employer driven strategy.

  1. Community Organizations:

  • Welcome international students into the community; and

  • Develop local, community specific approaches to improve

International students’ experiences in Atlantic Canada.

  1. Collaborative Efforts

  • Build strong connections and engage partners: universities,

government, settlement agencies, private sector, and community organizations, and

  • Have joint (Government, Private Sector Trade Associations) PR

Campaigns on university campuses to increase the profile of economic/ non-economic benefits of immigration now and in the future.
The international students market represents a significant opportunity for Atlantic Canada. As it brings economic, social, and cultural benefits to the region and educational advantages to local students and host institutions, it is important to continue research to enhance the body of knowledge on international students in the region. Research findings highlighted the need for the following:

  • Complete comprehensive study of international students in Atlantic Canada; and

  • Annual survey of international students in Atlantic Canada to measure progress.

‘One of Atlantic Canada’s greatest competitive advantages is its universities. [They are] the most critical gateway to the knowledge economy in Atlantic Canada.’

(Association of Atlantic Universities, Getting Results in Atlantic Canada, January 2005)

Atlantic Canada is a small region both demographically and geographically. Yet, it is home to a disproportionately high number of universities that are among the best in Canada. As Atlantic Canada continues its transition to a more global and knowledge-based economy, these universities will be called upon to play a larger role in the region’s economic development. In light of the stagnation of Atlantic Canada’s population, one of the new areas where universities can become more involved in is the retention of international students as new immigrants to the region.
By means of a literature review, this study identifies and explores the key roles of universities in Atlantic Canada’s economic development, such as raising knowledge levels, contributing to R & D transfer, establishing and expanding physical infrastructure, and promoting immigration through international students. With a focus placed on the new economic role of universities, in the area of immigration, interviews with key stakeholders were held and a pilot survey of international students in Atlantic Canada was administered to better understand foreign students’ expectations along with the opportunities and challenges they experience in the Atlantic region.
The terms of reference and the research methodology are located in Appendix A & B, respectively. The findings and recommendations outlined in this report contribute to the ongoing efforts of the ACOA to advance the overall role of universities in the region’s economic development, as well as the increasing need for collaborative policy development and planning between government and universities to attract, integrate, and retain international students to the region.

2.0 The Role of Universities in the Economic Development of Atlantic Canada: A Focus on Immigration

    1. Background

In today’s knowledge economy, higher education institutions including universities and colleges have a key role to play in Atlantic Canada’s economic development. It is estimated that the region’s 17 universities and many colleges contribute over $3 billion annually to Atlantic Canada’s economy1. Universities also employ around 17,500 people in the region.

The impact of these institutions on economic development can also be observed internationally. Please see Table 1 for a summary of relevant data. A study revealed that in the United States, in the year 2000, the eight universities in the Boston area provided employment for some 85,750 people, and contributed over $7 billion (US) to the local economy:

The students from the eight universities — 74,000 undergraduates and 44,300 graduate students — spend about $850 million annually for food, entertainment, transportation and other needs. It is also estimated that visitors to the universities, whether a visiting researcher or family and friends of a university student, generated $250 million in additional local spending in 2000. The eight universities themselves in 2000 spent $3.9 billion in the region on payroll, purchasing and construction. It is estimated that the multiplier effect of that spending, as well as research spending by affiliated institutions and spending by students and visitors, had a collective regional economic impact of more than $7 billion in 2000. In addition to the 48,750 people they employed directly, the universities’ spending on purchases of goods and services and on construction, along with household spending by the universities’ employees, supported 37,000 additional full-time jobs in 2000. 2

In the United Kingdom, a 2000 study confirmed the important contribution made by higher education institutions (HEI) in various parts of the UK3:

In 1999/2000 UK HEIs directly employed an estimated 345,000 people. This was equivalent to 1.4% of total UK employment. For every 100 jobs within the HEIs themselves, a further 89 jobs were generated through knock-on effects throughout the economy. For every £1 million of HEI, output a further £1.56 million of output is generated in other sectors of the economy. In terms of its wider economic impact, the sector generated nearly £35 billion of output and created nearly 563,000 jobs throughout the economy.

Table 1: Universities’ Economic Impact





on Community

Impact per capita


Boston Metropolitan Area

(United States)

4.03 million

8 Universities

Over $7 billion (US)

$1735 (US)

85 750

United Kingdom

59.6 million

170 Higher Education Institution


Over $42 billion




563 000

Atlantic Canada

2.3 million

17 Universities and Colleges

Over $2.5 billion


$1085 (US)

17 500 *

* University only.

Source: Compiled by Denis Lebrun and Sarita Rebelo

In northern Europe, the impact of universities seems to be more local than regional:

One common characteristic for all the regions is that the impact of the universities is local rather than regional. Growth of the university and the regional impact of the universities have contributed to population growth in the university towns and adjacent municipalities that are included in the daily urban region. All the universities have contributed to an increased local supply of academic labour. The share of labour with a university degree is significantly larger in towns with a university than the national average. In towns with a large university this partly reflects the size of the university. Universities, for natural reasons, have a very large share of labour with a university degree. However, it also reflects the supply of such labour, making it easier to recruit such staff and also attracting businesses to the town4.

Universities have obviously had a direct impact on the economy of their region, but this impact goes beyond the revenues generated and the jobs created.

    1. Raising the Knowledge Level of the General Population

The growing importance of knowledge and know-how in today’s socio-economic system is recognized by most leading countries in the world. The OECD, for example, maintains that “investing in human capital is becoming an essential component in ensuring sustained economic growth and reducing social inequalities5.” Canadian universities are responding to this demand for knowledge by offering training to over 1.3 million people per year6; which is divided in the following way:

  • 650,000 full-time undergraduate and graduate students;

  • 275,000 part-time undergraduate and graduate students; and

  • 400,000 learners registered for continuing education programs.

In Atlantic Canada, there are currently 77,000 full-time students, with another 15,650 students registered in continuing education programs7.

Table 2: University Enrolment (Full-time and Part-time), Canada and Atlantic Provinces










601 634

52 692

10 073

2 345

24 712

15 562


647 535

52 387

10 693

2 044

24 536

15 114


751 919

56 596

12 167

2 385

29 253

12 791


785 875

68 296

15 518

2 522

30 380

19 876


851 597

74 681

15 983

3 182

33 882

21 634


923 093

83 262

17 855

3 638

36 952

24 817


826 361

78 604

15 710

2 887

37 241

22 766


886 800

73 030

14 238

3 252

34 712

20 828


1 055 000

82 352

16 019

3 939

39 046

23 348

Source: Statistic Canada (July 30, 2004). The Daily, University enrolment. (Consulted in August 2005). Canadian Education Statistics Council. (2003) Education Indicators in Canada. Report of the Pan-Canadian Education Indicators program. Canadian Education Statistics Council. (1996) A Statistical Portrait of Education at the University Level in Canada. Compiled by Denis Lebrun and Sarita Rebelo.
According to the historical data on total enrolment in Atlantic Canadian universities in Table 2 above, the number of people attending university increased greatly in the region between 1977 and 2004. Although university enrolment seems to have dropped in the 1992-2001 period, this was largely due to the decline in the number of part-time registrants. Meanwhile, Table 3 shows that a greater proportion of the Atlantic Canada population had a certificate or diploma from a post-secondary institution in 2001 than in 1991.

Table 3: Percentage of the Canadian and Atlantic Canadian population 25 to 64 years of age with a college, university or professional certificate or degree, according to the 1991 and 2001 census


Canada (%)

Atl. Prov.
























Source: Canadian Education Statistics Council. (2003) Education Indicators in Canada. Report of the Pan-Canadian Education Indicators program 2003. Statistics Canada (p. 381)

In a recent study, P.-M. Desjardins pointed out that considerable progress had been made in the region between 1986 and 2001 in terms of improving the population’s level of education. Nonetheless, as Figure 1 shows, the gap between this region and the rest of Canada increased8.

Figure 1

Source: Desjardins, P.-M. (2005) A Socio-Economic Profile of Atlantic Canada: Characteristics of Rural and Urban Regions, with Implications for Public Policy, CIRRD, p. 87.

Meanwhile, Figure 2 shows that the four Atlantic Provinces are below the national average with regard to college and university education.

Figure 2:

Source: Desjardins, P.-M. (2005) A Socio-Economic Profile of Atlantic Canada: Characteristics of Rural and Urban Regions, with Implications for Public Policy, CIRRD, p. 81. Compiled by Denis Lebrun and Sarita Rebelo

An economy based on knowledge is not only characterized by the need to constantly acquire information, but also by the acquisition of skills essential to make use of this information.
As Atlantic Canada moves from an economy based on natural resources to an economy based on knowledge, there is an evolution from employment in unskilled trades to skilled trades.
From 1990 to 2000, over 140 000 jobs were created for people with a university degree or postsecondary diploma, an increase of over 34%. Meanwhile, the number of jobs for people with only partial postsecondary training or less fell by over 30%, a net decrease of about 84,000 jobs9.
The skills required in the job market are evolving just as quickly. Experience and acquired knowledge are no longer sufficient: 

New technologies are progressing and circulating so fast that it is necessary for workers to constantly update their skills. The reason for this is that career jobs with a single employer are becoming a rare commodity, and job characteristics are changing and diversifying with the market’s evolution. Workers in the knowledge economy have to be more flexible than ever before, and they need skills that are easily transferable10.

Knowledge economy skills can be divided into two categories: essential skills and technical skills11. Essential skills refer to the ability to read, write, calculate, and operate basic computer applications. This also includes the ability to think, to analyse and solve problems, to learn independently, to exercise responsibility, to adapt to a range of situations, to communicate effectively, to cooperate with others and to work in teams. Table 4 lists the essential skills in a knowledge economy. As for technical skills, they refer to the ability to carry out specialized tasks specific to a profession or industry, or a series of industries. For example, the aeronautical industry could not function without the skills of specialized engineers.

Table 4: Essential Skills in the Knowledge Economy

Basic skills

Communicate effectively

Thinking skills


Information literacy

Habits of learning

Read, write, calculate and operate basic computer applications

Use verbal, written, and presentation skills for the purposes of:

- negotiation

- persuasion
- facilitation
- coaching
- mentoring

-think; analyze and solve problems

- assess situations, evaluate and implement suggestions

-cooperate with others; and work in teams.

-locate, gather, analyze and organize information

- adapt to a range of situations
- take risks, and formulate and champion a vision
- learn independently
- exercise responsibility
- innovate (generate and use knowledge)

Source: Industry Canada. Skills and Opportunities in the Knowledge Economy.
As part of the federal government’s 2002 Innovation Strategy, university members of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) made a commitment to provide high quality programs that develop the range of advanced skills valued by employers – not only the technical ones, but also basic skills and abilities. To this end, postsecondary institutions will continue to work with public and private sector employers and other actors such as industry sector councils to identify labour market needs12.
2.3 Research and Technology Transfer
In the Throne Speech of October 5, 2004, the federal government made a commitment to increase Canada’s capacity to create and apply new ideas:

The Government of Canada has made substantial investments—more than $13 billion since 1997—that have built a strong foundation in basic science and technology, including the Canada Foundation for Innovation, health research and other initiatives to create leading-edge capabilities. It will continue to build on this strength 13.

University research is a powerful stimulus for economic development, leading to measurable increases in both GDP and employment.
A study commissioned by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada14 indicates that the static economic impact of university research sustains $5 billion of GDP and results in more than 81,000 jobs. That translates into almost one percent of Canada’s GDP in 1994-95 and more than 0.5 percent of all jobs – a significant impact for such a small sector of the national economy.
However, a large portion of the impact of university research is not readily apparent. The dynamic impact of university research amounts to approximately $15.5 billion each year, corresponding to approximately 150 000 to 200 000 jobs. “Dynamic” impact means the impact on productivity: “…universities not only produce knowledge by undertaking research, they also equip individuals with the skills necessary to put knowledge to work. […] These graduates help firms become more efficient and productive, and help them to introduce new products and processes. In these ways, university research increases the productivity of firms’ labour and capital […]15.”
Figure 3 shows that in 2001, Canada’s research and development (R&D) efforts were below the OECD average. According to a report from the C.D. Howe Institute, “In 2001, Canada was below the OECD average on both R&D spending measures, though not by a wide margin. Canada had gross domestic expenditures on research and development (GERD) of 2.03 percent of GDP versus the OECD average of 2.28. Relative to other highly developed countries, however, Canada’s GERD ratio is, and has been for some time, at the low end of the rankings — especially in relation to the U.S., at 2.74 in 2001 — as well as such countries as Sweden, Finland, Japan and Germany16.”
Figure 3: BERD vs GERD, 2001

BERD = Business expenditure on research and development

GERD = Gross domestic expenditures on research and development.

Source: Harris, R. Canada’s R&D Deficit — And How To Fix It: Removing the Roadblocks. C.D. Howe Institute, Commentary, No. 211, May 2005, p.2.

In Canada, research expenditures at Canadian universities exceed the research expenditures of the top 15 private sector and crown corporations combined.17.
In addition, university research also contributes to the economic well-being of all Canadians. Whether in the field of health, learning, justice, social cohesion, or a range of other fields, university research improves the quality of our lives18.
2.3.1 Research in Atlantic Canada

Research by universities in Atlantic Canada also contributes to the region’s economic development. Given the limited number of large corporations able to invest large amounts in R&D and the inability of most Small and Medium-Sized Entreprises (SMEs) to start up such programs, university research accounts for most of the activity in the R&D sector (See Figure 4). Universities generate 42% of R&D in Atlantic Canada compared to 22.2% in the country as a whole19.

Figure 4

The R&D capacity of universities in Atlantic Canada now attracts some $200 million annually into the region. However, most of the R&D effort in the country is concentrated in Ontario and Quebec. Figure 5 on the next page shows that this sector accounted for 2.5 and 2.8% respectively of these provinces’ GDP in 2001.

Figure 5

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