As a product of Britain’s elite private school system, Sophie Boehler was groomed to pursue the prestige of an Oxford or Cambridge education.
When she was unsuccessful at getting in, instead of choosing another U.K. school, the 20-year-old from London looked farther abroad to Montreal’s McGill University.
In hindsight, she said, it was the best place she could have wound up.
“I wanted to use university as a springboard to trying out different things, and that was just something I didn’t see as an option in the U.K.,” Boehler said, noting it might not have been possible to get the course combinations she was looking for.
“The more I looked at it, the more I wanted an adventure and a completely new system, and Canada seemed so cool.”
Boehler is part of a growing trend of U.K. students choosing to study at Canadian universities, driven by lower fees, a variety of courses and degree combinations, and more flexibility. At the same time, admissions to the U.K.’s elite universities have become more competitive as they open their doors to more students from public schools.
The U.K has always been a popular destination for Canadian students, but now, the tide is starting to flow both ways. Figures from both Universities Canada and the Canadian government show that after just creeping upward for a few years, in 2019, the number of new students from the U.K. at Canadian universities rose by nearly 10 per cent, to almost 2,500.
The number may appear modest alongside the tens of thousands of students accepted from India and China, but the rise in enrolment from the U.K. nonetheless represents a breakthrough for the Canadian system.
Perception has changed
Just over a decade ago, Canada was barely on the radar for British students contemplating a path to academic success. But those who help facilitate study abroad on both sides of the Atlantic say the interest in Canadian universities of late has been extraordinary.
“There has been serious growth,” said Anthony Nemecek, an education advisor based in London who is hired by students and U.K. secondary schools to provide them with information on university opportunities abroad.
He said there’s been a significant change in the way British students and teachers think about a foreign degree. The British consider their own schools — which are often ranked among the most prestigious in the world — to be top tier, and the idea of going abroad for an education wasn’t seen as especially beneficial. In addition, many U.K. undergraduate programs are three years, compared to four in Canada.
“When I would contact some schools and say, ‘I’m available to give a talk about U.S. and Canadian higher education,’ they would slam the phone down,” said Nemecek.
Nemecek said these days, American universities — especially prestigious Ivy League schools — are still the top choice for U.K. students looking to study abroad but that Canadian institutions are now competitive. Students are attracted by lower international schools fees, a broad variety of courses and unique degree combinations, he said.
Canada is also becoming known for its natural resource programs, such as mining and geology, Nemecek said.
Increased competition in U.K.
Increased competition for admission into Oxford and Cambridge may also be playing a role in boosting Canada’s attractiveness.
Historically, both elite universities have focused heavily on recruiting from British private schools, but in recent years, they have started drawing more students from publicly funded schools as well, making it even more difficult to earn a spot.
In 2016, 42 per cent of Oxford entrants came from Britain’s private schools, according to the university. In 2020, that number dropped to 30 per cent.
It was a painful rejection from one of Britain’s elite universities that made Boehler realize a more tailored degree program in Canada was ultimately the best choice for her. She got first-class marks from one of London’s top private high schools, Westminster School. Still, she couldn’t crack Cambridge.
But she’s grateful for that now that she’s in Montreal in her second year of studying English and history with a minor in Arabic. She said that type of hybrid program is rare in the U.K.
“The more I went into the application process in the U.K., the more it didn’t feel like the right fit for me,” she said.
More flexibility, less hassle
Nemecek said more Brits are discovering that Canadian universities can offer greater flexibility than many U.K. schools.
There’s also a more streamlined application process compared to the U.S., said Ramiz Guliyev, 18, who is studying French and economics in his first year at the University of Toronto.
Guliyev, from the U.K., wanted an Ivy League degree and was accepted at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.. But the pandemic meant he’d have to wait another year to sit the SAT, the standardized scholastic assessment test required of all students who apply to U.S. schools.
He didn’t want to waste a year, so he chose the University of Toronto instead.
Boehler’s friend, Harry North, 20, said flexibility is why he decided to take a chance on Canada, too.
North, who is from Cobham, just outside London, took a “gap year” in 2019 after getting rejected from Oxford and spent it, in part, skiing in British Columbia. There, he discovered there was a way to study both economics and computer science, without having to choose between the two.
After the gap year, he applied and got into the University of Warwick, a top-ranked U.K. school, but decided to return to Canada to attend McGill instead.
“The irony is now, since coming to Canada and McGill and doing both [subjects] I wanted to do, I’m much happier than if I got into Oxford and didn’t take a gap year,” he said.
A spokesperson with Universities Canada, which represents post-secondary institutions, said Canada is trying to build its brand in more markets. The High Commission of Canada in the U.K. even has a senior trade official dedicated to education.
Marc LeBlanc, senior government and international relations officer with Universities Canada, said the U.K. is one of the top foreign markets for Canadian students looking to study abroad but Canada wants to even out the flow of students between the two nations.
“As the number of Canadian students in the U.K. increases, we’re seeing an increase in the number of U.K. students coming to Canada as well,” he said.
And though American Ivy League universities are after the same crop of kids, he said, Canada has the advantage of lower fees. Tuition fees for an undergraduate arts degree in Canada for a foreign student can vary from $29,000 per year at McGill to nearly $42,000 at University of British Columbia. But in the U.S., tuition can cost $60,000 Cdn or more at the top schools.
Meanwhile, fees in the U.K. for domestic students have steadily increased over the last decade, with undergraduate tuition now costing approximately 9,000 GBP, or $17,000 Cdn. It used to be almost free 20 years ago.
Nemecek said he expects the trend of growing U.K. applications will continue.
“It’s the cost of living, perception of safety, access to health care … and Canadian admissions people are just so helpful,” he laughed.
“The doors are open.”