Information Technology and Computing Programs on the Rise

International students have become increasingly interested in business programs, especially in Canada. Many institutions also saw growing international student demand for health studies and medical programs, even before the pandemic. But another popular field of study accounted for as much as 20% of the international student population in major destination markets in 2020: information technology (IT) and computer science programs.

We saw a major spike in student  searches for computer science programs in 2020. This is a strong indicator of future sector growth, especially since deciding on a field of study is the most important step for prospective international students.

We will be comparing the growth and popularity of IT and computer science programs among international students in Canada, the US, the UK, and Australia. I’ll take a look at how enrollment numbers in these programs changed through 2019 and 2020, and I’ll also discuss key student source markets for each destination market.

Key Insights at a Glance

  • The number of new study permits issued for computing and IT programs at Canadian institutions grew by more than 50% from 2016 to 2019.
  • IT was the most popular STEM field of study for international students enrolled at Australian tertiary institutions in 2020.
  • 150,000+ international students were enrolled or working in computer and information science fields in the US in both 2018/19 and 2019/20.
  • New international student enrollments for computing programs at UK institutions rose by nearly 50% from 2015/16 to 2019/20.

One important note: the available data varies between each destination market. For Canada and Australia, the data I’ll be analyzing is for new international student enrollments based on the calendar year. For the UK and the US, I’ll be analyzing the total number of international students enrolled in IT and computer studies programs based on academic year.

Let’s start with the Canadian market.

Canada

IT and computing passed applied and general science as the second most popular field of study in Canada for new international students in 2019. In the process, IT and computing became the top STEM field in Canada, a position that it maintained in 2020. In 2020, computing and IT programs accounted for nearly 15% of all new study permits issued.

In 2020, 3 of the top 10 Canadian university programs for Oblivions services students were in IT and computing.

The chart below shows the number of new study permits issued to international students for computing and IT programs at Canadian institutions from 2016 to 2020:
New Canadian Study Permits Issued for IT & Computing Programs, 2016–2020In 2016, just over 14,000 students received study permits for IT and computing programs. By 2019, that number had risen by more than 50%, reaching nearly 29,000. The pandemic caused a significant decline in new study permits for Canadian institutions in 2020. From 2019 to 2020, new study permits across all fields of study declined by 73.5%. Computing and IT programs fared slightly better than the all-field average year-over-year, with new study permits declining by 71.1%.

The distribution of study permits for computing and IT between the college and university sectors has remained stable since 2016. From 2016 to 2020, university programs accounted for around 30% of new computing and IT study permits. This was slightly below the average for university programs among all fields of study, which ranged from 35 to 40% prior to 2020.

The following table shows the top student source markets for IT and computing programs at Canadian post-secondary institutions in 2019 and 2020:

Top International Source Markets for Canadian IT & Computing Programs,
2019–2020
2019 RankSource Market2020 RankSource Market
1India1 (-)India
2China2 (↑)France
3France3 (↑)Morocco
4Bangladesh4 (↑)Algeria
5Iran5 (-)Iran

In 2019 and 2020, Indian students accounted for 67.4% of all new study permits issued for IT and computing studies. The other top five markets combined accounted for only around 11.0% of all such study permits in 2019 and 2020. In 2020, Morocco and Algeria vaulted into the top five, largely due to the decline of the Chinese market. This collapse, coupled with the ongoing COVID-19 crisis in India, likely indicate that sector recovery won’t gain significant momentum until 2022.

 Programs, 2019–2020
2019 RankSource Market2020 RankSource Market
1India1 (-)India
2Nepal2 (↑)China
3China3 (↓)Nepal
4Pakistan4 (-)Pakistan
5Sri Lanka5 (-)Sri Lanka

United States

International students have shown a strong preference for STEM studies at US institutions in the past few years. In 2019/20, over 50% of international students were enrolled or working in STEM fields. Engineering was the most popular STEM field for international students in 2018/19 and 2019/20. But 14.7% of international students were enrolled or working in computer and information science programs in 2019/20, up from 14.3% in 2018/19.

The chart that follows shows the total number of international students enrolled at US institutions for the top five fields of study in 2018/19 and 2019/20:
International Students at US Post-Secondary Institutions, Top 5 Fields of Study, 2018/19–2019/20There were over 150,000 international students enrolled or working in computer and information science fields in both 2018/19 and 2019/20. 38.2% of these students were completing graduate-level studies, while another 35.7% were enrolled in OPT programs. A smaller cohort, 25.5%, were enrolled in undergraduate programs. Overall US international student enrollment declined 1.8% from 2018/19 to 2019/20, with new enrollment falling 72%. Despite these factors, computer and information sciences enrollment increased by 0.6% over that period.

According to THE’s 2020 World University Rankings, the US is home to six of the top ten best universities for computer science in the world.

The table below shows the top student source markets for mathematics and computer science programs at US institutions in 2018/19 and 2019/20:

Top International Source Markets for US Mathematics and Computer Science Programs, 2018/19–2019/20
2018/19 RankSource Market2019/20 RankSource Market
1India1 (↑)China
2China2 (↓)India
3South Korea3 (-)South Korea
4Nepal4 (↑)Vietnam
5Saudi Arabia5 (↑)Taiwan

Over 70% of international students enrolled in mathematics and computer science came from either India or China in 2018/19 and 2019/20. Even though the 2019/20 academic year included the early stages of the pandemic, the number of math and computer science students from China rose by around 7% year-over-year. By contrast, Indian student numbers fell by about 10%. Student volumes from Nepal and Saudi Arabia dropped by over 13% from 2018/19 to 2019/20, while student populations from Vietnam and Taiwan climbed by more than 7%.

United Kingdom

The UK is a growing international student destination market for computing studies.In the 2019/20 academic year, computing programs accounted for only 6.4% of total international student enrollments and 6.7% of new student enrollments. Despite these low totals, computing was the second-most popular STEM field for international students in 2019/20, behind Engineering.

The following chart shows the total number of international students enrolled at UK institutions for computing programs between 2015/16 and 2019/20:
International Student Enrollments at UK Higher Ed institutions, Computing, 2015/16–2019/20In 2015/16, just under 20,000 international students were enrolled in computing programs. By 2019/20, this number had nearly doubled, exceeding 35,000 students. The majority of new students were enrolled in undergraduate studies, with such programs accounting for 57.0% of new enrollments in 2019/20. The remaining 43.0% of international students were enrolled in postgraduate programs.

The table below shows the top five source markets for new enrollments in UK computing programs:

Top International Source Markets for UK Computing Programs, 2018/19
RankSource Market
1China
2India
3Romania
4Bulgaria
5Nigeria

Like most destination markets, China and India were the top student source markets for IT programs in the UK in 2018/19. However, there was also a strong Balkan student population and a growing Nigerian student market. While it’s likely that both the Indian and Chinese markets shrank somewhat in 2019/20, changes to student fees due to Brexit are predicted to shrink the EU international student market in the coming years. While the EU will remain an important source of new students, UK institutions should look to emerging markets such as Nigeria, India, and Bangladesh to grow their computing student populations post-pandemic.

Future Growth All But Guaranteed

International student interest in IT and computer studies programs is likely to continue to grow post-pandemic. The global shift to remote work has demonstrated a pressing need for IT service providers and employees. However, the demand for IT-trained employees in the workforce has outpaced graduation rates. LinkedIn estimated that over 150 million new technology jobs will be created globally in the next five years.

Computing and IT fields of study should be top of mind for international students looking to secure stable employment after they graduate. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that US employment in computer and IT occupations would grow by 11% from 2019 to 2029, a much faster growth rate than the average for all occupations. Likewise, the Government of Canada rated job prospects for many computing and IT-related positions as very strong in 2019 and beyond. And, in the CIPD Spring 2021 Labour Market Outlook, over two-thirds of UK survey respondents in the IT industry reported that they planned for significant hiring in 2021 and 2022.

To keep up with this booming global demand, institutions looking to recruit more international students for computing and IT programs should consider:

  • Developing new, shorter-term programs focused on specific computing technologies and skill sets for growing industries such as health sciences, business analytics, and finance
  • Increasing enrollment capacity for existing computing and IT programs and leveraging online and virtual curriculums to reach more students
  • Promoting the career stability and opportunities provided by a computing or IT education