It’s no secret that Canada’s labour market is facing significant challenges, but heading into another school year, there’s hope that a series of regulatory changes enacted by the Federal Government could help get more international students into the workforce.

That’s why we’re highlighting an episode from the past season of Disruptors, an RBC Podcast, featuring a conversation between host John Stackhouse and tech entrepreneur Martin Basiri. Basiri is the co-founder and CEO of Kitchener, Ontario’s ApplyBoard, an AI-enabled software platform that lets students from around the world quickly identify and apply for post-secondary programs in North America, the U.K. and Australia.

Basiri came to Canada as a student himself and has valuable insights to share about the challenges and opportunities facing our country and those who want to study here. You’ll also hear about the Business Higher Education Roundtable, a group of leaders in both business and education who are trying to create better connections between employers and educators right across the country.


To learn more about The Business + Higher Education Roundtable (BHER) — the non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that hosted this discussion — follow this link.

ApplyBoard uses an AI recruitment platform to connect international students with post-secondary institutions. To learn more, follow this link. And to read about Martin Basiri’s fundraising success (totaling approx. $600 million), check out these two articles.

Speaker 1 [00:00:01] Hi. It’s John here. If you had to do a word cloud for 2022, I suspect talent and labor would somehow pop large. Everyone knows there are labor shortages out there, and every organization across Canada seems to be hunting for talent. And there are few avenues as promising for that as Canada’s international education system. I recently had the chance to sit down with Martin Basiri to talk about these things and more as part of the Business Higher Education Roundtable. That’s a group of business and post-secondary education leaders who are trying to build greater connections between employers and educators right across the country. Martin is co-founder and CEO of Kitchener, Ontario’s ApplyBoard. If you haven’t heard of a play board, it’s a great Canadian success story. It has an AI enabled software platform that lets students from around the world quickly identify and apply for university or college programs across North America, the UK and Australia. In seven years, Martin, who moved to Canada as a student from Iran, has grown apply board to more than 1500 employees and attracted more than $600 million in venture capital. In this special live edition of Disruptors. We tackle how Canada compares to other countries in building a pathway to citizenship for immigrants and especially those who come here as students, and how companies can do a better job of attracting and retaining this global talent. Martin is part of that story, so please have a listen. Martin, it’s great to be with you, as always. You helped us at RBC produce a report that was published a few weeks ago called Course Correction, that looked at the state of international students in Canada, not only from the perspective of the education system, but from the economy. I don’t think it’s widely known that about 20% of permanent residents now come through our school system, and that’s about double what it was a decade ago. This is 170,000 new Canadians a year are coming out of our post-secondary system. That’s extraordinary. It indexes even higher for STEM courses. So when we hear there’s demand for all sorts of STEM skills, it immediately points to the need for international students. You’re part of that story. Maybe you can just quickly kick us off with a sense of how you came to Canada as an international student.

Speaker 2 [00:02:24] Yeah. Thank you very much for having me here, everyone. This is my pleasure. I came to this beautiful country about 12 years ago. I grew up in a I don’t call it poor, but lower middle class family in Iran, where my parents were educator. And I wanted to just code and build software and hardware, and it wasn’t that much opportunity there. And I was building as much and University of Waterloo, like Vivek is here today. It gave me my life. It gave me a scholarship to come to Canada. And I only paid for my ticket. And, you know, I sold my car and I had $6,000 in my pocket. I came to this beautiful country and my aunt came to pick me up. And when we came out of Pearson and we were going north to Richmond Hill, I fell in love with Canada. I love everything and I have two younger brothers that I help by raising them was, Oh, I have to bring them here too. So right there I started like looking for ways how I bring them. Now, the problem is I don’t have money. They don’t have a scholarship. They didn’t think I had a lot of inventions or stuff in my high school and my bachelor, but they were in high school and so I found this way of bringing them to Canada. It was very creative, very cheap, and I convinced my parents to sell all of the retirement homes, whatever they saved in the life, with the hope that, oh yeah, don’t worry, they’re going to find jobs here and I’ll, I’ll support them anyway. When they came to Canada, it took about a year and now everyone wanted to know, how did we do that? And they became customers. And coming from not having money, it was the best thing. We were like, okay, sure, I’ll charge you and I help you as well to pay for their tuition fee. And so I’ve done it a little bit. Then I graduated, went to us just for paperwork because I wanted to start a company. But as international students, when you graduate, you can’t start a company that you’re you have to work for someone else. And I was like, if I have to work for someone else instead of I stay in Canada, let’s go to us. It’s a, you know, so I went there. Then naturally I went back to entrepreneurship. Now I’m in U.S. is stuck. I can’t come to Canada. My brothers in Canada, no, they graduated from college. They can’t come to us. So we’re like, okay, what do we do? Events back to helping other students get started, apply work. And this time we were like, whatever we were doing, manually coded, recoded, and we put all of the admission information of universities and colleges in one algorithm, and it does something like a, like a book income. So it just comes out. For example, I’m from Nigeria, this is my credential and it is how much money I have. I want to study business, maybe Saskatchewan, maybe for example, Windsor. It shows exactly what the university or college, what program they offer. But the deadline was a payment, everything. And they can apply to all of them with one application right now is also does it for US universities, Australian universities and UK universities. And it started working. Then the University of Waterloo again came to our rescue, helped us out. We gave us free office at Velocity. We’re very thankful for that and we stayed there 2015 for about a year. Then we became 20 people. They kick us off. So go graduates, go find your own office and then then apply. We’re like, we went and we it took four years to get to the point that we can raise institutional money. It was so hard. And then after that, life got a little easier for our money point of view, but harder from a responsibility point of view. So right now we help, I think, 425,000 students. So far, of course, not all of them are getting Visa for Canada, US, UK and Australia. We vote for about 90% of universities and colleges. So I think almost everyone except one university here we work with and is a very hard problem. Very challenging. Which is good because it’s always like some problem to solve.

Speaker 1 [00:06:41] Is amazing story and congratulations on on your success although I think you’re just getting going. Remarkable. You’ve built in seven years. We wanted to have this conversation not only just to hear your story, but you’ve got a great window on what’s going on in the world and where international students are coming from, where they’re going, and what some of the challenges are in between as we come into a new school year in the fall. Now, what are you seeing out there in the world?

Speaker 2 [00:07:09] So let’s look at Canada as a as a company. So we are only as good as our people. Our fertility rate is 1.47 means we are not replacing our population. We are in huge deficit for about 50 years and it’s just getting worse is not coming back up. So if you rely on immigration, normally we bring people in their thirties as a skilled immigrant, a better ways to bring people for international students when they come. And they they’re normally in their twenties. They adopted a country of ours. And by the way, they’re more likely to have children because they come at that earlier stage, which is good, because we want as a country to be sustainable. We don’t want to always rely on one generation immigrants. We want bring them earlier to be sustainable. So it’s an amazing fact. And also international students and work people who we bring with work, they’re double more productive to economy than a normal immigrant. So perfect. International student is what we have to like work. But what we need to do, we need to make our government, our job market and our universities all align. So we have to see what do we need in terms of different areas in labor market in, for example, 2030 and after then work backward universities teach those ones and government incentivized do the right incentivize. So what we see government done, beautiful government of Canada done beautiful. They came with this idea of what if we give every single international students postgraduate work permit three years. You started two year of college or two year of university. They give it to you, boom. And that’s why Canada became almost the first thing it was at the same time that in UK conservatives came. So Theresa may thank the UK numbers Australia. It was Indian government to start having tension with Australian governments. So the students start coming and then of a boom. It started from when Donald Trump got elected because everyone now we are the only country that everyone come. And Canada, we went to that beautiful growth. And then what happened is gentlemen from UK, which by the way is working with apply for right now George Johnson is a younger brother of Boris Johnson said oh let’s copy Canada so they have now for year for graduate or fair mate and UK start booming but what a what a very big difference. And then so UK it started going up from 2019. They achieved their 11 year target of 600,000 international students from 237,000 in less than three years during pandemic years. So to give you like she was talking about the time of visa right now an average visa has taken four months in Canada. The diversity of markets, six months. Think about if you want to show up in fall semester, you need to have your visa already for 1st of March university. Sometimes don’t even open their acceptance till then. How can you already applied? So what does it mean? Means uncertainty of visa, uncertainty of time. So what is happening right now? UK and Australia is cooking all of the best talents. So the top talents are not coming to Canada. So we should expect to see more suffering happening in U15.

Speaker 1 [00:10:37] So we’re still getting the numbers in aggregate, but the quality is is changing.

Speaker 2 [00:10:41] Quality changing and you will see more of a more shift. So right now, colleges are about 50% body of the all international students, universities are only 25%. You will see more of that going to the colleges. So more and more, we see universities come down, colleges go up, and the total, the quality also go down. Even though Canada is the cheapest among just four countries, we are the cheapest. We have the safest. But it is funny because we have this metric in Norway, all the universities, the colleges want diversity. And in India we have this pin drop area that they’re historically very tied with Canada and they always want to come together. And it’s unbelievable. Even from Punjab area, the top of the funnel is weakening. Even Panjab students who are, of course, in friends, family, everyone here in Canada, they don’t want to come here anymore. Why not? Because first four months wait for a visa, which means you already have loan or where your money is taught for months and months. Second, even the minister himself or the most expert Irctc members sit down here and you give them the best students they can say if these are students, get visa or not complete is objective. There is no rule. We sent to exact same students. Sisters. One girl. Grade 11, one grade 12. Going to the exact same high school, same. That same high school from Iran. One of them in four days got the visa. One of them is seven months, got rejection.

Speaker 1 [00:12:17] Photos and to Canada.

Speaker 2 [00:12:18] Yeah. So what does it mean? Is like one of them went to one office or the other one went to another officer. So when is unpredictable then? The visa rates are either 48% or if you are a top talent visa rate of your case, 99%. Visa rate of Canada is 48%. Why would you put your life and everything one year, one and half year of your life to maybe you come over there? And this is a stat that shocked everybody. 80% of the visas in UK are done under five days. 80%. We are average four months right now and the other 20%, you may say, okay, so the other 20%, how long does it take is an average 16 days. So they’re the this to this is 16 days.

Speaker 1 [00:13:08] Or is this four months?

Speaker 2 [00:13:09] So Australia now came they gave the visa fee their first. Even Western Australia government is incentivize recruiters in other countries they pay them commission to send them as students and they have the cheapest. UK is about 50% on average more expensive. Australia is about 70% more expensive. So people are going to more expensive destinations. And unfortunately what was our mode which took us. It got copied and they just made it better. You committed for years. Now Australia can with six years postgraduate work permit and said oh if you study a stem that I need or health care I give you six years. So now you are a student. You are comfortable as you can go anywhere in the world, no longer bored. You can go to UAE, you can go to a Singapore visa. The UAE right now is under 30 days there, like zero income tax. Come here. Why should you come to Canada, if you may, after a year and a half, you may at 48% get a visa.

Speaker 1 [00:14:18] One of the challenges we may not appreciate in this country is that the past decade of international student flows is not going to be what the next decade looks like. We in Canada relied heavily on Chinese students and that worked very well. There was a system and culture that worked exceedingly well for a lot of Canadian schools, as well as the students gone, as you say now we’re heavily reliant on India as a primary source of students. That’s starting to face challenges. Do you want to share some insights into what you’re seeing from the Indian market?

Speaker 2 [00:14:48] Yeah. And 23rd of September, the foreign minister, the foreign affairs minister of India issued an official notice that Canada is now no longer safe and they see hate and crime is exactly what happened 11 years ago. 50% of our total international students coming from India, we are too reliant on one country. And on top of that, 66% of colleges and universities and if you look at trends, is not like diversity to get better, diversity get worse. Two out of three students that go into our colleges can vanish and it it vanished in Australia. So here’s a difference between international students and something like banks or a SAS product. SAS product, you get someone, you have them for years to keep using your software. International students, you can be the top today every year you need to find newest do this next year all can go so our entire sector not only we didn’t build diversity right now UK if you relax there are international students and three years of pandemic when we went down and we still don’t know if we should give them online or offline, they went from 37,000 217,000 international students from India. As you guys know, China since 2017. Then Canada and China, they have tension is just on decline. You 15 going to hurt to the most because they’re especially non undergrad they rely on the Chinese students they priced it up so much that only Chinese and Korean, Japanese, all three of them vanished. The only other students that they were going was Saudi Arabia. That what happens with Saudi Arabia, that sector 90% vanished. 90% of US students vanished overnight.

Speaker 1 [00:16:40] Many of these challenges are solvable. Let’s start with the the visa challenge, because in some ways this is what apply board solved for a similar challenge. It’s technology and and matching systems. What can we do quickly to reduce the visa stress?

Speaker 2 [00:16:57] Put the responsibility on universities, colleges and the sector same way that works in UK and say that work in Australia. So what they do they say. University so right now so let’s say I’m a university I can give anyone a letter of acceptance. I don’t bear any responsibility. If they get my acceptance, they come and they don’t show up. In fact, majority of universities don’t even report to government if their student showed up or not. I don’t bear any responsibility for their students. Have money or not. Nothing because the government don’t ask them. Of course, no one take responsibility for something that they are not asked for. But let’s look at the UK and Australia. Universities are responsible to check so many things like financial interview with students, integrity of students, everything and government become like a randomly check a student and they say University, be careful, you should not have more than 10% rejection. You need to tell me every single semester if the students attending your school or not. Can you believe we have 330,000 students we bring to the country? No. University? No. How many students got their visa? How many students got visa with their acceptance? Nor the government know how many of this the students are actually studying. So the solution is what Minister Champagne said on the when we met said Don’t come to government with your problem, come, come to government. The solution is us. You and universities go to government said this is the solution. Please use it and let us take some of that burden from you because government right now they’re saying the reason that you have delay is there are so much of checks they have to do their fraud and we don’t have enough labor in place to do that. So that’s phase one just to solve to the problem.

Speaker 1 [00:18:44] So let’s let the schools take responsibility for the students.

Speaker 2 [00:18:47] Not only as schools, as schools, banks and private companies and all the middlemen, whoever is doing the test companies, the test of language like a tougher party. And it’s those companies that they administer this test. They have to take responsibility. Everyone makes them responsible. And it very simple, like, for example and by the way, we have all the technology for it in Canada. It’s funny like apply, but we are a Canadian company and we are like a product of this. We have the technology universities have the manpower universities already checking the transcript of the students why someone else should exactly do the same job, you know.

Speaker 1 [00:19:25] So it sounds simple. Why? Why isn’t it happening?

Speaker 2 [00:19:29] Maybe one is like, first, that shift of mindset of come to government, the solution of the problem. I think we as a sector, we are always like raising the problems we never got together of say, hey, let’s ten of us solve something and go. And it has worked before like we have done is here see I can they provided pilots that now is permanent. Right. So we know it’s possible. I think one of them is on us that we have to get united together and go. The other thing is on government, I think our government is our government is and they do have to like be more accessible to the sector to listen to them and provide things like during the pandemic, we see how much their delays cost. Our data shows that on average, around 30% of us students who are supposed to start fall semester, they didn’t get their visa. And I’m pretty sure all of you guys are have that problem 30%. And the funny is majority of universities and colleges try to say mandated I only going to do in-class not going to do it online and by September 1st 30% of us do the law show of what should we do okay online again and they have problem with the academy teachers and everything else.

Speaker 1 [00:20:49] We’ve got just a couple of minutes left to if we can resolve these challenges and pain points. What are the bigger issues that Canada needs to think about in the decade ahead in terms of maintaining our leading position when it comes to international students?

Speaker 2 [00:21:03] Yes, we need to align what business at the end of this story. As in Canada, we want top talent and as universities we want our alumni to be fine. Very successful drives right now. Great that we bring a lot of STEM students, but that’s not enough. Like we bring 52% of our students are studying business. They’re only 20% of the jobs are business. That sounds right. We need to create way more software developers and way less project management. I can’t call head of nursing of Ontario, but you guys can’t. We need to push them so you can have. Nursing student hundred 10,000 health care need right now in Canada 12% of job can you if we don’t have nurses, we’re going to die. If you go to a hospital, I go to a hospital. We’re going to solve this. And not only that. Also, we need to like push on blue collar workers. Now, you remember they’re talking about we don’t have truck drivers. We don’t have people like do piping hatchback has a huge shortage in things and colleges are perfectly established to to create trades. But trades, we are very behind. And I think Canada can be the leader on that. That’s second. Third. We should do what worked. We should be takes like for example if you go right now computer science you 15. We should give them six years postgraduate work permit. Why should we give them same advantage if they got a two year college of study, for example, business or their studies four or five years for computer science that we know the society need or nursing so we can incentivize them for Canada need. The good news is the three database that we’ve done that the study we know exactly with a very good accuracy what Canada needs in 2030 every year. So we know what is the need of Manitoba in 2030. These are the jobs so we can work backward. The schools in Manitoba teach this and then alumni become more successful.

Speaker 1 [00:23:14] All of these challenges come down to information flows between students, educators, governments, employers. What’s just as we wrap up. What are the one or a couple of things that Canada can do to elevate our game in terms of sharing information and using technologies like you’re developing?

Speaker 2 [00:23:33] I think our brand is everything we’ve seen on us. How brand is matter. So does it matter? You are the you could be the biggest economy in the world. If you feel if people feel unsafe or unwelcome, they don’t come. And we took advantage of during these years, all these talented people came to Canada. It was because us was unsafe or unwelcomed. The biggest asset of Canada is our brand for safety. So right now, when India last week said, oh, Canada is not safe for Indian students, very valid response. There was a couple of videos. They’re sending visuals right away. React to the students. The market can shift overnight. We should react. Is that. No, they’re welcome. And in fact, we want them here. They’re going to be CEOs of companies. They’re going to be the head of ITC of the companies. They’re going to be the nurses. They’re going to be successful people. We need to as a sector and this is not on government. I think it’s on us. Every of us have to take responsibility. And one other thing, if I add at the end of the story. What applied to exist for and what the universities and colleges exist for. We are all here to serve as students, to educate the board, and I think we have to understand international students is extremely lucrative business. But at the end of the story, it’s a business for educating the world. So if you have a greater responsibility to making sure every single of those students are successful in their lives.

Speaker 1 [00:24:57] It’s a competitive in an increasingly competitive world, especially in in education. And Canada needs to be more ambitious. That’s one of the messages you’re saying and you. Martin, reflect that ambition. You’re a great Canadian story. But when Martin saw the ads, just to give you a sense of his ambition, when he saw the RBC boardroom, he said, I’m going to have a board table bigger than that, apply board.

Speaker 2 [00:25:21] So you.

Speaker 1 [00:25:24] May have a buyer.

Speaker 2 [00:25:25] Hundred thousand to get through the fair.

Speaker 1 [00:25:28] But that kind of ambition is great to see so alive and well in the country. Martin, thanks for being part of the conversation.

Speaker 2 [00:25:36] Thank you for having me. Thank you. Thank you so much.

Speaker 1 [00:25:43] That was Martin Basiri, co-founder and CEO of ApplyBoard. Thanks to Martin for sharing his inspiring story with our listeners. Stay tuned for our upcoming special three part series called The Growing Challenge. In it, we explore how Canada can lead the world in food production using cutting edge technologies, data systems and smart thinking to help feed a growing and divided world and do so sustainably. You won’t want to miss it. Until then, I’m John Stackhouse, and this is Disruptors, an RBC podcast. Talk to you soon.

Speaker 3 [00:26:17] Disruptors, an RBC podcast is created by the RBC Thought Leadership Group and does not constitute a recommendation for any organization, product or service. It’s produced and recorded by JAR Audio. For more disruptors content, like or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and visit rbc dot com, slash disruptors.

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