A cloud of uncertainty hangs over the future of international student visas in Canada.
As the country grapples with a housing crisis, strong wording from the federal government in recent months suggests it is looking to potentially cap the number of study permits issued to prospective international students to help alleviate the housing demand.
“Enough is enough,” said Marc Miller, Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship in December of last year.
“If provinces and territories cannot do this, we will do it for them, and they will not like the bluntness of the instruments that we use,” he said.
Recent reports suggest the minister is ready to impose such limits in select provinces, such as Ontario and British Columbia.
On Thursday, the minister’s office told Global News he was unavailable for an interview. In an email, a representative did not confirm if a cap for study permits is imminent, saying only that there hasn’t been one established yet, “but it is an option being assessed.”
The spokesperson did not answer questions on whether talks have been made with select provinces.
Despite re-iterating the potential for a cap numerous times, the government has not made it clear how it will go about this, says Dale McCartney.
“How will they determine who gets in the cap? Is it first come, first serve? Is it academic? Is it linguistic? Is it financial?,” the assistant professor, who researches international student policy at the University of Fraser Valley, told Global News Toronto.
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McCartney notes there have always been limited spaces for the number of people allowed to immigrate to Canada to attend post-secondary institutions. This time, however, would be the first time the country has ever laid out a hard number — 485,000 students in 2024.
If select provinces are targeted by the cap, McCartney assumes it will not work, as students will just apply to the remaining provinces that have more spaces.
Overall, the trickle-down effect looks grim, he said.
It will likely mean large, reputable universities will have no problem drawing in the limited number of international students, while smaller colleges and institutions struggle to compete.
To recoup their losses, he said, a hike in tuition for both current international students, and prospective ones, is likely.
This comes after the government already jacked up the minimum financial requirement for applicants coming in through one stream.
New requirements for international students
“International student fees are already way too high,” Kevin, who came from Nigeria to study at Toronto Metropolitan University, told Global News Toronto on Thursday.
“It’s already hard on us. I have some cousins that want to come to Canada, and I don’t think that will be so fair to them.”
Another international student from Indonesia, who did not want to be named, told Global her brother was looking to come to Canada to study medicine next year, but a cap could change that.
“He might consider other options, because he wants a secure future,” she said.
Concerns have already been raised by various players.
In a statement on its website, Canada’s largest network of post-secondary institutions said “solutions need to recognize regional differences and steer clear of a one-size-fits-all approach.”
An article in Queen’s University’s student-run paper says university officials have expressed Queen’s could ‘cease to exist’ due to a number of financial pressures, one of which is limited international student funding.
An immigration lawyer in Toronto says the federal government dug itself in this hole, and should be the one to pony up more cash to help post-secondary institutions.
“This will affect everybody. Because [the government] has created a system whereby the institutions rely on this funding, and now this funding won’t be available in the same amounts that it has been over the last number of years,” said Evan Green, managing partner at Green and Spiegel LLP.
Green notes the hit Canada’s skilled workforce will take, as it is largely made up of international students.
Furthermore, those who have already started their applications to study in Canada for the upcoming fall semester might probably face rejection.
Through a wider lens, Green said, Canada’s reputation as a country that offers clear pathways to permanent residency will be further tainted.
It’s an image the country hasn’t held up very well in recent years, he said.
International students have flocked to the country, “being sold” the idea that they can easily qualify for an open-work permit after they graduate, and work until they can eventually apply for permanent residency.
But Green says some institutions are not qualified to offer those students work permits, and are getting away with it.
It has also become very competitive for international students to qualify for an open-work permit in recent years, meaning their only option to be able to work is if a Canadian employer will sponsor them.
“A lot of employers are not willing to do that. So at the end of the day we’re reaching a situation where they won’t be able to stay,” he said.
McCartney says what makes Canada attractive to international students has not changed, despite a potential cap looming.
But Green argues that prospective international students are often looking at other countries like Australia and New Zealand in their search for higher education, and will not hesitate to go elsewhere, where the path of least resistance is.
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