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Messy, drastic, overdue – the reaction to Canada’s student cap

Canadian universities and colleges have welcomed the government’s attempt to crack down on “bad actors” recruiting unsustainable levels of international students, but say the latest measures – including a cap on students – are too broad and will harm Canada’s global reputation. 

University Campus in Toronto.Photo: Unsplash.

The number of study permits issued to international students will fall to approximately 360,000 in 2024

They also have concerns about the logistics of immediately implementing new rules in the middle of a student recruitment cycle. 

After days of speculation and a leaked memo, early on Monday morning immigration minister Marc Miller officially announced the introduction of a two-year cap on the number of new international students allowed into the country. 

For some, the move is long overdue, given the significant growth in Canada’s international student population in recent years and, in some cases, the lack of housing and support services to accompany this.

But, while the decision to partially stem the flow of students into Canada is overtly aimed at private colleges (previously described by Miller as “the diploma equivalent of puppy mills”), it will have ramifications for all of the country’s higher education institutions, as well as domestic students. 

“Universities are unfairly caught in the crossfire,” said Vinitha Gengatharan, assistant vice president for global engagement and partnerships at York University.

Under the new rules, the number of study permits issued to international students will fall to approximately 360,000 in 2024 – an estimated 35% decrease on 2023 levels.

“This sort of overall cap is drastic and a bit reactionary,” said Graham Barber, assistant director of international relations at Universities Canada. “We think what needs to be done is something a bit more precise.”

“Universities are unfairly caught in the crossfire”

University representatives argue that, unlike some bad actors in the college system, they recruit sustainable levels of international students and provide necessary support and auxiliary services. 

Barber added that the swath of recent announcements about Canada’s international student program (including the introduction of a recognised institution framework and higher proof of funds requirements) add to the narrative “that maybe Canada isn’t as welcoming of a place”. 

In a statement, Colleges and Institutes Canada agreed that the measures could damage Canada’s global reputation, as well as the financial sustainability of institutions – which would ultimately harm both international and domestic students. 

Private colleges, particularly those operating under a curriculum licensing agreement with a public college (public-private partnerships), some of which enrol almost exclusively international students, are expected to be the most affected by the fine print in the new rules. 

In a move to target these institutions, the government has excluded students at PPPs from applying for a post-study work visa to remain in Canada after graduation from the fall semester this year. At the same time, it has given concessions to universities, exempting master’s and PhD students from the cap

Colleges have criticised these decisions, arguing the international students they recruit support Canada’s drive for global talent in the face of labour market shortages and an ageing population. 

“We are concerned to hear the minister state that graduate-level international students are ‘what we are looking for’ when Canada is in desperate need of health care workers, tradespeople to build more houses, early childcare educators, and truck drivers,” said Michael Sangster, CEO of the National Association of Career Colleges, adding that these sectors are where NACC’s regulated career colleges “flourish”. 

There are also wider concerns about the realities of implementing the measures. The cap is effective immediately and, from Monday (the day of the announcement), every study permit application submitted to IRCC will require an “attestation letter” from a province or territory.

“I think there should have been a significant notice given to institutions to do some planning around this and to have a process prepared,” said Barber, adding that other new policies, such as recent changes to proof of funds requirements, had come in very quickly in the middle of the recruitment cycle for the next academic year. 

“We see them as quite reactionary as opposed to being a well-thought-out and planned process,” he added.  

Gengatharan said the implementation would be “messy” and that aspects of the policy remain unclear, such as how study permits will be allocated between universities and colleges – something that will be left to provincial governments to decide. 

“The cap by population size doesn’t consider institutional capacities within the provinces and will have a significant financial impact on the sector,” she added. 

While institutions start to navigate the new requirements, international students will likely be scrambling to understand how the policies affect their future study and work plans. 

At the same time, recruiters in other countries will be keenly watching to see if students turn to alternative locations – although doing so is far from a safe bet if they are looking for certainty.

With the UK set to review the graduate route, Australia not ruling out implementing its own cap and the US entering an election year which could see former President Trump – historically hostile towards international students – return to power, policy changes may be on the horizon in all major international student destinations. 

Meti Basiri, CEO of Applyboard, said while Canada’s new policy may “create positive shifts”, it could also “harm many students and add uncertainty to their journey”.

“Despite these changes, I anticipate that the demand for students coming to Canada will remain high. It will be interesting to observe how different countries react in the upcoming months.”

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