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Negative headlines ‘harming’ Canada’s reputation

International education professionals across Canada are considering how negative news headlines and recent announcements by government may be harming brand Canada.

A recent Royal Bank of Canada report notes that international students in the country are a rich source of skilled global talent

Recently, the country’s new housing minister Sean Fraser suggested that Canada could consider a cap on international students as it battles a housing shortage, while the immigration minister has said that the “integrity of the system” is at risk due to fraud, as well as players “gaming the system”.

The news has been extensively covered in both national and international media.

Stakeholders largely consider a cap unlikely – universities in Québec have already said the proposals would do little to address the housing crunch, but would damage university research.

Immigration minister Marc Miller last week acknowledged that the housing crisis cannot be “pinned on any particular segment of the population”, with education professionals indicating the same.

Adel El Zaïm from the Université du Québec en Outaouais noted the lack of evidence showing that international students are contributing to the housing crisis, a problem several study destinations are facing.

“There is no data about the contribution of international students to the housing crisis,” he told The PIE, adding that accommodation is a top priority at several institutions.

“In Québec, there is a governmental program to subsidise affordable housing,” he said.

“Universities are eligible and some of them are already applying. At our university, our board approved a new residence project for about 150 rooms. We are a small university with only [around] 7,000 students.

“Another example is the willingness of our neighbourhood to make rooms available for hosting international students. We are located in a mainly residential area.”

Prime minister Justin Trudeau has also noted that there are “a lot of different factors that go into this housing crisis”.

Other institutions have worked to ensure that undergraduate students have had guarantees of on-campus accommodation, other stakeholders have detailed.

The immigration minister also suggested that private colleges were those “gaming the system”, but he did not name which providers in particular. The comments are said to have irked some private providers.

A 2022 documentary named Alpha College as one provider that had deferred student start dates due to capacity constraints. Stakeholders at the time warned that Canadian colleges were being sold as migration pathways.

Students also lost their tuition fees after the closure of M College in Montreal, CDE College in Sherbrooke and CCSQ College in early 2022.

More recently, Ontario-based Northern College revoked over 500 acceptance letters it had sent to international students.

Nadine Baladi from Greystone College Canada which is a regulated college part of the ILSC Education Group said the provider “prides itself on providing our students with housing, health insurance insurance, wellness programs and insurance, success coaches, and career coaches”.

“Our thousands of students’ graduate within predicted timelines, at very high rates, and support the Canadian economy by contributing to the industries where labour shortages are most urgently felt,” she said.

Through multiple partnerships, including homestay families and student residences, it places 100% of the students who request housing that is both affordable and close to campus, she added.

Similarly, McMaster University embarked on a planning journey nearly a decade ago to address the accommodation needs of both domestic and international students, according to director of the institution’s Office of International Affairs, Amira El Masri.

In 2019, it created 518 new beds for undergraduates and in January next year will increase capacity by 644 at a new tower residence in downtown Hamilton.

The “commitment extends further”, with more planned construction providing housing for nearly 1,400 more students from 2026. The university will have created over 2,500 new residence spaces for both international and domestic students, she explained.

Chief executive officer of the National Association of Career Colleges, Michael Sangster, noted that the body is willing to work with municipal and federal governments to ensure students have the best experience possible in Canada.

“Regulated career colleges have operated in Canada for over 100 years and play an important role with smaller class sizes, student focused learning opportunities and hands on learning that supports students to start a new career,” he noted.

The regulatory framework “facilitates quality educational opportunities and broad statements without data or concrete examples doesn’t create the best debate on these issues”, he added.

Regulated Career Colleges train over 150,000 students a year for jobs that are needed to support the economy today, he continued.

“When we lose sight of focusing on the learners and outcomes we stop focusing on the crucial training of Personal Support Workers, the cyber security experts, skilled trades and  truck driving and logistics co-ordinators to name a few,” Sangster said.

El Zaïm warned that the negative headlines “could harm the country reputation and may discourage some international students”.

“One case is enough to make the headlines”

“Some recruiters and HEIs have ‘abused’ the system, mainly at the college level, and especially by over recruiting young students with a promise of quick graduation and access to employment and permanent resident status,” he said, but added that there are “two sides to the medal”.

“One case is enough to make the headlines and to be recuperated by the political opposition,” he said, but maintained that the country’s higher education sector is strong and that interest will continue to grow.

A cap is unlikely, he indicated.

“Political pressure, the role of provincial governments in managing higher education and education in general and the real contribution of international students to the research ecosystem, to the survival of some programs and their contribution to the regional economy will prevent the federal government from such an approach,” he suggested.

“I am optimistic that no cap will be imposed. I am also optimistic that the processing of visa and study permit will be accelerated by IRCC as promised by the former minister of immigration,” he said.

Speaking with the PIE in a personal capacity, Anna Guo from Brock University said the “benefits of studying in Canada have been overshadowed by the recent negative news”.

When asked about “dodgy” agents, student deportations and accommodation challenges over the past headlines she said they “paint a picture of international education in Canada for many audiences”.

“Canada is well-known for its strong emphasis on co-op programs, especially at the university level,” she explained. “Empowered with relevant professional skills, students can integrate their academic learning with practical paid work experience.”

El Masri at McMaster also pointed to the “far-reaching impacts” of its international students.

“Not only do they contribute to the growth and prosperity of the Hamilton region, but they also carry their education back to their home countries, positively impacting the communities in which they live and work after graduation,” she noted.

A recent Royal Bank of Canada report notes that international students in the country are a rich source of skilled global talent and are twice as likely as domestic students to study engineering.

They are more than 2.5 times as likely to study math and computer sciences – two of the top areas projected to face labor shortages, Guo highlighted.

“When taking into account the exceptional quality of education, the enriching co-op programs, the inclusive community, and the promising career prospects, a distinctly vibrant image comes to light for international students contemplating studying in Canada, diverging from the prior perspective,” she said.

“Canada is well-known for its strong emphasis on co-op programs”

El Zaïm also concluded that Canada and its higher education institutions should celebrate the expected increase in international student numbers. The immigration minister has said 900,000 are expected to be enrolled in institutions this year.

“I would love to see the number of Canadian university professors and researchers who came to Canada first as international students, and who are now living and working in Canada,” he said.

“In a few words, Canada could do better in terms of understanding and valorising the impacts of international students in the social, economic and scientific fabrics of the country.”

Regarding the top-down student cap approach, Guo called for a bottom-up strategy, which would entail “paying close attention to our existing systems”.

“For instance, we might consider which Designated Learning Institutions collaborate with dubious agents,” she said, and ensuring adequate guidelines and policies are in place to regulate the collaborations.

“Additionally, we may need to identify institutions that meticulously assess the supply and demand factors related to issuing student offers and supporting student residency. Are we disseminating these best practices through news to a broader audience?” she asked.

“Given that most institutions have well-established student portals and structured international student recruitment teams, should we, perhaps, hold international students accountable for their own choice of schools, communication with recruitment teams at the institution, and the verification of school offers?”

Update: this article was updated at 13:00 GMT, September 6, to include comments from Anna Guo, Michael Sangster, Nadine Baladi and Amira El Masri.

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