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The good, the bad and the ugly: who is to blame when policy lacks clarity, coordination and is contradictory?

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"Specific provinces are also among the named bad actors for not being vigilant and ‘doing their job right"

Most significantly, a temporary two-year intake cap on new study permit applications represents a decrease of 35% from 2023 (although masters, doctoral, elementary and secondary students are excluded).

Changes to the post-graduation work permit eligibility criteria were also announced; from September 2024, international students who begin a program through a curriculum licensing arrangement (where a private college is licensed to deliver the curriculum of an associated public college) will no longer be eligible for PGWPs.

In addition, spouses and common-law partners of any international student not in a masters, doctoral, or professional (e.g., medicine or law) will no longer be eligible for open work permits.

Miller suggested this necessary and overdue measure was required to rein in the ‘bad actors’ ruining the international student ecosystem for all, tainting the integrity of both Canada’s higher education and immigration systems, as well as its global reputation.

However, it is important to pause and unpack who this announcement categorises as bad actors and, more implicitly, the good ones.

The bad

At first glance, the bad actors in IRCC’s eyes appear to be institutions who brought in large numbers of international students by engaging in fraud, offering fake degrees and providing substandard quality of services to international students.

These are identified mainly as private career colleges and public-private partnership programs often operating in strip malls, enabling international students to work full-time rather than study or attend classes.

On closer examination, the government policy is profiling bad actors in a multiple of ways.

The specific communities of Surrey, Brampton and Mississauga are mentioned, presumably because many institutional bad actors operate in these spaces. Specific provinces, in particular Ontario, British Columbia and Nova Scotia, are also among the named bad actors for not being vigilant and ‘doing their job right.’

They allowed rampant growth in both international student numbers and private and for-profit institutions, ignoring public concerns and even auditor general reports that clearly highlighted issues regarding the safety and security of international students.

What isn’t quite clear is whether public colleges and mid-tier universities are off the hook.

Recruiters, agents and aggregators who mislead students about the education they will receive, immigration prospects and the real cost of living in Canada are also among the bad actors.

Unstated but evident in the policy announcement is the government’s assurance to Canadians that they are dealing with the exacerbation of Canada’s housing, health care, employment and reputational crises caused by the unmanaged growth of international students.

The announcement followed other recent policy changes, such as doubling the minimum funds study permit applicants are required to prove and introducing a recognised institution framework – renamed when the original phrase ‘trusted institution’ generated pushback – in an attempt to address these concerns.

There are concerns that international students arrive in Canada with insufficient funds, depend on work to study, accept exploitative housing and employment situations, access ‘our’ food banks and other social welfare supports, and use the international student program as a so-called backdoor entry to Canadian permanent residency.

As long as international students are seen to benefit our institutions, communities and societies, we welcome them with open arms; however, any level of dependence or even expected supports from ‘us’ transforms international students into unwelcome visitors.

The good

By contrast, in IRCC’s announcement, good actors are assumed to include Canada’s internationally reputed institutions – mainly universities – who bring in the ‘best and brightest talent’ while providing comprehensive wrap-around support services to their international student body.

This assumption holds even though some of these institutions have dramatically increased their international student numbers to substantially augment their funding sources.

Provinces which flexed their muscles by way of licensure and regulation are also among the list of good actors, with Miller applauding Quebec and, ironically British Columbia (who he also labels a bad actor) for their efforts.

Perhaps most importantly, the policies imply that those provinces and communities which help spread the economic benefits of hosting international students more evenly throughout the country and utilise international students to efficiently fill specific regional labour market shortages are good.

Good international students are those that are ‘genuine’ – in other words, those whose sole intent is to study in Canada. Preference is for master’s and PhD students (and some professional programs like law and medicine) who are welcome, along with their spouses who are granted access to the labour market.

While undergraduate students are also welcome, there are restrictions.

The policy leaves selective scope to include college students in programs that help fill specific labour shortages in Canada, albeit in lower skilled occupations, on the good actors list. There is no reference to international students studying in primary and secondary schools, who also access Canadian services and prop up (often public) educational institutions financially.

Wait…what is the ugly then?

The above explicit and implicit categorisation of good and bad actors reveals the ugly truth of a complex international student policy environment lacking clear strategic direction. Instead of pointing fingers, it is important to address the source of our confusion, contradiction and lack of coordination.

IRCC’s international student program, first launched in 2002, has three key stated objectives:

(1) ensure Canada is a destination of choice;

(2) generate significant economic and socio-cultural benefits for Canada; and, perhaps most significantly for IRCC,

(3) provide a pool of future temporary workers and PRs.

IRCC has worked hard to facilitate these goals and, at times, in close partnership with provinces, such as Nova Scotia’s Study and Stay program. So why, after working over several decades to make international education a big business for Canada and by constructing a ‘VIP line’ to immigration via higher education, does the minister suddenly speak of international students entering through a ‘backdoor’ to PR?

The issue is threefold.

First, when it comes to immigration, we increasingly expect the ISP to resolve broader immigration and labour market issues such as regional distribution in a balanced way across the country, meet the needs of the fluctuating labour market demands, and avoid overt concentration in any one sector – all while ensuring international students do not represent overt competition with the domestic population.

We do not have a clear, targeted strategy when it comes to international students by level or subject of study.

Second, while we expect the ISP to resolve immigration issues, we expect Canada to be a destination of choice for is education, not solely its PR options. But this is problematic.

“It is time to stop playing the blaming game, and instead address our ugly”

For a few select institutions, the ISP facilitates talent acquisition, bolsters research, and improves international reputation. However, for most other institutions, the ISP becomes an attractive option primarily to manage shrinking higher educational budgets and decreasing domestic enrolment, therefore became a key revenue source.

Ironically, our financial and immigration needs, not our educational goals, have driven our investment in and engagement with the ISP.

The third, and perhaps most important concern, is that Canada’s ISP has morphed into something that is expected to solve far too many policy problems than meets the eye. It has, therefore, engaged a wide range of diverse policy actors, few with any direct investments in Canada’s higher education sector.

Can the international student program meet all these conflicting priorities and not have problematic outcomes? Should it? According to the minister, this is a system that has gone amok.

Although Australia set a precedent, we emulated similar policy directions. It is time to stop playing the blaming game, and instead address our ugly.

This is a time to set our strategy straight by asking ourselves some hard questions about why we want to support an international student program as an aspect of Canada’s engagement in international education.

When it comes to international students, what are Canada’s true purposes and responsibilities?


About the authors:

Roopa Desai Trilokekar is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education, York University. Her research interests include: the history of internationalization of higher education as policy in Canada, International Students as ideal immigrants’ as a global policy discourse; international education as a soft power/public diplomacy tool in context of shifting/new geopolitics. Her 2020 co-edited book International Education as Public Policy in Canada, was awarded the Catalyst Award by the Canadian Bureau of International Education for bringing cutting‐edge knowledge to the field of international education.

Amira El Masri has worked in a range of senior international education strategy-oriented roles nationally and internationally. Currently, she is the director of the Office of International Affairs at McMaster University. She is an active researcher on international education policymaking, international student experiences, and internationalising teacher education.

Lisa Brunner a Postdoctoral Research Fellow (Centre for Migration Studies) and Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow (Department of Educational Studies) at the University of British Columbia. She conducts interdisciplinary research on international migration, (im)migrant and refugee integration, and education.

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