Vicky Quao was in class this week when she got an email about a new two-year cap on international student study permits — intended to stem an unsustainable boom and unscrupulous players in this post-secondary sector.
“I stopped dead in my tracks” and felt disappointment and sadness, recalled the psychology major, who is minoring in business at Memorial University’s Grenfell campus in Corner Brook, N.L.
The cap applies to incoming students not yet in Canada, but Quao, who’s from Ghana, says a nationwide drop in newcomers will profoundly affect schools and those already studying here — with many already anticipating their fees will be going up, again.
“I’m going to have to maybe work two to three extra jobs in order to get the money that I need for school. And that’s going to mean less hours actually doing what I came here to do: to study.”
Along with changing post-graduation and spousal work permit eligibility, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada’s (IRCC) decision to drop international student study permits by 35 per cent has sparked panic and uncertainty on Canadian campuses. With fall admissions already in process, students, advocates, administrators and experts are bracing for tumultuous times ahead.
IRCC will distribute new permits weighted to population, but the approach provinces will take to distribute them remains to be decided. Those that have fostered a disproportionately large international student population — including Ontario and British Columbia — face a particularly challenging task, since the cap means a drastic reduction in what they’ve received.
The new measures tossed a wrench into current admissions, with such a short timeline to figure things out, says Dale McCartney, an assistant professor at B.C.’s University of the Fraser Valley who researches Canada’s international student policy.
“It now requires provinces to have a strategy about how they’re going to distribute study permits and how they’re going to organize the system to relate to this new regime,” he said.
“We are in the time period where international students would be getting their letters from schools, confirming their entry, when they would be contacting IRCC to get the documents they need.… All of that is frozen now.”
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Prospective students have been thrown for a loop, according to school officials and student reps.
“This change partway through a cycle … it’s challenging, and you can imagine for students abroad who might be seeing this news, it could be creating some stress,” noted Ryan Sullivan, vice-president of enrolment management at St. Thomas University in Fredericton. He added that the New Brunswick school had been “more than midway” through the process of working with international students intending to start this fall.
Moving to Canada to study isn’t a decision made lightly: it requires planning, co-ordination and financial commitment, said Azi Afousi, president of Ontario-based advocacy group College Student Alliance.
“There’s so much that you have to look into and these plans are made ahead of time,” said Afousi, also a Humber College bachelor of commerce student in her final year.
“There are students who currently have their acceptance in hand and have very likely started making those plans, if not already purchased [plane] tickets.”
Coming on the heels of other recent measures, it’s been “an absolute emotional roller-coaster,” said Sarom Rho, a co-ordinator for Migrant Students United, which supports current and former international students.
“Many of our members from across the country have sent me emails and texts saying that they’re stressed, they’re sick to their stomachs and they’re worried about how many more closed doors they’re going to have to see.”
Program cuts, layoffs predicted
The ripple effect is often lost on Canadians, noted student leader Afousi.
“If these schools are heavily funded through international students, that means the programs that us domestic students are in — we have to face the facts — our bill is being footed by international students.”
International students make up 30 per cent of Holland College, president Sandy MacDonald said this week, so cutting newcomers would definitely affect what the Charlottetown school can offer.
“International students not only bring in extra money to the college, but they enable us to offer over 65 programs. Without the international students, we would not be offering 65 programs,” he said.
If courses or whole programs disappear, that affects faculty, staff and students, added McCartney, the B.C. researcher and professor.
“We’re talking about people losing their jobs. We’re talking about … big fights with unions to lower wages or change working conditions. We’re talking about bigger classes, which [means] lower quality opportunities for domestic and international students.”
Institutions across the nation are expecting a huge impact, said Alain Roy, vice-president of international partnerships at Colleges and Institutes Canada. “Early signals from college presidents across the country … is that this could lead to program closures, campus closures. [This will] certainly mean a number of layoffs,” he said.
“This will be felt particularly hard in rural and northern areas of Ontario and the same in rural and northern regions of Canada.”
Consequently, many predict tuition fees increasing. Existing international students will likely bear the brunt of this, whether they’re attending publicly funded universities, colleges or private institutions, explained McCartney, since many provinces have limits on increasing tuition for domestic students.
“There’s a really good chance that we’re going to see their tuition go up quite precipitously because one of the ways that institutions can try to make some of this money back is by charging more for the students they do have.”
‘It’s about deciding who’s going to lose out’
McCartney foresees a range of different approaches to how each province and territory will decide to distribute its allocation of study permits. Due to IRCC’s decision to allocate proportionally by population, some provinces — like Alberta or Saskatchewan for instance — could actually be free to welcome more international students.
Ontario and B.C., however, have to contend not only with a significant decrease in the number of new international students permits — Immigration Minister Marc Miller has mentioned about a 50 per cent cut — but also the significant role private post-secondary institutes play in pulling in students from abroad.
The minister has suggested the private sector is the problem, but college and education ministries must now really determine for themselves “which institutions are worthy or legitimate,” McCartney said.
“It’s really about deciding who’s going to lose out, which is not a super fun policy context to work in. It’s one that will be very, very fraught. There’ll be a lot of anger and a lot of fighting about it.”
With a big caveat that how provinces react could instantly change the conversation, McCartney doesn’t so far believe the cap will affect Canada’s top tier of universities too drastically.
However, primarily undergraduate Canadian universities and public colleges dependent on revenue from international students are much more vulnerable, he said, especially if provincial governments continue allocating many study permits to private institutions.
Already receiving less public funding, the college system is also at risk, McCartney added, particularly publicly funded schools in rural communities that have grown reliant on revenue from private partners with urban campuses, often more desired by international students.
For the private sector, “this is potentially Armageddon … depending on how a government responds,” he concluded, pointing to suggestions B.C. is looking to limit student permits here.
“It’s very hard to imagine what those schools are going to do if they can’t recruit international students. They don’t really have a domestic market.”
Many parties have also expressed concern about international students being treated as scapegoats, which could further foster xenophobia and destroy Canada’s reputation as a welcoming place for learners.
“It’s upsetting because sometimes we’re used as cash cows, where we’re welcomed and … everyone’s happy to see us. And then the other times, we are blamed for the housing crisis or we are blamed for the rising cost of living,” Tomiris Kaliyeva, an international student from Kazakhstan and president of University of Winnipeg Students’ Association, said this week.
While perhaps unintentional by federal officials, McCartney said, “there’s no question that it is signalling to international students that they’re a little bit less welcome today.”