Premier Doug Ford’s government faces a sharp reduction in what has been a lucrative source of funding for Ontario’s colleges and universities now that Ottawa plans to slash the number of international students allowed into Canada.
With the province’s own expert panel revealing the perilous financial situation of Ontario’s colleges and universities just two months ago and post-secondary officials now saying the cut in international students visas will make things worse, the Ford government has some tough decisions to make.
Ontario’s post-secondary sector has become increasingly reliant on the high tuition fees paid by foreign students and has recruited them in staggering numbers.
Federal data shows about 240,000 permits granted to international students for post-secondary education in Ontario in each of the last two years. Those numbers are to be cut in half, the federal Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, Marc Miller said this week.
Deciding how to divvy up that far slimmer allocation of international students among Ontario’s universities and colleges will be up to the provincial government.
Ontario’s dependence on revenue from international students first ramped up under Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne and has accelerated greatly under Ford. Since the PCs came to power in 2018, federal figures show the number of study permits issued to international students for Ontario has doubled.
Over the same timeframe, Ontario colleges and universities have seen their combined annual revenues from provincial grants and domestic tuition fees drop by 31 per cent when adjusted for inflation, according to research by Higher Education Strategy Associates, a consulting firm.
‘Easy way to make ends meet’
Alex Usher, the firm’s president, says the provincial government explicitly encouraged the rapid growth in international students.
“The way I look at it is that Ontario wants world class institutions, both universities and colleges, it’s just not willing to pay for them,” Usher said in an interview with CBC News.
He says revenue from international students “has been the easy way to make ends meet.”
The province’s expert panel also flagged this trend in its report, released in November.
“Many colleges and universities have passed the point where they could survive financially with only domestic students. They are financially sustainable only because of international students,” said the report.
At Ontario’s universities, international students accounted for about one-sixth of total enrolment in undergraduate programs in 2021-22, the most recent year for which data are available. In addition to those 69,000 international undergraduates, there were another 23,000 foreign students in graduate programs, such as masters and doctoral degrees.
Foreign student enrolment tripled in 5 years
Ontario’s colleges are even more acutely dependent on international students’ tuition fees:
The number of international students enrolled at Ontario’s colleges exceeded 110,000 in 2021-22 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), triple the number from five years earlier.
Colleges’ revenue from international student fees will be roughly $3.3 billion this year versus $1.9 billion in provincial government funding and $1 billion in domestic student fees, according to an estimate by Higher Education Strategy Associates.
International students now outnumber domestic students at no fewer than nine of Ontario’s 24 publicly funded colleges.
Ontario provides colleges with less per-student funding than every other province, according to an auditor general report
Ontario’s colleges have relied on international student recruitment to make up for shortfalls in government funding and cuts to domestic tuition fees, says Alain Roy, vice president of international partnerships for Colleges and Institutes Canada, an association representing 140 publicly-funded post-secondary schools.
The changes announced to the international student visa program and post-graduate work permits will have a huge impact, said Roy.
“Early signals from college presidents across the country, but also in Ontario, is that this could lead to program closures, campus closures. It will certainly mean a number of layoffs,” Roy said in an interview.
No more work permits for certain students
Particularly vulnerable will be the programs offered by 15 of Ontario’s publicly funded colleges but delivered by private firms.
Known as public college-private partnerships, the programs are specifically targeted to international students and provide them with a diploma or certificate from the public college. Ontario’s auditor general reported that 24,000 international students were enrolled in such programs in the fall of 2020.
Those students have been eligible for a Canadian work permit after graduation, but Miller announced on Monday that will no longer be the case.
David Orazietti, president of Sault College, says this change will “in effect shut down” his college’s programs delivered by the private Trios College to about 2,800 international students in Toronto and Brampton.
He says it’s unfair for the federal government to target those public college programs just because they are delivered by private partners.
30% of college’s budget
“There are many public colleges in Ontario that need these resources to help create sustainability, and frankly this means the difference of having a balanced budget or having a deficit,” Orazietti said in an interview.
He said the programs account for about 30 per cent of Sault College’s $125-million annual budget.
Usher says those programs are keeping several Ontario colleges afloat.
“You take that money away, there’s going to be some real issues in I would say half a dozen colleges across the province,” he said.
In an interview on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning, Miller justified the move by saying public college-private partnerships have become “a bit of a runaway train,” with people enrolling in them in hopes of getting a back door to permanent residence in Canada.
He blames the provincial government rather than the colleges for the explosion in foreign students.
What will Ford government do?
“There has been significant underfunding by provinces for years in the post-secondary education system across Canada. Institutions have been smart and gone and recruited abroad,” Miller said
Faced with all of this, how will the Ford government respond?
CBC News requested an interview with Ontario’s Minister of Colleges and Universities Jill Dunlop, but the request was declined.
In a statement, Dunlop said the province has only just received the information about the federal government’s changes.
“We are developing a plan forward and reviewing all possible options,” said Dunlop’s statement. “We continue to work closely with our post-secondary institutions.”