Feds capping of international students returns mixed reviews

(L to R) Kingston City Hall: photo by Dark Arts Photography, Queen’s University campus: photo by Aaron Bailey, Royal Military College of Canada (RMC) campus: Kingstonist file photo, and St. Lawrence College (SLC) campus: Kingstonist file photo.

Canada is limiting the number of international student permits to approximately 360,000 in 2024, saying the move is to stabilize population growth and better ensure the integrity of the international student system.

The government stated the cap will be implemented for two years. It will mark a decrease of 35 percent in international student permits issued and that number will reportedly be revisited before 2025.

Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) Marc Miller announced the changes on Monday, roughly a month after announcing new financial requirements for any student coming to Canada for a post-secondary education.

The permits will be distributed based on population, and the minister noted that Ontario could see close to 50 per cent fewer visas issued. The decision cited reasons such as the influx of international students causing added strain on already struggling services like housing and health care.

But Miller stated that the changes are ultimately being made to protect international students, and to ensure they’re receiving the services that they need and the quality of education that they expect.

“We have an obligation to ensure that they have access to the resources they need for an enriching academic experience,” Miller said.

“In Canada, today, this isn’t always the case. Today, we are announcing additional measures to protect a system that has become so lucrative that it has opened a path for its abuse.”

Many institutions in Canada, especially colleges, have become increasingly reliant on international student fees — with administrators further emphasizing their importance in the face of a continued tuition freeze in Ontario.

In 2022, international students made up nearly 50 per cent of the total enrolment at St. Lawrence College (SLC) — and international students accounted for more than 50 per cent of SLC students from 2017 to 2021, according to a report from the Auditor General — and, in the face of massive cuts at Queen’s, the university has pointed to targeting more international student enrolment as a way to help address a projected budget deficit.

Jaspreet Singh, Vice President of the World Sikh Organization in Ontario, said that some of the changes are encouraging for the future education and prosperity of international students, but he feels that, when it comes to the housing crisis, they are being used as a scapegoat.

“These were much needed, but on the other hand, the way the whole situation has been projected as some sort of solution to housing crisis, I think that’s just like using students as a scapegoat,” Singh said of the changes in the province.

“If we’re talking about the basic integrity of the system, and then saving the students from the exploitation that was happening because of the cracks in the system, these are actually good steps.”

Singh said most of the students coming to Canada are struggling to pay their rent, let alone outbid other Canadians on houses in the market, and if anyone is looking at this as a solution to the housing crisis, they’ll be disappointed.

Queen’s University, in a statement, said they’re concerned by the announcement, saying international students are integral to campus life and the much needed endeavour of increasing enrolment.

“Queen’s greatly values our international students and yesterday’s announcement of a two-year cap on international student enrollment is concerning,” the statement read.

“International students are critical to the university and to campus life and it is important we return to pre-pandemic levels of international student enrollment. We are following up on further details from the government announcement.”

In general, universities are likely to feel much less of an impact by the changes than their college counterparts. SLC President Glenn Vollebregt expressed his disappointment and said that the move lacks foresight.

“Quite honestly, it feels that the proposed reforms are very short-sighted,” Vollebregt said.

“Canada is a world leader in education and this is going to affect our reputation.”

In addition to the cap on permits, students who attend private colleges with curriculum licenses will no longer be eligible for post-graduation work permits, and with few if any domestic students attending these institutions, they could be rendered obsolete.

That means losing roughly 3,500 international students Vollebregt noted are at SLC’s affiliate Alpha College.

Miller previously referred to these private colleges as “the diploma equivalent of puppy mills,” and Vollebregt said it’s a shame that places like Alpha are being grouped in to that characterization.

“It’s very unfortunate that private colleges that have partnerships with 15 public colleges are being lumped into the same private college comments that were made by the minister,” Vollebregt said.

“Every student at Alpha is like a student at one of our Brockville, Cornwall, or Kingston campuses with the same access to quality programming and services that are provided… I’m concerned for our international students from all over the world.”

Alpha was involved an enrolment controversy in 2022 that Vollebregt said was a one off that was resolved in 48 hours and generally blown out of proportion. Vollebregt expressed that the key performance indicators at Alpha are no different than any SLC campus, but Singh said that most students he’s spoken to that attend colleges like Alpha end up working in a completely different field than what they studied in. He also said international students are often easier to lure to lower quality colleges.

“Majority of students graduating from these courses, they ended up working in some different field, but just not a field they are studying in,” Singh said.

“The thing is, the very reason why local Canadian students don’t go into these institutions or go there in very, very less numbers is just because of the quality of education. I mean, not just the quality, but the relevancy of the education.”

Singh said the struggle of finding a job in a person’s field isn’t unique to students at private colleges. Many university and college student experience the same thing, but he says it’s almost impossible for people who go to private institutions. He said many students are sold on the benefits of a school like St. Lawrence before arriving and realizing they’re actually going to an affiliate.

“Still, in India, they don’t know even if they’re going into Alpha, they don’t know what Alpha is, they will still be looking at St. Lawrence,” Singh said.

“But when they come here, they figure out that their college is a two room college in a shopping plaza.”

Singh said the reactions are mixed from students, or prospective students, on the changes. For those who are in the country, he said there is a general consensus that these are welcome steps, but for someone who has already paid their fees for a school in Canada or is looking at schooling in Canada as an option this is disturbing news.

He said for the latter, however, he doesn’t think they really know the reality of what they would be encountering in Canada. Singh said that, without forcing their hand, he doesn’t think post-secondary students would change the way they deal with international students, and exploitation would continue, and noted that the consequences which are being felt now are due to years of ignoring the issues at hand.

“From a former student perspective, I didn’t see any change happening,” Singh said.

“Their whole survival depends upon international student population. But it was also up to them to make sure that students are getting what they are paying for in return for quality of education,” he continued, referring to post secondary institutions.

Singh said he’s glad to see actual action being taken.

“I always felt like there’s a blame game. If you talk to federal [representatives], they will say, ‘oh, this is a provincial issue.’ If you talk to province [representatives], they will be like, ‘the city can do something more,'” Singh said.

“And I think this is good to see that finally someone is taking strong action towards the solution.”

Owen Fullerton is a Kingston-based reporter with the Local Journalism Initiative (LJI). The LJI is funded by the Government of Canada.

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