Cap on international study permits sparks fear of rising tuition, program cuts, layoffs on campus

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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. 

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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.” 

A university student walks next to a wall of windows in a bright building foyer, with flags from different countries seen hanging from the high ceiling behind her.
Vicky Quao, seen at her school’s Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook, juggles her studies, part-time jobs and student advocacy work. Yet if her tuition rises to compensate for a shortfall from a cap on new incoming students, it will mean taking on extra jobs and fewer hours ‘actually doing what I came here to do: to study.’ (Submitted by Vicky Quao)

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.”

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.

WATCH | Immigration minister makes the case for international study permit cap:

Federal government announces two-year cap on international student permits

The federal government will cap the number of student permits over the next two years. It’s part of the government’s response to the housing crisis and the impact of growing numbers of international students on the housing market. Minister of Immigration Marc Miller makes the case for capping international study permits. Plus, we have industry reaction from Michael Sangster, CEO of the National Association of Career Colleges.

“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.

A woman in a red sweater stands before a colourful wall of photos depicting past protests.
The issue isn’t simply about weeding out bad institutions from the post-secondary system, says Sarom Rho, an organizer who supports international students and migrant workers. ‘It’s a matter of looking at this larger picture where public institutions are working with private institutions and are having to do so because there isn’t a lot of public funding for it.’ (Craig Chivers/CBC)

“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.”

A group of politicians pose with post-secondary students indoors, with the Canadian and Ontario flags along with an abstract painting behind them.
If schools are heavily funded by international students, domestic students must ‘face the facts: our bill is being footed by international students,’ says College Student Alliance president Azi Afousi, seen third from the right during a 2023 visit to Queen’s Park to speak with members of Ontario’s provincial parliament. (Submitted by Azi Afousi)

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.”

A lone person sits at a table in a long hallway of empty tables and chairs inside a post-secondary building on campus
With reduced revenue from incoming international students, Canadian colleges and universities predict fewer courses or programs offered, staff layoffs and other repercussions that will negatively affect all students. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

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.”

WATCH | Why the cap could be disastrous for some schools:

Why a foreign student cap would be ‘disastrous’ for Canada’s schools

The federal government says a cap on foreign student visas could help ease the housing crisis, but it could also be disastrous for some colleges and universities. CBC’s Ellen Mauro breaks down how and why so many Canadian schools rely on those lucrative international tuition fees.

‘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.”

Two people measure a wooden bench in a woodworking shop.
Policy expert Dale McCartney believes public colleges dependent on revenue from international students could be particularly vulnerable moving forward, especially if provincial governments choose to allocate a large share of study permits to private institutions. (Sarah Law/CBC)

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.”

Students are seen holding protest signs reading 'Together we can achieve' during an outdoor demonstration.
International students and supporters appear at a rally in Manitoba. On one hand, students from abroad are welcomed ‘as cash cows … And then the other times, we are blamed for the housing crisis or we are blamed for the rising cost of living,’ says Tomiris Kaliyeva, a student from Kazakhstan and president of University of Winnipeg Students’ Association. (Ian Froese/CBC)

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.”

WATCH | Is Canada accepting too many international students?

Is Canada accepting too many international students? | About That

The federal government is reportedly considering capping the number of international students allowed to study in Canada. Andrew Chang breaks down why experts say international students are both integral to the economy — and straining an overburdened housing system.

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