Canada’s Foreign Student Surge Prompts Changes, and Anxiety

The education consultant in India didn’t reveal to Maninderjit Kaur, a Canada-bound student, where exactly, relative to Toronto, the college she had enrolled in was.

Ms. Kaur told my colleague, Norimitsu Onishi, that after a never-ending Uber ride — eight hours and 800 Canadian dollars later — she had ended up in Timmins, Ontario, a place she had never heard of.

But, as Nori reported, finishing a degree in this remote city was perhaps less of an isolating experience given that 82 percent of students at Northern College in Timmins are foreign nationals, mostly from India.

[Read Nori’s story: In Remote Canada, a College Becomes a Magnet for Indian Students]

Recruiting foreign students who pay higher tuition fees — roughly five times as much as Canadians to obtain an undergraduate degree, according to the census agency — has always been attractive to the country’s institutions. It has also become increasingly important for the federal government, which is vying to hit a lofty goal of attracting 1.45 million immigrants between 2023 and 2025.

By announcing this record-breaking target in November 2022, as part of a strategy to plug national labor shortages, Canada signaled that it was headed in the opposite direction from many Western governments that are curtailing migration, as I reported at the time. (As of this week, most foreign students in Britain will no longer be allowed to bring their families, a move that the country’s Home Office said delivered on its commitment to “a decisive cut in migration.”)

In Canada, the surge of overseas students has fanned concerns about the readiness of university and college communities to adequately host them, and about efforts to ensure that their labor and their finances are not exploited. The immigration minister, Marc Miller, recently announced a handful of measures taking effect this month for foreign students.

For the first time since the early 2000s, the government has increased the savings threshold that foreign students must have to qualify for a study permit to about 20,600 Canadian dollars, up from 10,000 dollars. And it will continue, until at least April, to allow international students to work more than 20 hours per week, a policy it had previously walked back.

Without providing details, Mr. Miller’s ministry said it was also looking into ways that it could ensure colleges and universities, which are provincially regulated, accept only as many students as they can assist in finding housing.

“Ahead of September 2024, we are prepared to take necessary measures, including significantly limiting visas, to ensure that designated learning institutions provide adequate and sufficient student supports,” Mr. Miller said last month at a news conference in which he announced the changes. He accused some institutions of operating the “diploma equivalent of puppy mills,” depriving those foreign students of a positive academic experience in the face of outsize hardships and a lack of intervention by provincial governments.

“Enough is enough,” Mr. Miller added. “If provinces and territories cannot do this, we will do it for them, and they will not like the bluntness of the instruments that we use.”

The number of international students in Canada has skyrocketed over the last three years, with a 60 percent increase in the number of study permits processed by the immigration ministry. It completed more than one million new study permit applications and extensions in 2023, a record, up from 838,000 in 2022 and 560,000 in 2021.

Study permits aren’t strictly capped, but permanent residencies do adhere to annual quotas. In 2022, Canada welcomed about 432,000 permanent residents, and of those, 95,000 were previously international students, according to a September 2023 report by four Canadian senators urging the government to address “program integrity issues.” Those include an increasing perception that aiming for a Canadian degree is a sure pathway to citizenship.

“It’s not a pathway — it’s a minefield,” said Syed Hussan, executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, a migrant-led organization, similar to a union, based in Toronto.

He characterized the changes as minor “tweaks” to a system that was probably due for an overhaul.

“We’re constantly hearing issues around high tuition fees, difficulty being able to get permanent resident status, exploitation of work and exploitation by landlords,” Mr. Hussan said.

Placing firm caps on student permits is not the answer, said Anna Triandafyllidou, a migration researcher and professor at Toronto Metropolitan University, but she added that the government should do a better job of regulating migrant flow to avoid stoking “cutthroat” competition to stay in Canada.

“Otherwise you create this huge bottleneck where you admit 600,000 international students, but these have to compete with everyone else for 450,000 permanent residence permits,” she said.

It is becoming more common for migrants to spend some time living in the country before becoming permanent residents, a process known as two-step immigration, which is seen almost as a taboo in Canada, Professor Triandafyllidou told me.

Canada should recognize it has “a two-step system and just make sure that it works properly,” she said.

  • Millions of boreal forest acres in Ontario and Quebec, two of Canada’s main commercial logging regions, have been severely diminished, according to a new study. Scientists say the findings show that the country allows unsustainable practices that have deeply degraded the forest.

  • Florida received approval from the Food and Drug Administration to import medications in bulk from Canada at lower prices, but there are significant hurdles. Health Canada said its drug supply cannot meet the demands of both countries, and pharmaceutical lobby groups are revving to block the importation efforts in lawsuits.

  • My colleague Ian Austen, in Ottawa, shares five things he’s been reading, watching and listening to in the latest edition of “What’s in Our Queue.”

  • Kathy Gannon, a Canadian journalist who covered Afghanistan and Pakistan for 34 years at The Associated Press, makes a case in her guest essay for why the United States should revive its presence in Afghanistan.

  • Mike Hale, The Times’s television critic, suggests adding the Canadian dramedy “Sort Of” to your watch list this winter.

Vjosa Isai is a reporter and researcher for The New York Times in Toronto.

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