Explosive Growth in International Students in Canada

by Willem Maas

Professor of Political Science, Public & International Affairs, and Socio-Legal Studies at York University

Declining public funding causes universities and colleges to seek international students, now over one million, many of whom see a Canadian study permit as a pathway for immigration.

At the end of April, Canada’s federal government announced that international students would be allowed to work off campus no more than 24 hours per week starting in September. Until 2020, the limit was 20 hours per week, but the government waived the cap during the pandemic before reinstating it on May 1. The new cap comes after warnings that allowing international students unlimited employment meant that a Canadian study permit was really a de facto work visa, and internal government research showed that over 80 percent of international students were working more than 20 hours per week. Some critics responded by arguing that 24 hours of employment per week is not enough for students to sustain themselves.

The renewed cap on off-campus work hours came after the federal government announced in January that it would approve approximately 360,000 undergraduate study permits for 2024, a 35 per cent decrease from 2023. Seen comparatively, both numbers are quite large for a country of 40 million. Indeed, the growth in the number of international students in Canada has been dramatic over the past few years, and international students now comprise the largest proportion of overall population growth. By the end of 2023, there were more than one million international students in Canada, a 29% increase from the previous year, with many expressing concerns that they are being exploited by recruiters and private institutions.

Faced with declining public funding, and even a mandated tuition reduction of 10% and then freezing of tuition in Canada’s largest province of Ontario in 2019, many universities and colleges turned to international students to make up the budget shortfall. An Ontario government-commissioned panel recommended that Ontario should dramatically increase operating grants and allow universities and colleges to once again raise tuition for Canadian students, but Ontario’s government refused – and even announced it would extend the tuition freeze to 2026/27, after the next elections.

One analyst called Ontario’s post-secondary funding “abysmal” and calculated that bringing Ontario to the average of the other nine provinces would require an additional $7.1 billion of operating funds per year (on top of the roughly $5 billion Ontario now spends). The government did agree to provide $1.2 billion of funding – less than its own panel’s recommended $2.3 billion of new funding coupled with unfreezing tuition. Average university fees in 2020/21 were $7,938 for Canadian undergraduate students and $40,525 for international undergraduate students – so it is not surprising that Ontario universities nearly doubled international student enrolment between 2014/15 and 2021/22 and colleges more than tripled international enrolment.

Those increases have continued to the present, as low provincial funding caused colleges in particular to focus on international students, who are not subject to the tuition freeze. The largest is Conestoga College, headquartered in southwestern Ontario, which saw its student population more than doubling in four years, with international students vastly outnumbering Canadian ones – and financial statements showing a $106-million surplus for 2022/23 year even after extensive spending on new buildings. Conestoga had 37,000 study permits approved and extended in 2023 (the most in Canada, and a 31 percent increase from 2022) but the federal government has announced it will cap Conestoga’s allotment to 15,000 for 2024.

An investigation shows that Canada’s dramatic rise in foreign student enrolment was driven by governments of all stripes actively pursuing international students both to shore up the skilled workforce and to bring hefty revenues into underfunded colleges and universities, with little regard for the ensuing demand for housing – or student welfare and the quality of education.

A 2021 report by Ontario’s Auditor General found that “between 2012/13 and 2020/21, public colleges experienced a 15% decline in domestic student enrolments but a 342% growth in international student enrolments, with 62% (2020/21) of international students coming from India” and that the “increase in international students was influenced by prospective students viewing Canada as an attractive destination to study in and enrolling in Canadian post-secondary institutions as a pathway for immigration.”

Responding to an investigation that found international students were enticed to Canada on dubious promises of jobs and immigration (and that Canadian institutions paid recruiters handsomely for delivering students), Canada’s federal immigration minister calls some private colleges in Canada ‘the diploma equivalent of puppy mills that are just churning out diplomas’ – but the vast majority of international students are at public rather than private colleges and universities. In addition to the measures described above, and to persistent reports that international students were living in unsuitable housing (with international students arguably victims of a lack of housing rather than the cause) the federal government announced in December 2023 that prospective students will need to show they have access to $20,635 instead of the $10,000 requirement that had been in place for two decades, in addition to paying travel and tuition.

Canadian postsecondary institutions have become so dependent on international students that in 2023/24 Ontario’s public colleges received more income from students from a single country (India) than they did in total funding from the provincial government ($2 billion from students from India, $1.9 billion from the government, $1.34 billion from other international students, and only $1.03 billion from students from Canada). Diplomatic tensions with countries such as Saudi Arabia, China, and most recently India demonstrate the dangers of relying so much on international students for postsecondary funding.


Foto di Gift Habeshaw su Unsplash

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