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Canada Moves to Scale Back Fast-Growing Foreign Study Programs

FILE — Students at the Bishop's University Library Learning Commons in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada, Nov. 20, 2023. Canada has announced new caps on the number of foreign student applications that will be accepted each year,
FILE — Students at the Bishop's University Library Learning Commons in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada, Nov. 20, 2023. Canada has announced new caps on the number of foreign student applications that will be accepted each year,

Facing a surge of foreign student applications from around the world, Canada has announced new caps on the number of applications that will be accepted each year, along with restrictions on eligibility for work permits for some graduating students.

Even with the changes, Canada will remain one of the most welcoming countries for foreign students, hosting more of them relative to population than any other country and offering many a path to permanent residency after they graduate.

However the rapidly growing foreign student population — estimated at about 900,000 last year in a country of 38 million — is seen as exacerbating a nationwide housing crisis by driving up rental costs while placing pressure on the country's government-funded health care system.

In announcing the changes, government officials also cited concerns that some foreign students are being exploited by low-quality profit-oriented diploma "mills" that offer something less than the level of education expected by the incoming students.

Students flock to Canada

The popularity of Canada as a destination for foreign study has exploded in recent years, with the number of applications increasing by about 300,000 a year between 2019 and 2022, according to an immigration ministry study cited by the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper.

But the foreign study program "has been inundated with problems as international student volumes have increased," said Earl Blaney, an immigration consultant in London, Ontario.

He told VOA those problems include "academic integrity of academic programs and colleges, lack of student supports, poor post-grad employment showings for international grads, lack of diversity in enrollment [and] poor student-to-permanent residency transition rates."

Under the changes announced this week, the government said it will approve about 360,000 permits for undergraduate study this year, about 35% fewer than in 2023. Permits for post-graduate study are not affected. The restriction is to remain in place for two years and to be re-evaluated at the end of this year.

The undergraduate permits will be allocated on a population basis among the 10 provinces, which will be able to decide how they are distributed among institutions. But in making the announcement, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Marc Miller made clear that the measure was aimed in part at certain private colleges.

"It's unacceptable that some private institutions have taken advantage of international students by operating under-resourced campuses, lacking supports for students and charging high tuition fees all the while significantly increasing their intake of international students," Miller told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

"To be absolutely clear, these measures are not against individual international students. They are to ensure that as future students arrive in Canada, they receive the quality of education that they signed up for and the hope that they were provided in their home countries."

Miller also announced that, starting in September, foreign students attending certain private colleges, including at the graduate level, will no longer be eligible to receive a work permit upon graduation. Students completing a masters or certain other short graduate programs at public institutions will be eligible to apply for a three-year work permit — which is longer than at present in many cases — while spouses of graduate students will be eligible for open work permits.

Community college students likely not affected

Al Parsai, an immigration expert based in Vancouver, told VOA the new policy will likely not affect regular international students attending accredited community colleges.

"These students should remain unaffected as long as they are enrolled in programs exclusively offered by these institutions, without involving partnerships with private, for-profit colleges often labeled as 'degree mills,'" he said. "This distinction ensures that the policy targets preventing abuse while not disadvantaging genuine students."

But Harald Bauder, a professor at Toronto Metropolitan University, told VOA he believes foreign students have become scapegoats for sky-high housing costs that have driven up rents and put home-ownership out of reach for many younger Canadians.

"The public and political debate in Canada, however, is shifting and increasingly projecting a more nuanced picture of the impacts international students have," he said in an interview.

"Many international students are not only suffering from the same high housing costs as Canadian residents, but their lack of secure status can also expose them to exploitation by unscrupulous consultants, employers and landlords."

Foreign students interviewed by VOA expressed understanding for the new policies but worried they might become more restrictive in the future.

"Having resided in Canada for over three years, dealing with inflation and housing challenges, it is understandable why the government would implement a cap to address the housing issue," said Oluwatimileyin Aina, a fourth-year biomedical science student from Nigeria now studying at York University in Toronto.

"I hope that within this timeframe, they can genuinely resolve the housing crisis."

Jwalant Patel, an international student who serves on the board of directors at the University of Regina Students Union, said this week's announcement "makes it transparent that not every student studying in Canada would have a pathway for permanent residency."

But, he said, "It is also important to ensure students who are already in Canada have a simple and direct pathway to permanent residency after graduation."