Canadian universities are nervously eyeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases driven by the delta variant, hoping it will not upend plans for a return to in-person classes for international students, many of whom spent the past year studying remotely from their home countries.
With more than 72% of the population at least partly vaccinated and new cases dipping below 300 per day earlier this summer, the government announced an easing of restrictions on admission of foreign visitors to the country effective September 7, just in time for the start of a new school year.
Caseloads still remain low compared to the United States and some other countries, but have been rising due to the delta variant and are now approaching 2,000 per day. That is of concern to university administrators, who rely heavily on foreign student tuition fees to balance their budgets.
Canada's immigration agency reports that 530,540 international students held permits to study in the country as of December 31, down from 638,960 students a year earlier. That was the first decline in foreign enrollment in the last 20 years.
Three-quarters of those come from just 10 countries, with India alone accounting for more than one-third, the Toronto Star newspaper reported last month. Other top countries were China, South Korea, France, Brazil, Vietnam, Japan, the United States, Mexico and Nigeria.
"Universities are relying more and more on international students to sustain themselves," said Bipin Kumar, international student commissioner for the Canadian Federation of Students. "They are source of revenue."
While exact figures are not readily available, Kumar told VOA he has heard that foreign students account for one-third to 40% of the student population at some Canadian universities.
That reliance in not unique to Canada.
"From a cold, hard financial perspective, international students do, of course, contribute not insignificantly in terms of the higher fees that they pay," said Karen Ottewell, director of academic development and training for international students at the University of Cambridge in Britain.
Ottewell told VOA that Cambridge has around 65% of its postgraduate students and around 50% of its academics from outside the UK. "There aren't many countries in the world that aren't represented here," she added.
"This is such a privilege to work with students from around the world and to learn from different approaches and perspectives on issues, as well as the wide-ranging possibilities to culturally broaden one's horizons."
Similarly, the University of Calgary in Western Canada told VOA it believes its whole student body benefits from having international students on campus in person.
"The ability to collaborate with and learn from students and faculty from various cultural and ethnic backgrounds that challenge monolithic perspectives enable members of our campus community to expand their awareness of viewpoints and values that differ from their own," it said in a statement provided to VOA.
Rajika Bhandari, an international higher education expert, told VOA that for both U.S. and Canadian institutions, "international student alumni are the best future ambassadors that institutions have — they help spread the word about their alma mater to future students in their home countries."
However, Bhandari cautioned that international students alone cannot be the answer to the financial crisis facing North American universities.
"International students cannot be and nor should they be expected to be the magical solution to the fiscal challenges that institutions are facing," said Bhandari, author of the upcoming book "America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility."
Kumar said the international students are also looking forward to a return to in-person — and in-country — classes.
"Compared to last year, when there were no on-campus classes and activities, we are hoping that students would be able have normal university experience with in-person classes and on campus activities and experience," he said.
Beyond the economic benefits, many in Canada see the international student experience as a means of addressing a shortage of skilled workers in high-tech and other key industries.
Kumar pointed out that graduating foreign students are prime candidates for immigration and eventual citizenship in what is already one of the world's most diverse countries. More than other immigrants, they "understand Canadian culture. They have Canadian experience," he said.
However, Kumar said there is room for improvement for Canada's treatment of international students, including providing them greater access to the country's taxpayer-funded medical system.
Kumar is also pushing for a much easier immigration process for international students. "What we want is a much straighter, open, direct path for people who are international students," he said.