Published as part of a collaboration between First Policy Response and the Toronto Star.

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the borders and threw Canada’s immigration system into chaos, one of the most affected groups was international students — a group that contributes both short- and long-term benefits to Canada’s economy and society. With a new school year ahead of us, the Canadian government must do more to support international students through their studies and make it easier for them to stay here after they graduate.

Canada ranks third in the world when it comes to attracting international students, after the United States and Australia. Before the pandemic, there were more than 642,000 such students in Canada — a number that has tripled over the past decade.

In 2018, this cohort generated approximately $22 billion for the Canadian economy, while helping to sustain more than 170,000 jobs. There are also long-term benefits: Living and studying in Canada helps mitigate the well-known “Canadian experience and education” barriers that skilled newcomers typically encounter when they try to immigrate. This makes international students the most sought-after pool of skilled migrants.

While temporary, one-time policy initiatives provide interim relief for international students, as we look ahead to a post-COVID-19 future, we need to consider more sustainable measures.

Putting aside broader economic effects, Canada’s post-secondary education sector relies heavily on the higher tuition fees paid by international students. In 2020-21, they contributed about 40 per cent of all tuition fees despite making up less than 15 per cent of the student body, according to Statistics Canada.

It is no secret that Canadian colleges and universities have made attracting international students part of the strategy to fund their operations, and the COVID-19 pandemic made clear the impact those students have on the post-secondary sector. The number of study permits plunged by almost 60 per cent for the 2020-21 academic year, putting Canadian universities at risk of a projected loss of as much as $3.4 billion.

The pandemic has also made life far more difficult for the international students themselves. According to a 2020 survey, 26 per cent of them reported losing their income and 34 per cent struggled to afford rent or utilities. And unlike other groups facing job losses during the pandemic, many were not eligible for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), working on-campus or having part-time employment.

International students also experienced high levels of anxiety about their future in Canada. Under the Post-Graduation Work Permit program (PGWP), international students must complete one year of work to apply for permanent residency. When the pandemic shut down the jobs in hospitality and retail that are typically held by students, many were left unemployed and their prospects for staying in the country thrown into doubt.

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Earlier this year, after pressure from international students and migrant advocacy groups, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada announced a temporary extension to the PGWP that will allow international students to live and work in Canada for up to three years after completing their degrees. The new policy provisions also relax the rules by permitting international students to continue their studies at Canadian universities in a virtual format — completing not just 50 per cent of their studies while living overseas, as was previously the case, but 100 per cent — and still be eligible for a PGWP.

The government also opened another unprecedented pathway to permanent residency in May, granting permanent status to 40,000 international students who graduated from an eligible Canadian institution. The high demand was obvious — applications were maxed out in just four weeks.

While these temporary, one-time initiatives certainly provide interim relief for international students, as we look ahead to a post-COVID-19 future, we need to consider more sustainable measures. Canada should consider expanding universal health-care coverage to include international students, placing caps on tuition fees for international students, and expanding the eligibility criteria for federally funded settlement services to include international students.

Our governments should also provide additional funding to colleges and universities to make it easier for international students to access better institutional support. Decades of government cuts to post-secondary funding has arguably made these institutions far too reliant on international tuition fees.

International students are a diverse group: Their cultural contexts, economic backgrounds, enrolment status and intersectionality are all factors that shape their needs and aspirations, so government policies should be flexible. And though they want to contribute to Canada, these students can’t just be seen as cash cows. They need holistic support services, as well as responsive and inclusive policies, to fully support their transition and permanent settlement in Canada.

Author(s)

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Sara Asalya is the founder and executive director of the Newcomer Students Association and a graduate student at the department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

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Alka Kumar is the manager of research and policy at the Newcomer Students Association, and as an adjunct consultant, she also works with organizations on projects to enhance inclusion, equity and social justice.