EDUCATION: CANADA’S CAPS AND CONFUSION

Published March 31, 2024
The cap on study permits has led to some colleges anticipating campus closures as the economic hit of lower student intake takes its eventual toll | RJ Johnston
The cap on study permits has led to some colleges anticipating campus closures as the economic hit of lower student intake takes its eventual toll | RJ Johnston

In January 2024, just when university students had returned to begin their winter semester, Canada’s federal government announced a two-year cap on the number of international students that Canada would be taking in for the upcoming fall semester starting in September 2024.

Varying from province to province in quota, the cap will effectively result in a 35 percent reduction of international students coming to study in Canada this year, as compared to 2023. This, in turn, means a lot of rejected student visa applications, thwarted students, as well as a downward economic impact on Canadian universities.

As a sought-after destination for students around the world, Canada’s universities offer some of the best higher education options for international students, attracting large numbers from Pakistan as well as other countries.

Primarily, Indian students make up the vast majority of Canadian international students — approximately 40 percent of the total international students, as reported by the Canadian Bureau of International Education (CBIE, January 2024).

The Canadian government’s recently announced two-year cap on study permits has thrown international students and educational institutes across the country into chaos

The cap on student permits put in place by the Canadian federal government is the result of a vast number of fraudulent admission practices by Indian agencies, which has been putting immense pressure on an overstretched and under-resourced Canadian immigration system for a few years.

In June 2023, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) sought to deport 700 Indian international students because of a scam uncovered by verifying fraudulent acceptance letters attributed to Canadian educational institutions. The students remained in limbo for four months, waging a protest at the Pearson International airport and urging the IRCC to assess their cases again, as they claimed that they too were duped and now their deportation would ruin all their future prospects.

The IRCC finally agreed to assess each individual case and, subsequently, will assign resident permits to genuine students who were pursuing their studies and had not been part of the scam to just enter Canada and its work force.

There is, however, considerable ambiguity regarding how legitimate cases will be distinguished from fraudulent activities. It is feared that the decision-making process will lead to several discrepancies as IRCC sorts out the legal status of these students, some of whom have even completed their programmes and are in jobs, halfway towards gaining their immigration status.

Canada’s International Student Programme has been facing several challenges for years now despite its successful run. International students comprise a healthy component of Canada’s economic growth, which has been the vital factor in all its immigration policies as well. For their part, international students are attracted to Canadian universities because of the more affordable dollar exchange rate, as compared to the US, where tuition fees are also much higher.

The tragedy however lies in the subsequent problems faced by international students once they land here — with or without genuine papers.

Foremost is the housing challenge that big cities like Toronto are currently going through. In fact, the reason that brought on the two-year federal government cap and exposed the falsified documents of the Indian students was the burden of housing shortage for Toronto locals as well as the shabby living conditions of many students. The latter were being mistreated and, in some cases, even sexually abused by landlords taking advantage of the rising cost of housing.

While Pakistan does not fall in the top 10 source countries for international students and most Pakistanis are not at risk of deportation — because most come from a more stable set-up with valid paperwork — the burden of housing costs is, nevertheless, hitting their families back home hard as well.

University dorms, which include mandatory meal plans with upfront payments, are almost prohibitive in their pricing structure and students are scurrying to find roommates to afford reasonable rooms in a shared apartment. In areas where the universities are located, the situation is again exploitative and room rents can go up to 1,200 Canadian dollars per student, for a small bedroom in an apartment being shared by three or more students.

Lapses within Canada’s immigration system are one of the causes for the fallout being felt by international students applying for permits and the increased susceptibility to fraud. Due to government oversight, some lesser known private Canadian colleges were exposed last year for misleading international students and scamming them with false admissions and taking their admission fee only for the students to find out upon landing that the admissions were a hoax.

Between 2015 and 2022, the Canadian federal government increased the number of study permits for international students by 151.7 percent. The resulting international student enrolment growth during those years surpassed planned permanent immigration. With no subsequent thought given to the housing dilemma that would naturally take place as a result of such a big influx of students, real estate pricing got out of hand in big cities such as Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.

Ironically, the cap that has now been placed by Ottawa as a kneejerk reaction to this dilemma is only going to complicate matters and much of the brunt will be felt by international students already enrolled here. The most obvious repercussion will be on the fees structure, as the economic shortfall created by fewer new entrants will have to be evened out by universities and colleges via existing students.

The nationwide drop in new international students will further create a more competitive entrance criterion, which will mean fewer acceptances by prestigious universities and an augmented entrance package for the privileged ones who are accepted.

More concerning is the possibility that several programmes/courses might have to be cut as the ripple effect of lower incoming students takes place. With the revenue brought in by international students, universities and colleges are able to fund a wider curriculum selection, benefitting both international as well as local students. Now the courses may drastically be reduced, when the incoming student ratio results in general budget cuts.

Ironically, the state of the housing sector, which mainly triggered the appraisal of the student immigration programme, will still not be seeing any change or resolution to the housing shortage in the immediate future anyway. The availability of decent housing options requires heavy investment, which neither the provinces nor the federal government is willing to make, each taking its hands off the matter, stating that it should be up to each city to deal with their influx of newcomers.

Meanwhile the fallout of past and present immigration policies are largely being borne by international students, some of whom are in such dire straits that they actually resort to eating less just so that they can pay rent.

The extended outcome of the housing dilemma and the subsequent lack of support for international students has left them exposed to other challenges, such as food insecurity, mental health concerns, racism and social marginalisation.

The cap on study permits comes at a time when students – international and domestic — are expecting their letters of acceptances to be mailed to them. Educational institutes across Canada have subsequently been thrown into chaos, as fewer admissions now means that some of the programmes that the students were admitted to might not even be available anymore. Some colleges are even predicting campus closures as the economic hit of lower student intake takes its eventual toll.

A cautionary note to all students who get acceptance letters from Canada: they should double-check their courses and programme availability and, if possible, should also pre-arrange their housing, instead of landing in a situation that leaves them susceptible to exploitation and abuse.

The writer is a former member of staff and a writer/columnist covering social and geopolitical issues in Karachi and Toronto. She can be reached at maheenrashdi@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 31st, 2024

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