International students living in Canada are feeling both hopeful and frustrated over the cap on study permits the federal government announced last week.
Faced with life in cramped accommodation and struggling to find enough work to pay their fees, some students see the planned cut in visa numbers as welcome relief. But some also wonder why the government didn’t act sooner, and worry the new rules may signal a shift in Canada’s previously welcoming attitude toward international students.
Gurpreet Kaur has a degree in civil engineering from India and is studying construction project management at Lambton College’s private sector partner in Toronto, which offers the Sarnia college’s curriculum via a licensing agreement.
She considers herself lucky to have got in before the cap. Students in private-public partnership schools won’t be eligible for postgrad work permits in future, drastically reducing their odds of gaining permanent residency, a primary goal. She thinks a reduction in student numbers will cool demand for housing and make it easier to find work.
She pays about $500 a month for a shared bedroom in a basement in Brampton, Ont., a price that’s “way too high,” in her view.
“It will be a good thing for us, the students who are in Canada right now, because it will affect accommodation prices. The number of students will be lower and so accommodations will get cheaper,” Ms. Kaur said.
She said finding work, essential to paying her tuition fees, has been impossible in a labour market where she’s competing with tens of thousands of other international students for low-wage jobs.
“I came here in August and I’m still not getting anything. I’m struggling to get a general labour job.”
More than a million international students were in Canada in 2022, a number that had more than tripled over the previous decade. Their tuition fees, which are several times higher than those paid by domestic students, have become a crucial source of revenue for postsecondary institutions, part of a $22-billion international education industry nationwide, according to federal government estimates.
About 40 per cent of international students in 2022 hailed from India, 12 per cent from China, followed by the Philippines at 4 per cent and Iran, Nigeria and France at 3 per cent.
Immigration Minister Marc Miller said last week that growth in the international student program, which previously had no upper limit, was contributing to strain on housing and health care. Mr. Miller also cast doubt on the quality of education some students are receiving, comparing some private colleges to puppy mills and saying he had to act to protect the integrity of the program.
The cap is expected to reduce the number of new study permits issued by 35 per cent, to 360,000.
Gurpreet Malhotra, chief executive officer of Indus Community Services and an advocate for international students, described the situation he’s seen unfold in Mississauga and Brampton over the past few years, citing the example of 20 students sharing a suburban three-bedroom home, sleeping on mattresses on the floor.
He expressed frustration at those who have taken “cheap shots” at the students, blaming them for a long list of problems.
“It is not the international student’s fault that the provincial government has been so heavily underfunding the college system,” he said.
“When we follow the money, we see unscrupulous employers, landlords, colleges – private and public – and agents, all making money off of these young people. And we see young people knocking themselves out to try to make things work.”
Dhanwant Singh dreamed of studying abroad as a child growing up in Punjab. In a country like Canada, he was told, “You can earn anything if you work hard.” After enrolling in a two-year program in social services at Sheridan College in the Greater Toronto Area, Mr. Singh has found the reality “totally different.”
On top of attending classes full-time, he also works two part-time jobs – one of them on campus, and another at a grocery store stocking shelves. The cost of tuition is a source of constant stress. He doesn’t want to ask his family back in India for more money, saying they’ve already spent a lot to send him here.
“I feel like I have to be independent,” he said. “I don’t want my parents to know I’m not in a good condition.”
Balraj Kahlon, who advocates for international students through his non-profit One Voice, said the government should have acted sooner given the many warnings it had been given over the years.
He pointed to a report from Citizenship and Immigration Canada as far back as 2015 that urged the government to rein in “non-genuine” educational institutions.
“What took them so long to look at this issue seriously?” Mr. Kahlon said.
Jasmine Le, who has an undergraduate degree from Vietnam, saved her earnings for several years to pay her way to Toronto’s Seneca College in 2022. In November she posted a video from her convocation ceremony to social media, grinning proudly in a red cap and gown.
Since graduation, she’s been working in Toronto at an agency that recruits international students, most of them from Southeast Asia. She was disappointed to hear the government will now be placing limits on the number of international students that can arrive in future.
Many of her social media followers are young people in Vietnam, and she said she’s received numerous messages worried about the prospect of studying and working in Canada.
Most of all, she said she’s frustrated to hear international students be blamed for housing and job shortages.
“I don’t think international students are the problem. I think the problem is that we have to have better policy for housing – not to blame us,” she said.
Amritpaul Kaur, 23, a nursing graduate from Punjab, India, is studying health care leadership at Lambton. She said the government’s announcement addresses a concern she has heard from many fellow students, the high cost of living and lack of jobs. There’s a growing sense, particularly on social media, that opportunities are growing scarcer in Canada, she said.
“As international graduates we have to struggle a lot to find a job over here,” she said. “A lot of students also think we should go back to our home country as there is nothing for us in Canada.”
Japjyot Singh, a 19-year-old student from India at Cambrian College’s Toronto campus, said many students feel exploited, even if he doesn’t feel that way himself. He has only been in Canada a month, but he wonders if the mood of the country is shifting. Five years ago the attitude to international students was welcoming, and many jumped at the chance to come, but now he senses it might be about to change.
“Now the situation is upside down. Some people don’t like us,” he said.
JOE FRIESEN, POSTSECONDARY EDUCATION REPORTER
ANN HUI, DEMOGRAPHICS REPORTER
The Globe and Mail, January 31, 2024