As Canada takes measures to curtail international students coming to our shores, Catholic universities and colleges are waiting to see how the new rules will affect them. Photo from LinkedIn

Catholic colleges hope cap targets ‘bad actors’

  • February 2, 2024

Canada’s Catholic colleges and universities are taking a “wait and see” view of the federal government’s Jan. 22 pronouncement of a two-year intake cap on international student permits.

As Canada experiences a severe housing crisis, with far too few homes for too many people, international students have been caught in the middle. Many people have targeted the influx of students — more than one million were admitted in 2023 alone, a 200-per-cent increase from 2015 — as one of the prevailing factors in the lack of housing that has led to skyrocketing prices for sales and rentals.

The new measures, announced by Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship (IRCC) Marc Miller, dictate that 360,000 study permits will be approved nationwide in 2024, a 35-per-cent decrease from 2023. A similar number of student visas will likely be approved in 2025, but reassessment at the end of this year is possible.

Miller said the reason for the cap is to stabilize and “protect an (international student) system that has become so lucrative that it has opened a path for its abuse.” According to the official government release, this decision was also made because “rapid increases in the number of international students arriving in Canada also puts pressure on housing, health care and other services.”

The IRCC will earmark a share of the cap for each province and territory. Provincial and territorial governments will then determine the share for each postsecondary institution. The attestation letters required to apply for study permits are expected to be finalized by March 31 at the latest. 

David Malloy, the president of King’s University College at Western University in London, Ont., said his “initial reaction was shock,” but his “sober second thought is to wait and see what this actually means.”

“Is this 35-per-cent cut across the board or is it going to be targeted to the bad players in the postsecondary sector?” pondered Malloy. “That is yet to be seen.”

Malloy agreed there are “bad actor” institutions that “are not providing international students with quality education, quality academic advising, any kind of academic or mental health counselling, sufficient residence experience.” He said these schools view international students “purely as a revenue source.”

David Sylvester, the president of the University of St. Michael’s College, federated with the University of Toronto, in an emailed statement reacted similarly to Malloy.

“As we await details of Ontario’s rollout plan, we will continue to advocate on behalf of international students who provide important knowledge, diversity and skills to our campus and community,” Sylvester wrote, adding he is also encouraged “to know that master’s and Ph.D. students, including those enrolling in the Regis (College) and St. Michael’s Faculty of Theology, will be exempt.”

Elementary and secondary school students are also exempt from the cap.

According to the University of St. Michael’s College website, 35-per-cent of its “student body is international, with students coming from 168 countries and regions.”

The Doug Ford government in Ontario previewed some new rules it will introduce in response to the international student cap. These measures include reviewing programs with a plethora of international students, a moratorium on new public college-private partnerships, an obligation for colleges and universities to guarantee housing and additional requirements that stipulate programs meet labour-market demands. More concrete information about these recommendations is expected to be released by the end of this month.

While concurring that “all of us are looking at international students for their tuition — there is no doubt about that,” Malloy said institutions “like King’s and many others are providing an overall positive student experience.” He believes postsecondary institutes are enhanced by the “quality of the interactions between international and domestic students.”

If the 35-per-cent cap decrease affects King’s as much as the schools deemed as “bad actors,” Malloy said he and his team will engage “in a comprehensive political communication” by pleading their case to the provincial government, elected officials, Universities Canada and other stakeholder groups, and by encouraging King’s alumni to raise their concerns.

“A 35-per-cent cut across the board would be devastating to the university and community college sector,” said Malloy. “It just doesn’t make sense to penalize postsecondary institutions that are functioning well in the truest sense of the word. The academic experience, bringing in qualified individuals to Canada that desperately needs the influx of international students and their families and businesses. This seems so counterproductive and such a blunt instrument.”

Conversely, Sandy Vanderburgh, the academic vice-president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary, said his school “is responding quite favourably” to the cap. He said St. Mary’s has a “very modest number of international students” and the school is presently trying to attract 15 more to abide by the planned growth guidelines stipulated in its strategic enrolment plan.

“We want to make sure that any international students we bring in are treated well and have all the supports that every student gets on campus,” said Vandenburgh. “We are really going to stage it out.”

In the long term, Vanderburgh envisions St. Mary’s reaching 100 international scholars, which would represent about 10 per cent of the student population.

Looking at the broader Canadian picture, Vanderburgh said he “personally feels” these changes are overdue. 

“If you look at us in Alberta, we have domestic students that cannot find housing and international students that can’t find housing,” said Vanderburgh. “Costs of housing have gone up so much in Calgary and Edmonton. These (measures) are an attempt to (address) that as well.”

Kim Rathwell, the communications manager for Campion College at the University of Regina, wrote, “We need more information to determine how this policy change might impact our students.” She also stated, “We greatly value our international students and will continue to promote the importance of a diverse college community.”

No B.C. Catholic colleges or universities have yet to weigh in on the cap. However, the B.C. government has announced it will “reign in” private colleges — dubbed as “diploma mills” — that collect high tuition from international students but offer them a poor learning experience. No new private colleges will receive approval over the next two years. The government also vows to ensure schools will prove their students meet the minimum provincial language requirements and are transparent about tuition costs.

Like Ontario, B.C. pledged that universities will be subject to more frequent inspections to ensure students are provided with quality housing options and armed with skills needed in the labour market.

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