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Canada is cutting international student visas—and that’s bad policy

Dramatically reducing the number of students admitted to Canada won’t solve the housing crisis—but it will hurt post-secondary institutions and all students

January 31, 2024

5-minute read

On Monday January 22, 2024 Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marc Miller announced several major changes to the federal international student program. Amongst these changes was a two-year cap that would see a 35 per cent reduction in the amount of newly admitted international students for Fall 2024 and would see a review of the cap at the end of that period.

Many people reading might be thinking that this is something the government has to do to reign in an “out of control system,” and you wouldn’t be at fault for thinking that if you’ve been listening to the way critics have been framing this issue. When looking at this most recent announcement we need to look at who it is addressing, what issue it is trying to solve, and what are the implications of this major decision.

Going after “bad actors?”

The 35 per cent reduction will be for new international students starting in Fall 2024. This across-the-board cut is meant, according to the federal press release announcing the measure, to address the fact that “more students have been arriving in Canada without the proper supports they need to succeed.” The release also claims that “rapid increases in the number of international students arriving in Canada also puts pressure on housing, health care and other services.” Although reasonable on paper, in practice it will look a lot different.

There still remains important questions on how this cap will be implemented. Which provinces will be most affected? Which institutions will see the most cuts to the amount of study visas they are able to distribute? The measure doesn’t directly attempt to address any of these questions, but the vast majority of international students study in just one province—Ontario. This is where the centre of this battle is, as over 50 per cent of all international students study in Ontario. It will be the province hardest hit by a cap on new international students.

The government says that this measure is meant to target “bad actors,” and not institutions across the board. The term “bad actors” can mean the ghost consultants who use predatory tactics and sell false promises of acquiring permanent residency with ease, or it can refer to the private career colleges that partner with public colleges that are teaching outdated courses and curriculums for exorbitant tuition costs.

Before arriving in Canada, many international students see ads of sunny campuses with smiling students that promise to give students the best Canada has to offer—painting a very unrealistic picture of a school that may actually be a small storefront in a random parking lot that will take advantage of students once they arrive. To better address these bad actors, the federal government would be better positioned to directly go after specific institutions rather than risk jeopardizing the entire post-secondary education system by using a broad brush without any precision.

International students are already precarious—this will make it worse

The average undergraduate tuition for international students in Ontario is $46,433 per year, the highest in the country and almost seven times higher than the average domestic tuition fee. With recent changes to financial requirements for international students, first-year international students in Ontario starting Fall 2024 aren’t getting student visas unless they have close to $67,000 up front. This does not account for all of the expenses many international students pay for education consultants to help with their application, application fees, travel expenses, cost of textbooks and a computer.

These high costs will only continue to worsen because of decisions like the feds’ cap on international students. Many provinces have already deregulated international student tuition, and so many international students already see increases every year to their tuition as high as eight per cent or more. Our entire post-secondary education system and the financial sustainability of many institutions in Canada are heavily reliant on high international student tuition fees—in part to subsidize tuition fees for domestic students and generate more revenue for university administrations.

The federal government is forcing institutions to cut an important revenue source by such a significant margin and not announcing increased public funding in education to offset the lost revenue. This will force many universities and colleges to raise international student tuition fees more significantly, and make post-secondary education more unaffordable and inaccessible for international student applicants moving forward.

International students didn’t cause this crisis

Critics—many of whom are anti-immigration to begin with— have taken to describing the international student program as out of control in recent years, framing this issue as a new development. Since the late 2010’s, governments and institutions have made considerable investments in targeting and recruiting international students.

The rate of international students has been steadily increasing for close to a decade but the growth rate of public funding for education and housing has not kept a sustainable pace. International students and advocates have, for decades, been trying to warn governments of this impending crisis that has existed for longer than just the past few years.

As many renters will tell you, this housing crisis is not new—it has plagued the working class for decades. The housing crisis existed well before massive increases in international student visas started to occur and will exist well beyond when those numbers decrease.

Institutions are so heavily reliant on international student tuition fees because, for several decades, the rate of public funding in post-secondary education has consistently declined. This has forced institutions to seek other methods to balance their budgets—such as privatizing campuses, securing private sector investments, and raising tuition fees. We have been at a boiling point for several years now and the only way to solve the issue of institutions becoming less reliant on international tuition fees is by increasing public funding for post-secondary education, to eventually be 100 per cent publicly funded.

The federal government and many provincial governments believe international students are driving up the price of housing. They will soften those accusations by saying international students are not the problem, but it is very clear they are the only ones being punished rather than going after the real culprit—real estate investors and developers who have created financialization of housing; the shift from housing as a right to housing as an investment. This is already on top of the lack of social housing and decreases in investments to social housing and rental assistance.

We are starting to see a shift in public sentiment towards immigrants and immigration in general. More people are starting to believe the false notion that immigrants are responsible for housing being inaccessible and unaffordable, while public sentiment that we are allowing too many immigrants into Canada is becoming uncomfortably common. Announcements like the international students cap contribute to this rhetoric—and have the potential to contribute to lateral violence; meaning that this rhetoric could lead to more violence against international students and immigrants.

The current post-secondary education model is a result of political choices—it does not need to be this way. We could have a system where anyone in Canada or around the world can study at some of the best institutions in the world without having to worry about the costs —but Canada needs to make that decision.

If we want a brighter future for students and institutions, we cannot implement a broad cap of any kind that does not include increasing public funding for education. We need serious commitments from both the federal government and provinces to long-term, consistent funding to make post-secondary education 100 per cent publicly funded, while working to drastically reduce the tuition fees of international students. We need to make historic investments in social housing and rental assistance for low-income renters—and penalize the actors that are profiting off of housing speculation by raising speculation and vacancy taxes.

We need to end this xenophobic narrative that international students are the cause of the housing crisis. It is not enough to simply say they are not the problem, the federal government and provinces need to go after the real “bad actors,” and stop scapegoating international students.

Topics addressed in this article

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