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International students are an asset we need to cultivate

September 13, 2016

3-minute read

For many Canadians, September means back-to-school time. For a growing number of students, it’s also welcome-to-Canada time. International students are increasingly a boon to our schools, our economy and our tax base. The former Conservative government’s approach to these students was: you’re welcome to come, but you can’t stay. That’s a maddening waste. Just ask Lucas Alves.

Lucas came to Montreal from Brazil in August 2011 to study French at a language school. His experience led him to want to make his home here. Already fluent in English and Portuguese, Lucas and his family paid $15,000 a year in tuition for an architectural technician program at George Brown College to turn the dream into reality. To cover costs, Lucas worked as a cleaner and in food services.

When Lucas arrived, he had cause to believe he could build his life here as a Canadian citizen. In 2008, Ottawa had created the Canadian Experience Class, providing a pathway to permanent residency to international students with two years of Canadian work experience. International students have been allowed to hold on-campus jobs since 1988, and later allowed to work up to three years anywhere in Canada after graduation. The promise of a chance to study and work your way toward citizenship enticed thousands of young students to come to Canada.

But in 2013, and again in 2015, the federal government changed the rules of the game. For Lucas, years of high tuition costs and hard work had only paved a road back to Brazil. He’s not alone.

By Dec. 31, 2015, 352,960 international students were registered at schools across Canada. That figure is twice the number enrolled in 2006, which in turn was twice as many as in 1995. This growth is no accident. In 1995, Jean Chretien’s Liberal government cut funding to the provinces for post-secondary education. Colleges and universities have been scrambling ever since to find new revenue sources.

International students have become a critical piece of the puzzle for funding higher education. Their enrolment in our post-secondary institutions is accelerating at a far faster pace than that of domestic students. International students now account for about one in six students on campuses across Canada, more in big cities. For example, 20 per cent of University of Toronto’s 16,000-strong student body are international students.

These students pay a hefty premium for the privilege of studying here. According to Statistics Canada, average undergraduate tuition in Canada now is $6,373 for Canadians, $23,589 for international students. While the price differential varies across Canada, Toronto’s colleges and universities charge international students about three times more than domestic students.

A federal report estimated that in 2010, international students spent almost $8 billion in Canada on tuition, accommodation and other expenses, creating 81,000 jobs and generating $455 million in tax revenue. Those figures were so impressive that in 2013 the Harper government’s Economic Action Plan budgeted $23 million over two years to market Canadian degrees abroad and recruit students, and added funds to enhance processing capacity.

By all accounts, the marketing ploy was successful, as post-secondary enrolments of international students soared by 28 per cent in two years. Today they infuse over $12 billion into the Canadian economy, more than the contribution of the media sector.

But as the Conservatives opened the floodgates to these temporary entrants, they simultaneously choked off their passage to permanent residency.

The federal government started delisting some occupations that were previously good enough to be considered valid Canadian work experience, putting you on the Experience Class’ pathway to permanent resident status. Suddenly, if your job was in food or retail — the most common jobs for students, international or domestic — you were out of luck.

As a result, more of the world’s best and brightest are coming to Canada, but fewer can stay, by policy design. Instead of seeing them as A-list candidates for Canadian citizenship, they have become Grade-A cash cows for a chronically underfunded system.

There is an opportunity to rethink our goals this fall, when immigration reform turns up on the Parliamentary agenda.

Every nation requires people of all skill levels, high and low, to contribute not just to the economy, but to society. If nothing changes, by 2034, one in four Canadians will be aged 65 or older. We are competing with every other aging nation to attract the best and the brightest from all over the world. Their ranks include people who simply want to study and work to better their lives, and in the process better the communities they choose to live in.

The Liberals should move swiftly to reboot the Experience Class program so international students like Lucas aren’t merely welcomed to study and spend in Canada, but welcomed to stay and build their future here.

Armine Yalnizyan is senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. You can follow her on twitter @ArmineYalnizyan. Chris Grisdale is an award-winning Osgood Hall Law School graduate who recently articled with Minden Gross LLP. Chris was able to intern with CCPA courtesy of funding from the Ian Scott Public Interest award.

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