Back in May, I wrote for The Lawyer’s Daily about the importance of speeding up all types of immigration and citizenship applications. At the time, there was a two million application backlog and I noted that a dysfunctional immigration system prevents us as nation from meeting our humanitarian objectives, our family reunification goals and also endangers our competitiveness as we need skilled workers for our nation’s economic well-being given our population has already aged and also because unemployment is so low.
At the time, I did not address international students specifically. Of course, Canada needs international students and there are major economic and cultural benefits. It should be obvious to everyone that most international students intend to become permanent residents and so these students also serve to meet Canada’s demographic needs given our population has already aged and we have a low birth rate.
Having said that, it is too simplistic to measure the success of international students only in terms of the billions of dollars they bring to Canada. Pre-Covid, international students were a $22 billion dollar industry with over 500,000 enrolled (https://www.google.ca/amp/s/www.theglobeandmail.com/amp/canada/article-universities-colleges-face-potential-budget-crunch-as-they-assess/). The Globe and Mail recently reported that Indian students alone contribute more than $4 billion in tuition fees with 260,000 students enrolled.
While the money foreign students bring in (they pay two or three times higher tuition than domestic students) certainly benefits Canada and our educational institutions, we should be concerned that our schools now rely on these funds. And while our reputation for safety and good schools is something to trumpet, we should not allow more students to come to Canada than our infrastructure can handle. That is, we should not allow greed by recruiters and schools to blind us to the basic needs of students in terms of things like accommodation given the lack of housing supply and the increasing cost of rent.
Moreover, some of the demand comes from rather unscrupulous ‘agents’ and consultants abroad. It has been reported that in India, advisers there are really selling permanent residence with education as a means to an end. Immigration is presented as guaranteed. Yet, the annual levels plan simply does not have the room for all the international students we are bringing in. Most students will seek a post-graduate open work permit and after working here a year in a ‘high skill’ role, they will meet the requirements of the Canada Experience Class. Yet, that category is lumped in with two other programs: the Federal Skilled Workers Program and the Federal Skilled Trades Program. There are only 55,900 immigration spots for these three programs for 2022. Given the many hundreds of thousands of international students we bring in annually, even if some use Provincial Nominee Programs or other niche programs or are sponsored by romantic partners, clearly not all will be able to immigrate.
One way to control the number of former students who are eligible for immigration programs is to prevent some from obtaining critical Canadian work experience by making it difficult for some to obtain post-graduate open work permits. Given the high cost of foreign tuition fees, one would think the Immigration Department would be accommodating when students run into difficulty. However, if a student fails a course, has less than a full-time courseload, neglects to pay part of a government fee or to upload a document correctly or inadvertently lets their study permit expire (confusing their longer visa validity with their permit), they could never qualify for the coveted post-graduate open work permit.
I believe we can recognize and tout the benefits of international students but that it’s perfectly fine to curtail demand somewhat by being more honest with prospective international students. A good immigration lawyer will always advise clients according to the client’s interests and will of course be honest about the prospects of ultimately immigrating. When advising about studying in Canada, a lawyer will provide a ‘heads up’ as to the importance of studying full-time, not working more than 20 hours per week, maintaining the validity of the study permit, etc. Lawyers undergo rigorous training and ethics are instilled throughout that training.
Unfortunately, we know that most international students do not get their advice from lawyers. Indeed, those from Western countries tend to hire immigration lawyers whereas those from developing countries tend to hire immigration consultants – some who are registered and some who are not. I have seen countless clients tear up and explain that they received inaccurate advice throughout their journey, starting from advisors in their home country to those who are here.
Somehow, international students need to receive accurate information. Given this government insists on allowing non-lawyers to practice law (unlike the US, Germany and many other countries), I suggest that visa offices write directly to applicants. They should be told that private colleges do not lead to post-graduate open work permits and there should be a frank disclosure about the number of immigration spots available for typical programs designed for those who work in Canada after graduating.
Post secondary institutions are now dependent on foreign tuition fees, much like provincial government are addicted to gambling revenues. They will call for faster processing and will open up more and more programs for students. Not too long ago, I saw some schools move to ‘distance learning’ programs when they ran out of physical space for their international students – and at a time when no amount of distance learning was acceptable in terms of qualifying for the post-graduate open work permit.
The high rate of suicide by Indian foreign students in particular has been widely reported on and is extremely tragic. I know from my clients that many come to Canada with tuition fees paid for with their parents’ life savings. Being lied to about their prospects for permanent residence and then stymied by overly rigid rules and misguided throughout, some will drop out and go underground and lie to family back home and some who are set up to fail will literally be unable to pass their courses. The end result for too many is that they take their own lives.
We should limit the practice of law to lawyers so that families of international students get the honest advice they deserve. We should provide transparency and visa offices should warn students admitted to private colleges about the inability to secure a post-graduate open work permit and there should be honest messaging around permanent residence prospects directly communicated. Eligibility criteria for student visas should also be more transparent and the Student direct Stream requiring a Guaranteed Investment Certificate with a Canadian bank of $10,000 and a minimum language scores should be expanded.