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Access denied: High refusal rates of study permits an issue at francophone universities

The application process for international student visas is putting French-language universities at a disadvantage.
AUG 24 2022

Access denied: High refusal rates of study permits an issue at francophone universities

The application process for international student visas is putting French-language universities at a disadvantage.


In recent years, French-speaking African students who want to pursue higher education in Canada have faced high refusal rates for study permits, even if they have already been accepted by a Canadian institution – and French-language universities are paying the price. Since 2014, the number of international students at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières (UQTR) has climbed 142 per cent, with a 280 per cent surge in students from French-speaking African countries. “They represent 65 per cent of our international student body – the largest percentage among all Quebec universities,” says President Christian Blanchette.

But in recent years, UQTR has been struggling with the federal government’s unusually high refusal rate for study permits from students in francophone African countries – fluctuating between 78 per cent and 90 per cent between 2019 and 2022. By comparison, 90 per cent of Chinese students admitted to UQTR were granted a study permit.

And the problem isn’t unique to UQTR. Université de Montréal’s recruitment efforts in French-speaking African countries have paid off with an increase in admission applications from these countries. But there has been no corresponding increase in enrolment.

“It stands to reason that some students don’t end up enrolling because the government refused their study permit application,” says U de M spokesperson Geneviève O’Meara. “Our records show that we have to unenrol more students from Africa compared to countries like India, China and Brazil – a gap that has only widened in recent years.”

The issue affects every French-language university in Canada. Université de Moncton, for instance, began actively recruiting international students in the mid-1990s, with the goal of becoming a top study-abroad destination for the French-speaking world. However, this is hard to achieve given the visa refusal rate. “This year alone we received 4,000 international applications and made 1,500 offers, but only 200 of those candidates will end up studying here,” says U de Moncton President and Vice-Chancellor Denis Prud’homme.

‘The numbers speak for themselves’

While Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) maintains that all applications are assessed equally, a look at the data reveals the magnitude of the problem. In 2021, the department refused 72 per cent of applications from African countries with a large French-speaking population, versus 35 per cent for all other regions of the world.

The statistics are skewed by the volume of applications from China and India, which account for nearly half of all applications. Exclude them, and the gap between French-speaking African countries and the rest of the world widens even more. Only 17 per cent of students outside of Africa, China and India were refused.

“This year alone we received 4,000 international applications and made 1,500 oers, but only 200 of those candidates will end up studying here.”

By contrast, the permit refusal rate in 2021 was over 80 per cent for students from nine francophone African countries (Algeria, Benin, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, People’s Republic of Congo, Guinea and Togo). And only five recorded a refusal rate under 60 per cent (East Timor, Madagascar, Mauritius, Morocco and Tunisia). Canada’s French-language universities are suffering the most due to this problem. “When you see the permit approval rate for international students is close to 90 per cent at McGill University versus a mere 21 cent at UQTR, the numbers speak for themselves,” says Alexis Brunelle-Duceppe, member of Parliament for Lac-Saint-Jean, Que., and vice-chair of the standing committee on citizenship and immigration.

Multiple impacts

Francophone African countries are the main source for recruiting by Canadian French-language institutions. “It’s harder for them to tap into regions like Asia, western Europe and English-speaking Africa, unlike English-language universities,” says Étienne Carbonneau, director of support for internationalization for the Université du Québec network.

There is also a financial impact on universities, since international students pay much higher tuition than Canadian students. This is especially true in Quebec, where local tuition fees are kept relatively low. But it’s hard to tell how much revenue is being lost. “Unfortunately, institutions don’t always know why a candidate doesn’t show up,” explains Mr. Carbonneau, “which makes it difficult to calculate how many students couldn’t come because their permit application was denied.”

It also makes the process of recruiting international students more cumbersome. “If it takes 100 applications to get four enrolments, the institution still has to process 100 files and issue 100 offers,” says Mr. Carbonneau. “The refusal rate for francophone African students has been so high in recent years that it’s impossible to predict.”

Applicants from these countries also pay a heavy price personally. “For many of these students, all their life plans hinge on being able to study abroad,” explains Claire Launay, vice-president of the organization Le Québec c’est nous aussi. “When they receive an acceptance letter from a university, it’s a sign that things are starting to move forward. Having their visa application denied throws a wrench in their plans.”

Arbitrary reasons for refusal

It can be even more of a shock given that the reasons for refusal are often vague. One of the reasons most frequently mentioned by IRCC visa officers is a concern that the student will remain in Canada beyond their authorized length of stay. Applicants must prove they will leave the country once they have completed their studies. To make their decision, visa officers analyze the applicant’s letter of intent, their family ties in Canada and their home country, and even their travel history.

The idea of “dual intent” (coming to Canada to study and eventually to gain permanent resident status) is allowed, provided the applicant doesn’t stay in the country without a valid residence permit. But witnesses testifying before the standing committee acknowledged that they advise African students not to declare dual intent because it could end up working against them.

This justification goes against the federal and Quebec governments’ public claims that they want to attract more immigrants to address labour needs.

In May 2022, the Quebec government announced that, starting in fall 2023, international students enrolled in a French-language higher education institution outside the Montreal Metropolitan Area will pay the same tuition as their peers from Quebec, if they are pursuing studies in specific fields. Eligible programs of study include information technology, engineering, health and social services and education, all of which are experiencing severe staffing shortages.

At the national level, the federal government recently announced it would extend post-graduate work permits to international graduates. Students whose temporary status is expiring will be able to stay in Canada longer, thereby increasing their odds of obtaining permanent residency.

“International students from French-speaking African countries have studied in French, earned a degree in Quebec, built a community here and often already have job offers,” says Mr. Brunelle-Duceppe. “Telling them to go home runs counter to our needs and hits Quebec especially hard.”

Yet professional recruiters are trying to sell African students on the opportunity of moving to Canada permanently. “The prospect of obtaining permanent residency is part and parcel of the study plans these recruiters put out, so it’s even more surprising that so many applications are refused for fear the student will stay in Canada,” says Ms. Launay. She sees it as a sign that IRCC’s practices no longer adequately support Canada’s immigration targets (though the department disputes that).

“The prospect of obtaining permanent residency is part and parcel of the study plans these recruiters put out, so it’s even more surprising that so many applications are refused for fear the student will stay in Canada.”

Visa officers may also justify a refusal out of concern that a student does not have sufficient financial resources. But many French-speaking African students are denied because the visa officer screening their application doesn’t feel their chosen program of study is reasonable in light of their previous education, their professional background and other educational opportunities in their country.

That makes the president of UQTR’s blood boil. “In other words, the visa officer thinks the university shouldn’t have accepted the student – a decision that should be up to the institution, not IRCC,” says Dr. Blanchette. “We have robust admissions processes and structures in place. We don’t admit unqualified students into our programs.”

Bias and dysfunction

It’s difficult to pinpoint all the reasons for the high refusal rate. In May 2022, the standing committee tabled a highly anticipated report on the topic in the House of Commons. (The government hasn’t responded to the report yet. It has until Sept. 28 to do so.) It points to the possibility of racial bias against African students – especially those who speak French – at IRCC. In May 2021, the department acknowledged the presence of racism within its walls and made a commitment to combat it. When Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Sean Fraser appeared in front of the standing committee on March 24, he said: “it’s not lost on me that there have been some very serious issues that have pertained to IRCC. I’m not here to suggest that they have not taken place but to commit to improving them.”

Systemic dysfunction may partially explain the differential treatment. For instance, the documentation required for an application may vary by region, even for similar programs.

The report also raised concerns about using a software program called Chinook to process applications. Officially, it’s just an e-tool used by visa officers. It does not make decisions or filter anyone out. But some of its features could skew the results and help perpetuate bias against applicants from certain countries.

Nadia Barrou, who has been an immigration lawyer for over 25 years, points to another phenomenon that could be working against African applicants. She says private professional schools have multiplied in Canada in recent years, targeting the African market because so many young people there are interested in studying abroad. These professional programs have been very successful because they are less expensive and don’t take as long as university studies.

Third-party recruiters find students for these schools in exchange for big commissions. “Schools lowered their tuition fees to stay competitive and shelled out increasingly high commissions to recruiters, so there wasn’t much leftover to fund their programs,” says Ms. Barrou. “Few of their graduates are working in their field. Enrolling in these schools was mostly a vehicle for getting into Canada.”

The federal government’s counterstrategy was to limit the number of permits allotted for these programs. “So the third-party recruiters started advising students to get accepted to a university and then transfer to a professional school once they’re in the country,” explains Ms. Barrou. “This fuelled distrust toward African student applications and contributed to the surge in the refusal rate.”

The standing committee report includes no fewer than 35 recommendations to address the differential treatment of applications from Africa. One of the most important is to establish an ombudsperson’s office at IRCC. “We’ve been asking for it for a long time and we hope it will finally materialize,” says Mr. Brunelle-Duceppe. “One of the main problems we point to in the report is the lack of transparency in IRCC’s processes and reasons for refusal. An ombudsperson would help rectify that.”

The report also recommends improving the mechanisms for validating future international students’ financial information, providing a comprehensive plan on how to reduce the high rates of refusal for francophone student visas, streamlining the application process, speeding up processing times and clarifying how dual intent works.

Preserving Canada’s reputation

Dan Weber, senior director of innovation and strategy with ApplyBoard, a Canadian company that helps international students apply for postsecondary study abroad, believes Canada stands to miss out if it does not improve the way applications from Africa are processed. “Many African countries have long been experiencing a demographic boom. Their population is young, and these countries are struggling to meet demand for high-quality university studies,” he says. “This is a great opportunity for Canada as it tries to recruit more international students and welcome more immigrants.”

“Competition for international students remains strong, so if Canada doesn’t treat applicants well, it could tarnish our reputation in certain regions.”

Canada has developed an enviable reputation over the years by creating conditions favourable to foreign students – such as the ability to work during and after their studies. But many other countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States, have also beefed up their efforts. “Competition for international students remains strong, so if Canada doesn’t treat applicants well, it could tarnish our reputation in certain regions,” says Mr. Weber.

One thing is clear: Canada’s French-language institutions have no intention of giving up. “Quite the contrary. We are continuously ramping up our recruitment efforts, especially in countries with high refusal rates, in the hopes that acceptance levels will start going up,” says Université Laval spokesperson Jérôme Pelletier. “We hope the improvements proposed in the standing committee’s report will help do just that.”

Jean-François Venne
Jean-François Venne is a Montreal-based journalist specializing in education, research, innovation and business.
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