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Time to rethink Canada’s international education strategy

With the integrity of the international student system under fire, what can universities do?
JAN 10 2024

Time to rethink Canada’s international education strategy

With the integrity of the international student system under fire, what can universities do?


Sunil Semplay arrived in Thunder Bay, Ont. in early 2022 to a winter of “unrelenting cold,” when locals were breaking their shovels just trying to dig out of the snowbanks.

But things felt pretty good to Sunil, besides missing his home in decidedly warmer Punjab, India. The computer science undergraduate had received a $10,000 annual scholarship to study at Lakehead University, a big reason for choosing the school. People were friendly. And with the pandemic still ongoing, “there was nobody around,” making part-time jobs plentiful, as well as housing.

Two years on, there have been many more bumps in the road. While he doesn’t regret his choice, he’s been caught out by annual tuition increases – he’s paying about $31,000 this year – without a corresponding change in his scholarship amount (Lakehead says in addition to expanding scholarships, it periodically increases their value, most recently in 2021, by as much as 50 per cent). He’s working three part-time jobs to help cover his costs. As a Lakehead student union board member, he was getting daily messages last fall from fellow international students desperately seeking a place to live. Canada has provided him with opportunities, he says. “But if somebody asked me back in India about whether they should come here, I wouldn’t hesitate to say no. It’s not a good place anymore. It was at one time.”

Reputational risk has been top-of-mind for those concerned with Canada as a competitive player in the global education market, as headlines have mounted countrywide with (sometimes worse) variations of Mr. Semplay’s story. Global Affairs Canada (GAC), the federal department responsible for trade issues, has been consulting with the sector since last year in advance of an expected renewal of its international education strategy in early 2024. It has been focused on dealing more effectively with national and regional labour market needs, spreading international students more broadly across the country (most end up in Ontario and British Columbia), and protecting the Canadian brand by dealing with problems such as unscrupulous recruiters. Meanwhile, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) minister Marc Miller announced changes in late October 2023 to protect students against fraudulent admissions offers and “reward the good actors” that meet higher standards for student supports and outcomes.

“If somebody asked me back in India about whether they should come here, I wouldn’t hesitate to say no. It’s not a good place anymore.”

While Mr. Miller declined to cap the number of issued study permits for the time being, an idea floated earlier in 2023, the sentiment even within the sector is that it’s time for a reckoning in what, by the numbers anyway, has been a runaway success story. Between 2014, the year of the country’s first formal international education strategy, and 2022, the number of study permits granted to international students rose from 330,000 to 805,000, 40 per cent of them at universities. The idea was that Canada could offer a high-quality education at a globally competitive price in a safe country that valued international students, not only for their short-term spending but as a future source of educated workers. The worry is that we are not fully living up to that promise. “If Canada fails to hold up its end of the bargain with international students, if we do not provide a first-rate educational experience, our global reputation as a study destination will be diminished,” the Canadian Bureau of International Education warned in its submission to the GAC consultation.

Illustration with bilingual welcome mat on top of a bunch of books.

It’s not like universities haven’t planned for international students. But the initial starting point for their presence in enrolment plans and internationalization strategies over the years seems to have been how many to recruit and from where, as universities began confronting the prospect of flat or declining domestic enrolments in the 2010’s along with tightened government funding. Cape Breton University, in Sydney, N.S., is an extreme case, growing from nearly 2,600 students in 2017 to 9,100 in a pandemic-delayed double cohort last fall, 80 per cent of them being international students, though it says it’s working to stabilize that at 7,000 by 2027, with only 60 per cent accounting for international students. Internationalization has been “an existential necessity” for CBU and an important economic boost to the region, CBU’s director of international recruitment and global partnerships, Victor Tomiczek wrote in The PIE News.

Private career colleges have been blamed for some of the worst unsustainable growth and sub-par student support. But even universities with lower proportions of international students can struggle to keep up with their unique needs. While students are capable, they often require additional support such as extra time, attention and language help that faculty are challenged to deliver, says Nigmendra Narain, who teaches political science at Western University in London, Ont. (about 14 per cent of the university’s nearly 34,000 students were international in 2021-2022). Meanwhile services elsewhere at the university are being stretched thinner under a financial environment that leaves Ontario dead-last for per student government funding, and highly dependent on international student tuition. Add to that difficulties with acculturation, housing and finances, as well as missing classes due to job conflicts, and “none of the focus is on providing them with a quality education at our world-class university. Instead we’re dealing with the many pressures they’re facing inside and outside the classroom,” says Mr. Narain, who is also the president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations which has advocated for improved provincial funding. International students “don’t deserve to be treated like chronic ATMs,” he adds. “Eventually it results in a situation that does feel irresponsible.”

Community matters

A stable housing environment and connecting with the local community have been important ingredients in the undergraduate student experience for Bryan and Neil Oforikuma. The brothers from Ghana live in a close-knit residence of about 100 mostly international students which St. John’s, a founding college of the University of Manitoba, operates on a cost recovery basis. “You have people to talk to, so it reduces that loneliness factor and you have a lot of outreach services,” says Neil. Bryan credits joining an on-campus Rotary Club chapter for giving the two brothers local volunteering opportunities, including helping out with a Winnipeg Habitat for Humanity home-building project last summer. “It’s made me become more outgoing and extroverted – to come out of my shell,” says Bryan, “and also to meet interesting people and their visions and what they believe and their culture.”


“You have to chart your own course”

Lanre Adenekan “got so many rejections,” after finishing a master’s degree in management, international accounting and finance at the University of Windsor in 2019. Five years later though, Mr. Adenekan has made Windsor his home, became a Canadian citizen and is a chartered professional accountant working as a senior treasury analyst. “I’m in demand,” he says. His degree helped, but so did prior banking experience in his native Nigeria and ongoing self-directed professional development, including studying for the CPA while under pandemic lockdown. However, some of his fellow international graduates remain in low-wage, customer-care jobs. Canada and its universities, he advises, should not oversell what students should expect, and should present realistic data about relevant employment rates and accurately counsel students on how much money they’ll need for their expenses. Students shouldn’t expect universities to equip them with absolutely everything they’ll need to succeed once they’re done: “Initially, life is going to be a struggle,” he says. “You have to chart your own course.”

Building connection

Besides showing that international students are valued beyond their high tuition fees, they need to feel like they belong, an important factor if Canada wants them to stay long term. A 2021 CBIE survey found that more than a third did not feel connected to other Canadian students. International students are often left “to take an active role in adapting to their host university,” notes Juana Du, a professor in the master’s program in intercultural and international communication at Royal Roads University in Victoria, B.C. This can draw “an invisible line between international students and domestic students,” she says, squandering the often-touted opportunity for both groups to learn from each other and form relationships. Her research suggests that universities must go beyond welcome week activities and provide ongoing ways for all students to connect through classroom, extracurricular activities and the cultivation of a campus culture that does not silo diversity.

This is what Saba Safdar strives for in her third-year cross-cultural psychology course at the University of Guelph after similar findings in her research. Domestic and international students team up to work on a cross-cultural topic, such as friendship, exploring the different ways it can be expressed and writing about it from a psychological perspective. International students “do not have enough interaction with domestic students … The more interaction we have, the more we end up questioning some of those ways of thinking that we have,” Dr. Safdar says, “and I believe it is an innovative way of bringing students together.” However, for it to be more than a one-off, “we need task forces, we need leadership, we need committees to come together to come up with these ideas,” she says. International students can benefit from services that are tailored to their needs, such as one-on-one mentorship, she says, but international student offices tend to be overworked and understaffed. Even where services do exist, students don’t always know about them or access them. Some universities however, such as the University of Calgary, use domestic student volunteers in peer programs that help new international students figure out how things work at their school, even something as simple as being allowed to knock on a professor’s door or drop a course without penalty after writing an initial test.

“International students don’t deserve to be treated like chronic ATMs. Eventually it results in a situation that does feel irresponsible.”

While Canada is intent on international students staying to work after graduation, Dr. Safdar’s research also shows that process is not straightforward. The International Student Barometer, an annual survey done by i-graduate, a global education benchmarking service, found that “future career impact” has been the top reason since 2018 for students’ choice to go abroad, even influencing whether they recommend their institution to others. However, in Canada, international students have limited access to work-integrated learning opportunities such as co-ops and internships, Dr. Safdar says, which compromises their post-graduation Canadian job prospects. In a recent study Dr. Safdar conducted, not yet published, she and colleagues found international students were significantly less likely to have pre-graduation work experience and had lower post-graduation incomes compared to domestic students with the same education level.

Tailoring co-op and internship programs to international students is one solution suggested by the researchers. International students undertaking co-ops or internships have required a special permit in addition to their regular study permit. However, the placements must be a mandatory part of their program, making it difficult if not impossible for them to participate in similar elective opportunities. Universities Canada, for example, has advocated for a regular study permit to automatically include the ability to undertake mandatory and optional work-integrated learning.

Employability problems are among many that underscore the importance of Canada paying attention to the entire international student journey, from application to post-graduation; not just their initial recruitment and welcome, says Isaac Garcia-Sitton, executive director, international student enrolment, education and inclusion at Toronto Metropolitan University. Housing, affordability and bureaucratic barriers are “systemic in nature” and require he says, “a strategic approach and concerted efforts across multiple stakeholders to be adequately addressed.” CBIE, for example, is calling for a strategy involving local communities, businesses and other agencies with a stake and an interest in international students’ success. They may also have existing services and capacities that could help support international students, but these need to be woven together. “International education tends to fall through the cracks,” acknowledges Larissa Bezo, CBIE’s president and chief executive officer. “We don’t do this in any systematic way.” Data about local labour markets, housing and other community realities should be collected and integrated for a better match between international students and communities that need and can accommodate them, she says. “We’re flying blind in many areas.”

However, connecting international students to local employers has not been a problem at Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue (UQAT), where they make up eight per cent of its 6,000-plus enrolment. Instead, UQAT has been working with industry partners to ensure the students can finish their programs before they’re snapped up to fill a chronic regional labour shortage. The greater difficulty, besides a corresponding longstanding lack of housing, has been trying to admit more of them, partly due to immigration department study permit delays and refusals (Quebec’s francophone universities have faced a high study permit refusal rate for students admitted from French-speaking African countries). UQAT’s president, Vincent Rousson, says last fall only 27 out of 42 newly admitted international students were able to claim provincially-funded bursaries because of immigration processing delays. “A more direct partnership with our universities” and the federal government would help, Dr. Rousson says, given that the students have already been vetted by their institutions. Such barriers aside, UQAT’s target is to grow international students to no more than 18 per cent of enrolment over the next decade: “Having too many students too fast would be harmful for them and for our university and our partners also. So [we’re] going at it more slowly,” Dr. Rousson says.

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

Moving eastward, Shawna Garrett has seen the positive impacts of a collaborative approach to match local labour needs with international students’ skills. Study and Stay — Nova Scotia, a program she oversees, provides tailored mentorship, career development and networking opportunities to final-year international university and college students across the province each year. It has been so successful – 86 per cent of its graduates are working in their chosen field of study in the province within one year post-graduation – that it has spread to each of the three other Atlantic provinces which operate it independently with federal funding. However, Nova Scotia’s “capstone” version of the program can only take 100 students annually. In a bid to scale things up, a second “foundations” program began this year for 400 lower-year students. Ms. Garrett credits the results to relentlessly collecting and analyzing data identifying student and local labour market needs and gaps, encouraging students to connect and engage with their local communities, and broad-based collaboration with colleges and universities, employers, non-profit agencies and government. “It’s a very grassroots, community-based, stakeholder-based program,” says Ms. Garrett, president and CEO of EduNova, a non-profit cooperative funded by the federal and Nova Scotian governments, and educational partners. “We’re really drawing on a cross-section of expertise.”

The global exchange of culture and ideas is a big part of the promise of international education advocates say, which suffers if it carries the burden of insufficient coordination and support. “As a political scientist who still teaches, I can’t tell you how amazing it is to have students from around the world talking about their own experiences, whether we’re talking about climate change or social policy or democracy,” says Joseph Wong, vice-president, international at the University of Toronto, home to the country’s largest population of international students at more than 27,000, roughly 26 per cent of its total student body. The university’s current international plan includes setting aside six per cent of the hefty international student fees it collects (around $60,000 and up) for dedicated scholarships. It also provides a $3 million international student experience fund in seed money for initiatives to support their success, such as Toronto orientation welcoming events attended by alumni, a first-year buddy program and intercultural training for faculty.

International students by the numbers

University of British Columbia (2022-23): 19,909 out of a total of 72,585 (27 per cent)
Top source countries: China, India, U.S.
International student tuition for bachelor of science: $46,296 per year
Domestic student tuition: $5,843 per year


McGill University (2023-24): 11,987 out of a total enrolment of about 40,000 (30 per cent)
Top source countries: China, U.S., France
International student tuition and fees for bachelor of science: $61,326 per year
Quebec student tuition and fees: $5,292 per year


University of Regina (2023-24): 4,148 out of a total enrolment of 16,860 (25 per cent)
Top source countries: India, Nigeria, China
International student tuition and fees for bachelor of science: $24,822 per year
Domestic student tuition and fees: $8,877 per year


Memorial University (2022-23): 4,500 out of a total enrolment of 19,020 (24 per cent)
Top source regions: Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East and North Africa
International student tuition in 2023-24: $20,790
Domestic student tuition: $6,240 per year


University of Guelph: (2023) 1,750-plus out of a total enrolment of 30,040 (6 per cent)
International student tuition and fees for bachelor of science: $35,439 per year
Domestic student tuition and fees: $7,728 per year


Université du Québec à Montréal (2022-23): Approximately 4,876 out of a total enrolment of 35,200 (14 per cent)
International student tuition (not including France and Belgium): $24,600 per year
Quebec student tuition: $3,640 per year

Embracing international students as integral to its mission as a global university with the goal of increasing their numbers in proportion with an overall enrolment increase, U of T was among one of the Canadian universities advocating for the kind of distinction that resulted in IRCC’s “recognized institutions” model announced last October, to be implemented in time for fall 2024. Institutions receiving the designation based on indicators such as housing availability and student supports will be eligible for expedited study permit processing, IRCC said at the time, though more details weren’t yet available.

Meanwhile, CBIE is working on a code of ethics that it would like to become mandatory for every Canadian educational institution approved by a provincial or territorial government to host international students. Unlike a recognized institution-style framework that Ms. Bezo argues “segments institutions – you’re either in that list or you’re not,” the code would require all educational institutions to base international recruitment on numbers that they and their communities can support and to prioritize student wellbeing. A framework for ensuring that institutions work only with qualified, ethical education agents is also planned.

Canada is not alone; competitors such as the U.K. and Australia have both been grappling with criticism that their international education sector is growing unbridled while quality and the student experience suffer. But how the country chooses to proceed through the current morass is uniquely ours to determine. Immigration Minister Marc Miller has cautioned that “consistent underfunding of postsecondary education” among provinces has created “perverse incentives” within the international student system, warranting a broader discussion (a government-appointed panel in Ontario recommended in late November 2023 that the province increase its per-student funding and tuition fees for domestic students). Housing is another national issue that universities can’t solve themselves. Whatever the path forward, it’s a good bet that students like Sunil Semplay will have more options for where to make their future careers than time to wait.

Moira MacDonald
Moira MacDonald is a Toronto-based journalist.
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