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Is Canada’s reputation in the international student marketplace in jeopardy?

Universities worry the new cap on international study permits will also lead to program cuts and increased tuition fees.


After months of indications that the federal government might introduce changes to its intake of international students, the Canadian higher education sector is now scrambling to make sense of a new, sweeping measure that will affect postsecondary institutions across the country.

On Jan. 22, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marc Miller confirmed that there will be a cap imposed on international student permit applications, citing a desire to rein in institutional “bad actors” and stabilize international student enrollment. Mr. Miller had previously likened such a measure to doing “surgery with a hammer,” telling reporters in October that the government was seeking a more precise approach to what he characterized as a “multi-layered, complex problem.”

Effective immediately, the new policy will allow approximately 360,000 permit approvals in 2024 – only 65 per cent of the 500,000 permits approved last year – and will remain in place for two years. However, it will not block access for current study permit holders, graduate students and grade school students. The government is expected to reassess the situation later this year before setting an intake threshold for 2025.

According to a government source that spoke to the Globe and Mail, it was predicted that international student numbers would rise to 1.4 million by the end of this year if not capped. By December 2023, there were already over one million study permit holders in the country – at least half of whom were enrolled at Ontario institutions.

Adding stress to a stressed system

To administer the new policy, the department of immigration, refugees and citizenship will grant each province and territory an allotment of international student spots according to population. Provinces and territories will then distribute their allotment between the authorized colleges and universities under their jurisdiction.      

Consequences will be most drastic for provinces with disproportionate international student populations – for example, the cap will slash Ontario’s intake by roughly half. British Columbia and Nova Scotia will also likely reckon with cuts. Conversely, provinces with a lower number of international students per capita, like Newfoundland and Labrador, may have room to increase their international student intake.

The day of the announcement, Manitoba premier Wab Kinew told reporters that Ottawa hadn’t yet communicated specifics to his government: ”We have asked, but they don’t have answers for us yet,” he said. BC premier David Eby later told CBC that his province received preliminary numbers from the federal government on Jan. 27, and he planned to push for exceptions in “key sectors” like healthcare and the skilled trades.

The true scale of the policy’s effects will remain unclear until more information about its rollout is available. Universities Canada, however, is concerned that it will “add stress on an already stressed system.”

After all, Canada’s postsecondary operations have become increasingly reliant on international students, thanks in large part to the combined effect of two provincial policy decisions: gradual defunding of higher education and the deregulation of international student fees. To cope with their financial shortfall, universities charged international students more and more – and now, at some institutions, international students bring in as much as 90 per cent of tuition revenue. Overall, they contribute billions of dollars in tuition fees to Canada’s higher education ecosystem. An individual international student could pay over $60,000 in fees per year, compared to their domestic counterparts’ figure of $6,000 to $11,000.

Read more: Time to rethink Canada’s international education strategy

In Ontario, where per-student funding remains the country’s lowest in the wake of premier Doug Ford’s decision to cut – then freeze – domestic tuition, nearly half of universities are currently running deficits. Accordingly, Steve Orsini, president and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities, has called upon the government to reverse the cap. “We think a more refined, targeted approach would be better policy and not impact the good performers that rely on that funding or revenue from international students to operate,” Mr. Orsini told the CBC.

In tandem with the cap, the federal government will also require incoming international students to acquire an attestation letter from a province or territory when they apply for a permit. Currently, Quebec is the only province that already has a system in place to support this new mandate – potential international students already need to apply for a Quebec Acceptance Certificate in order to apply for a study permit. Until other provinces establish equivalent processes – their deadline is March 31 – the government has frozen the application system for students entering undergraduate programs. In a statement, Universities Canada flagged that this particular requirement might lengthen processing times and deter students from choosing to study in Canada.

Peter Halpin, the executive director of the Association of Atlantic Universities, likewise told University Affairs that the cap, combined with the government’s recent doubling of the funds international students must show to apply, could harm Canada’s reputation in the international higher education marketplace. “No one wants that. We want to ensure that Canada remains a popular education destination,” he said. He added that 56 per cent of international students in Atlantic Canada stick around after graduation, making them vital to the region’s prosperity, socio-cultural development, and population growth.

The wider policy’s impact on international students

The Migrant Workers Alliance for Change – an advocacy group that represents both current and former international students – is calling upon the federal government to reconsider some of its other Jan. 22 decisions. For example, according to Mr. Miller’s announcement, students’ spouses are now no longer eligible for open work permits, with the exception of students enrolled in master’s and doctoral programs. Migrant Workers’ national coordinator Sarom Rho said this change effectively results in family separation.

In addition, effective this September, the government will stop granting post-graduation work permits to international students beginning studies at public-private partnership (PPP) schools – where a public college admits students, but outsources the teaching to a private institution. Work permits are one of the major draws for international students attending and the government hopes this change will place pressure on these poorly-regulated private colleges that it considers, in Mr. Miller’s words, “the diploma equivalent of puppy mills.”

At a glance, it may seem like the post-graduation work permit change will only affect future students, but Ms. Rho said it throws some current students’ plans into disarray. Since students who complete two years of study are eligible for a three-year work permit, some international students register in a one-year PPP program with the intention of adding a second program at the same college later on. Ms. Rho told University Affairs that now these students will be scrambling to enroll in public colleges — on top of dealing with the same cost-of-living stressors that she says they’re being scapegoated for.

That’s why, she added, it’s imperative that those with valid study permits – and those who’ve already applied for a study permit at PPPs – are grandfathered into the post-graduate work permit program. Otherwise, she worries that some of Canada’s most precarious students will unfairly experience the consequences of the government’s failures.

Some, including Premier Kinew, are also raising a warning that international student tuition might rise as institutions try to recoup lost money. Ms. Rho shares this concern, adding that international students could find themselves even more exploited than before. “The solution is for us to all look at who’s really responsible and call on them to invest more in public education and housing and services, so that it raises the floor for everybody – and that includes current international students.”

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  1. Akshaye / February 2, 2024 at 15:29

    No, the government made the correct decision. The UK, Australia, and soon the US are also making similar decisions as Canada. The point is quite simple: international enrollments must align with the housing crisis, healthcare, and, more importantly, quality education. Students are graduating from colleges with questionable reputations where they struggle to secure jobs. Employers do not and will not recognize these credentials. By accepting too many international students into these colleges, Canada is potentially creating a permanent class of underemployed graduates. The Canadian government is actually doing international students a favor by protecting them from predatory private colleges whose primary goal is to profit at the expense of these students. Since the provinces did not take action, the federal government had to step in.

  2. Paul Jacob / February 22, 2024 at 10:59

    The cap has been delayed for an extended period. I also support the choice to restrict private-public partnership students from applying for PGWPs. These diploma mills are mainly active in Ontario, where small-town colleges authorize private institutes to conduct classes using their curriculum. I believe it’s more beneficial for Canada to prioritize admissions to programs with high labor market demand, such as healthcare, trades, and STEM courses.

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