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Update on international student recruitment in Ontario

Ontario’s universities and colleges satisfied with province’s distribution of allocation for international study permits in 2024.


Ontario is “open for business” for international undergraduate students hoping to study at one of its universities this year, according to the Council of Ontario Universities (COU). After a two-month-plus interruption triggered by new federal limits on the number of study permits issued, Steve Orsini, president and CEO of the COU said, “We’re full steam ahead. There’s some catch-up we have to do.”

Ontario’s ministry of colleges and universities announced March 27 that 96 per cent of the 235,000 study permit applications the federal government has allowed the province this year – more than a third of the total for the country – would go to publicly funded colleges and universities. These will be controlled through the issuing of provincial letters of attestation, or PALs, which each accepted international student must submit to the federal immigration department as part of their study permit application. About 80 per cent of the PALs are expected to go to publicly funded colleges, leaving about 16 per cent for universities and four per cent for language schools, private universities and other institutions. Private career colleges will not receive any PALs.

The public universities’ allocation fell short of the 35 per cent they’d lobbied for, said Mr. Orsini. The COU had also asked that universities where international students made up less than 35 per cent of total enrolment be allowed to “grow modestly,” but that was denied. Still the COU feels that the Ontario government’s decision recognized that universities have approached international student recruitment responsibly. “That was the more important part of the announcement,” Mr. Orsini said. “They didn’t penalize the good performers.”

Ontario, which has had the largest share of international students in the country, was among the last Canadian provinces to launch its system for issuing PALs, creating additional delays for institutions already in the throes of their admissions processes for the next academic year. But within a day of the March 27 announcement, the province had already issued more than 2,000 of the required letters, through the Ontario University Application Centre (OUAC).

In late January, federal immigration minister Marc Miller announced his department would impose restrictions over the next two years on the number of study permit applications it would process, mostly for foreign nationals applying to undergraduate college and university programs. The change was a bid to rein in a fast-growing immigration program that Mr. Miller described as “a bit of a mess.” The limit of 606,250 applications in 2024 was expected to result in a total of 364,000 new study permits this year for the capped groups, a 35 per cent cut from 2023. International students applying to master’s and doctoral programs, elementary and secondary schools, and those seeking study permit renewals were exempted. Provinces and territories were given until March 31 to create systems for issuing PALs under each jurisdiction’s federal allotment, based on population, previous study permit application volumes and approval rates.

Read also: Tracking international student study applications

Under Ontario’s new plan, institutions cannot exceed their 2023 study permit application levels. That number also cannot be more than 55 per cent of their first-year domestic student enrolment in 2023, except for programs with high labour market demand. According to Marketa Evans, president and CEO of Colleges Ontario, the abruptness of the federal government’s change has led to “the collapse” of the spring cohort enrolment – representing 25 per cent of public colleges’ enrolment for the year – resulting in “immediate program suspensions.” Some 13 out of 24 public colleges will see a decline in study permit applications this year, including Conestoga College in Kitchener, which had the highest number of study permits of any Canadian postsecondary institution last year. However, 22 of the 23 publicly funded universities will keep their 2023 numbers, according to the province. Only Algoma University, where international students comprise the majority of its 5,000-plus enrolment, will see a reduction.

Algoma’s president and vice-chancellor, Asima Vezina, said in a statement that the province’s decision would not impact students and was not expected to affect staffing levels either. However, she also said the university would be analyzing information from the provincial and federal governments “in the coming days” to assess how the changes may impact future students, the university and the communities where it operates: Sault Ste. Marie, Timmins and Brampton. “Algoma University is in a strong, stable financial position and our strategic planning has been designed to adapt to this change, aligning with our plan to moderate growth from 2024 onwards,” Dr. Vezina said.

Algoma was one of four small to mid-sized universities whose financial management was examined by Ontario’s auditor general office in 2022. The auditor general’s report found that most of Algoma’s revenue was drawn from enrolment at its Brampton campus where the majority of students were from India. It was also the only university in the report to show a consistent surplus. The report warned that a high reliance on international student tuition across Ontario universities, driven by the province’s tuition cut and freeze, posed financial risks beyond institutions’ or the province’s control.

Read also: Ontario’s auditor general delivers recommendations to four universities

Ontario’s colleges and universities ministry also wants to see a priority placed on international applicants to programs with French language enrolment and those leading to high-demand occupations, such as healthcare professionals and programs related to science, technology and mathematics. No details were offered as to how that would happen. Mr. Orsini noted that Ontario universities already have a good record of graduating students who are highly sought after in the job market and had not been given any formal limitations by the province other than their total PALs allocation.

However, the province may be signalling to institutions that their admissions choices this year – including the programs international students are accepted into –- will matter in how it decides to dole out PALs next year, said Meti Basiri, co-founder and CEO of ApplyBoard, an online international student recruiter based in Waterloo, Ont.

“Most likely next year in the January intake, we’re going to see more focus from public institutions in Canada on trades and STEM than perhaps any time before, which is a great thing,” said Mr. Basiri, a former international student at Conestoga College.

Favouring labour market-oriented programs however “misses the big picture,” said the organization representing Ontario university professors. “While some universities will have those programs ready to go – they’ll have access to this allocation – we’re really concerned about smaller universities, more rural universities and northern universities that may not have the designated programs the government is looking to funnel the international students into,” said Nigmendra Narain, president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA).

While OCUFA is pleased that almost all PALs will go to students applying to publicly funded institutions, Mr. Narain said that the decision does nothing for the underfunding of Ontario universities and will not curtail “exploitative tuition practices” towards international students who are typically charged many times more than domestic students.

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  1. Robert N. Berard / April 3, 2024 at 14:53

    The government of Ontario should consider the situation of small, non-profit, private colleges and universities, often faith-based. These institutions tend to attract students because of their mission, and they are welcomed more for their commitment to that mission. Some of these schools might get between twelve and fifteen competitive applications each year, but if the average entrance class is between forty to fifty students, they may be disadvantaged in comparison to large institutions that recruit large numbers of international students to supplement their tuition funds and their government supports, which are not offered to private institutions.

    These schools play an important role in Canada’s higher education mosaic and should not be penalized by policies drawn up for large public universities.

  2. Ahad Akram / April 14, 2024 at 01:47

    Is Ontario issuing Pals to Business International Business students?