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In my opinion

International students as problems and solutions

Shifting narratives in Canada’s international education and immigration landscape.


Shortly after announcing an unprecedented intake cap on study permit applications, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) Minister Marc Miller said the following about his department’s role in the rapid growth of international students in Canada: “Provinces are making money off this. Institutions are making money off this. The Government of Canada is the only one sitting at the bar not drinking, and we’re about to get stiffed with the bill.”

At this point, there is no denying the exploitative and mismanaged nature of Canada’s international education-as-industry, to varying extents yet at all education levels. There’s also no denying that international student tuition has allowed provinces to skirt the issue of stagnating postsecondary institution funding as university missions expand. But the Government of Canada would not have allowed Canada’s higher education system to have the highest proportion of international student enrollments globally if they got nothing out of the deal.

The higher education sector may have initiated the marketization process in the late 1970’s, when postsecondary institutions first charged international students differential fees. But it was the Canadian government which explicitly positioned its education as an industry to be marketed abroad in the 1990’s by initiating Team Canada missions, Canada Education Centres, and the branding of Canadian education. Canada’s first international education strategy, released by a Conservative government, lauded international students not just for bringing “immediate and significant economic benefits to Canadians in every region of the country” but also being “a future source of skilled labour…well positioned to immigrate to Canada.” Despite their political differences, the Liberal’s internationalization strategy largely reenforced its predecessor; international students were again described as “excellent candidates for permanent residency” whose significant economic contributions were “felt right across the country.” Both strategies extensively discussed Canada’s need to compete globally for such an “important source of revenue and human capital.”

This narrative was not just driven by Global Affairs. IRCC also gradually promoted a higher education-immigration nexus, or “edugration,” over the past two decades. By facilitating international student work authorization (both during and after studies) and developing tailored permanent residency programs, IRCC actively situated international students as “ideal immigrants.” Both federal and provincial immigration programs explicitly connected Canadian postsecondary credentials with pathways to permanent residency, a fact amplified by international recruiters and edu-tech agent aggregators driven by their own monetary motivations. While institutions were more than happy to reap the monetary benefits, they also played important roles recruiting, monitoring and settling desirable potential immigrants on the government’s behalf.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the postsecondary sector braced itself for an international student enrolment catastrophe – but it never quite arrived. With travel restrictions limiting the expected entry of temporary foreign workers and new immigrants, international students became even more crucial to the Canadian economy and IRCC. Canada was among the first to allow international students to enter the country and quickly introduced innovative policies to ensure online study would not disrupt post-graduation work permit eligibility. In early 2021, then IRCC Minister Marco Mendicino reiterated a “simple message” for international students, clearer than ever: “we don’t just want you to study here, we want you to stay here.” Numbers rebounded. And by 2022, with international student enrolments at their peak, IRCC took a further, unpreceded step by permitting international students – who were supposedly expected to study full-time – to work off-campus full-time.

In other words, for decades the federal government has used international students as solutions to multiple policy problems – especially labour market and economic immigrant shortages – until international students suddenly became, in their eyes, the problem.

This switch occurred for multiple, complex reasons. A spate of media articles since the start of COVID-19 highlighted stories of exploitation and neglect, feeding into lowered public perception of international students and better awareness of edugration’s systemic dysfunctions. Enrollment ballooned in certain subjects, at certain education levels and institution types, and in concentrated geographic areas, with major ripple effects. International students became a convenient scapegoat for Canada’s housing crisis, even though they are just one part of Canada’s population growth. Of particular concern to IRCC, international students’ labour market outcomes have not been as uniformly rosy as expected, deflating the “ideal immigrants” narrative.

The challenge is that, despite being a growing trend across the Global North, edugration is very difficult to manage. While higher education and immigration systems appear to mutually benefit, they in fact have very different objectives. It is easy for the two systems to fall out of sync.

For example, what is happening in Canada today happened in Australia years before. There, the education-immigration nexus created identical problematic imbalances. This contributed to safety and security concerns for international students, who became victims of assaults and were exploited in the housing and employment sectors. This eventually resulted in diplomatic embarrassment for Australia with both the Chinese and Indian governments. Yet despite warnings over a decade ago, Canada did not learn from Australia’s mistakes.

Australia has since made concerted efforts to regulate its international education sector and continues to disentangle the education-immigration nexus and tweak policies to serve their immigration objectives. The current international student cap in Canada is just the first phase of the federal government’s plan to follow suit. We can expect both carrots and sticks as IRCC works to achieve the objectives of its international student program, which do not necessarily align with those of the Canadian higher education sector. Higher education’s objectives – and values – need to be revaluated now.

Rather than argue about who is to blame or “stiffed with the bill,” we need to come together as a society and recognize this as not just an opportunity a reckoning – and not just for the dependency on international students, but for higher education itself. To begin, we must boldly, honestly and cooperatively address two key questions:

  1. Do we want to continue supporting an international education model built on exploitation? Canada’s higher education has become dependent on a large-scale wealth transfer from the Global South to the Global North, premised on notions of Western supremacy – even as many stakeholders engage in parallel conversations regarding indigenization, decolonization and equity concerns. What would it mean to develop a more visionary international education strategy better aligned with Canada’s supposed value proposition?
  2. Perhaps most importantly, we must re-evaluate our investment in, and commitment to, higher education. IRCC may have forced our collective hand, but it has been a long time coming. What roles it should play, how it should be funded, and what do the answers to both questions say about our values as a society?

Lisa Brunner is a postdoctoral research fellow at the centre for migration studies at the University of British Columbia. Roopa Desai Trilokekar is an associate professor in the faculty of education at York University.

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