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How the new international student rules will shake Canada’s colleges

"We could lose $40 million in revenue"
Ali Amad

March 28, 2024

In January, the Canadian government announced that it would only grant 360,000 new study permits to international students in 2024—a 35 per cent reduction from 2023. The move is part of a two-year intake cap designed to stabilize the rapidly growing number of international students in the country. In response, leaders from many post-secondary institutions have warned that the Canadian economy depends on skilled international students for continued growth.

Public colleges, in particular, now have grave concerns about their financial viability; they rely heavily on international student fees to cover their costs. Maureen Adamson, president of Fleming College in Peterborough, Ontario, says her school could experience up to a 50 per cent drop in international student enrolment next semester. Here, Adamson explains the likely fallout of the federal cap, and why it might just be the nudge Canada needs to completely transform the way it handles higher education. 

How did you react when Immigration Minister Marc Miller announced the changes to the international student system?

It wasn’t a surprise. In the months prior, he’d made several public statements outlining concerns about rising student numbers, as well as fraud within the system. I knew that, soon, fewer international students would enrol at Fleming College. The biggest question was how the changes would be rolled out. 

Right now, the big question is how attestation letters will be allocated. Will the government prioritize international students in more vital sectors, like health care? Will allocations vary between rural colleges like Fleming and colleges based in the GTA? We don’t have full clarity on that yet, which is creating some anxiety for all of us.

The government isn’t just capping study permits—international students must also have an attestation letter from the province or territory where they hope to study. Can you describe what the application process looks like now?

Previously, international students could apply to a post-secondary institution in four simple steps: they’d apply to their institution of choice, the institution would provide an offer, the student would pay their tuition and, finally, the student would apply for their visa.

Now, once a student has an offer and pays their tuition, the school must request an attestation letter from their province or territory. In our case, OCAS Application Services Inc., which manages attestation letters in Ontario, collects our requests and sends a list to Ontario’s Ministry of Colleges and Universities, which then approves or denies each request. Once that step is complete, OCAS generates attestation letters. Fleming then notifies students that they have been approved. At that point, the student can apply for a visa, and Fleming has to verify the authenticity of its acceptance letter with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. We’ve gone from four steps to 10.  

You’re projecting a 35 to 50 per cent decrease in enrollment for international students at your main campus in Peterborough. What does that mean for Fleming?

Colleges will be competing for a smaller pool of international students. Our current international enrolment count is roughly 3,800 students, and we’re anticipating an enrolment of around 1,600 international students for our fall semester. But we have no idea what the final tally will actually be yet. We do know that we could lose $40 million in revenue. 

On February 26, the Ministry of Colleges and Universities announced a nearly $1.3-billion package of financial supports to help post-secondary institutions adapt to lost international tuition revenues. That’s important because losing international students could impact domestic students, as well; international tuition revenue subsidizes lots of public colleges’ domestic programs. At Fleming, we’ll need to scrutinize programs that are largely populated by international students for continued viability. In some cases, those programs may not have enough enrolled domestic students to continue.

How have the new changes affected prospective international students?

Anecdotally, this announcement has damaged Canada’s reputation. Last year, Fleming held a big summit where community leaders discussed ways to revitalize the Peterborough region. Some international students who were in attendance shared that they wanted to build a life here to help create a flourishing community. There was a lot of excitement in the air. Now, international students aren’t confident that they have a future in Canada at all. Some are telling us that they feel unwanted here. Others are looking to countries where they might be more welcome, or where applications are more expedient.

We’re also seeing a lot of uncertainty among our applicants. Our May intake date for the start of our spring semester is quickly approaching, and we don’t know whether we’ll get our attestation letters in time for students to get here by then. 

Fleming aside, what does Canada stand to lose?

The country gains so much from the talents of international students—they bring amazing value to the workforce. At Fleming, international students hit the ground running once they arrive: 75 per cent of them already have a degree, and many have extensive work experience. I’m proud to say that my staff includes several current and former international students. There’s no better qualified immigrant than one who already has an education, and who comes to Canada seeking even more qualifications. We have to keep that in mind as we make policy decisions. 

How do you think the government should address these issues moving forward? 

January’s announcement was a wake-up call; we need to implement a more systems-oriented approach to higher education. Canada already uses that approach in other sectors. Health care is, of course, far from perfect, but it operates like an integrated system. You can get stitches at any hospital in the province, but if you need cardiac surgery, you’ll be transferred to a centre that specializes in that. 

To optimize higher education, the government should think along similar lines. Do all colleges need to provide business courses? Do we all need to provide communications courses? Probably not. If we take a serious look at our program offerings, maybe we can create a better balance between delivering the local community’s educational needs and creating institutions with in-demand specialties that will attract talent from across the world. 

To help the provinces accomplish this goal, we need a single point of collaboration at the federal level. We’ve got a national health strategy and a federal ministry that sets health care policies for provinces. There’s no such animal for higher education. To tackle fraud in the system, Miller was using the tools available to him as immigration minister, but we need to treat higher education as a separate domain. A national commission could help us do that.

As you move into this era of policy, how do you feel about Fleming’s future—and those of other public higher-ed institutions?

I’m optimistic. Transitioning to a system-focused approach will bring some growing pains, but that always comes with good things. 

Post-secondary institutions are in the business of creating a better workforce, so it’s imperative that we also create a better-positioned public system for higher education. What’s most important is that we keep students at the centre of all our decisions, because in the end, they’re what all of this is about.