In 2011, then-B.C. premier Christy Clark set a goal for the province’s post-secondary schools: she wanted international student enrolment to grow by 50 per cent.
International students, Clark said at the time, contributed to the province’s communities. They filled growing job vacancies. And, many observers add, they brought tuition dollars that replaced declining provincial funding at public universities and colleges.
For well over a decade, Clark’s ambitious goal more or less reflected provincial and federal government policy.
But now, both the federal and provincial governments are slamming the brakes.
Officials from both levels of government now say the international student regime is broken, that enrolment has grown unsustainably and that the system has been hijacked by unscrupulous employers and private schools of dubious quality that are bilking international students for their money and labour.
“It’s gone a whole bunch of directions away from what it’s intended to do, which is to bring the best and the brightest into Canada and give them the best experience,” Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada Marc Miller told The Tyee.
“That is very much not the case as it is today. It has become a system that is revenue-driven with people frankly chasing short-term gain without looking at what the long-term pain is going to be.”
In late January, Miller announced the federal government would slash the number of study permits, which it issues to international students once they have enrolled at eligible schools, by 35 per cent. A week later, then-provincial post-secondary education and future skills minister Selina Robinson announced that B.C. would be cracking down on private post-secondary schools that recruit from abroad. This would include a two-year freeze on approvals for such schools and more stringent standards for the existing ones.
The net effect will likely be a drop in the number of international students in B.C., the closure of some private institutions that depend on them for revenue and a continued reckoning on how exactly we got here.
Robinson and other government officials have pointed to “bad actors,” like malicious recruiters abroad and private schools with dubious standards.
But critics point instead to government policy failures and increasingly inadequate funding for public post-secondary schools, which has led these schools to rely more and more heavily on international student tuition.
“There are very few people who are innocent as part of this conversation,” Miller said.
A booming private sector
British Columbia has more international students than almost any other province in the country.
The latest estimates peg the number of international students in B.C. at 175,000, more than double the 80,000-odd students who were here in 2011.
That growth has been a boon for the province. In 2018, research showed that international students had spent $4.7 billion in B.C., created over 53,000 jobs and contributed $5 billion to the province’s gross domestic product in that one year alone.
But the growth also created problems.
Most of those students aren’t attending publicly funded universities like the University of British Columbia. Of the 175,000 international students in the province last year, around 94,000 attended one of roughly 280 private post-secondary institutions licensed by the provincial government.
Some of those schools are mammoths, others mice. The number of study permits the federal government issued for students attending University Canada West, for example, soared from fewer than 6,000 in 2021 to nearly 14,000 in 2023 — far more than any other post-secondary institution in the province.
Other private colleges report just a few hundred international students, and some only a handful.
By Robinson’s own admission, some of these schools aren’t up to snuff.
Robinson said her ministry had received reports, for example, of students who travelled across the world only to find their school taught all its courses online. In some cases, Robinson said, students’ families had spent their life savings for them to travel to Canada, and were intimidated by school staff when they tried to complain to her ministry. Robinson said many of those students may graduate without the skills they need to land a steady job.
“Many of [the private schools] have been opening up doors left, right and centre because they see it as a financial opportunity for themselves rather than an opportunity to educate a workforce,” Robinson said.
Those problems are not new. Since 2017, the Canadian Association of University Teachers has been calling on provincial governments to crack down on “unethical” international student recruitment businesses for misleading students on where they will go to school, the education they can receive and how easy it is to get permanent residency in Canada.
Robinson said the new standards for such schools will include more frequent inspections and stiffer standards for degree-granting schools, including higher academic criteria and new requirements for student services. Robinson also said she would look to tie the creation of new programs at such schools to labour market needs and suggested private schools may also soon need to contribute towards student housing costs.
But Michael Conlon, executive director of the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of BC, is skeptical the new enforcement tools will have much impact on pre-existing private colleges with unscrupulous tactics.
“What it will do is stop the growth of private providers,” he said, adding the provincial changes to private college regulations are not so much new as they are “enhanced enforcement.”
Conlon said that B.C., historically, has had lax rules around the for-profit post-secondary education sector.
“We’re happy that the government is seeing this as a priority now, but this problem has existed for the better part of 25 years, and the province has had the tools to deal with it,” Conlon said.
Possible school closures, layoffs
In their announcements, provincial and federal officials have often focused on “bad actors” — for-profit colleges they say are skirting the rules.
But Dale McCartney, a professor at the University of the Fraser Valley, says the federal government’s study permit cap could have massive implications for the broader post-secondary sector, including at reputable public institutions that have seen growing international enrolment in recent years.
“I don’t think the public discussion has fully grasped how big this is,” McCartney said.
Under the new system, each province and territory will have an assigned target for how many study permits they receive. The provinces will, in turn, be responsible for rationing out those permits among schools.
Miller said the government would also look to diversify where applicants come from, including by encouraging schools to recruit more from francophone countries.
British Columbia is set to receive 83,000 study permit allocations under the new system. But a significant number of study permit applications are not accepted by federal immigration officials.
That rejection rate is especially high for some private institutions.
In 2022, for example, immigration officials rejected study permit applications from more than 8,100 students who had been accepted to University Canada West, roughly 45 per cent of the international students who had been accepted to that school. That school still saw more than 9,000 study permits for its students approved that year.
In the same year, immigration officials approved 99 per cent of the 4,590 study permit applications from students who had been accepted to UBC, according to documents obtained under freedom of information legislation.
Based on current study permit acceptance rates across all schools, the province projects the actual number of approved permits would be closer to 50,000, well below the roughly 77,900 study permits approved in 2023.
In that same year, the federal government also issued extensions to more than 29,000 study permits that were set to expire. Those permit extensions are not counted in the annual cap.
Notably, the cap also exempts students at the graduate level or higher.
Robinson said she also wanted to see exemptions for programs that were training for in-demand professions in child care and health care.
Regardless of what exemptions are granted, McCartney said, the result of the new federal system will be a significant net drop in the number of international students in the province — which could mean a big hole in universities’ bottom lines.
“It is incredible that there is a public acknowledgment that the post-secondary system has become too reliant on these students, but no government has discussed the fact that if they want to remove this, they need to find some other way to keep these schools running,” McCartney said.
David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said that in recent years governments have encouraged schools of all stripes to increase international student enrolment as a way to make up for stagnant funding.
“Frankly we were trying to pay for higher education on the cheap and backfill a lack of public funding with international student revenues,” he told The Tyee.
According to the BC Federation of Students, the provincial government provided 68 per cent of post-secondary operational revenue in B.C. in 2000. That had dropped to just 40 per cent by 2023. Conlon said imposing the cap could lead to cuts at schools — not just private institutions, but also reputable ones in the public sector.
“From a financial perspective we are concerned about some of our member institutions in terms of the bottom line, for sure,” Conlon said.
“It’s possible there could be layoffs,” he added. “I think it will take a year or two for the changes to ripple through.”
Selina Robinson, for her part, said she was committed to making sure public post-secondaries can continue to operate. She said the government is still determining how, exactly, to distribute the limited number of study permits among schools.
Robinson recently lost her cabinet post after making controversial comments about the founding of Israel on Palestinian land. The BC NDP has not yet decided who will replace her.
For his part, Miller said he didn’t “fault the best and the brightest institutions for going out and being smart and filling their coffers and plugging some holes that were created largely by the provincial government.”
But he acknowledged that this strategy had led to “unhealthy revenue models” at some institutions.
Often, students themselves have paid the price for that. Both public and private universities have hiked international student tuitions in recent years, which, unlike domestic fees, are generally not capped by the province.
Melissa Chirino, chairperson of the BC Federation of Students, was pleased to hear Robinson promise fee transparency for international students at public and private schools, something the student organization has been lobbying the province on for a long time.
“This really highlights that there is more oversight necessary in the post-secondary sector around international education,” she said, pointing to a 30 per cent tuition increase for international students at Emily Carr University of Art and Design announced in 2022 as an example.
Students need more support, less blame
Conlon hopes that the province will engage with public institutions about increasing funding, estimating the institutions will need an additional $700 million to make up for the loss of international student revenue.
The conversation was already timely before Monday’s announcement, Conlon added. The province launched a post-secondary funding formula review in 2022, he said, but hasn’t shared any updates since.
The BC Federation of Students, which has been advocating for more provincial post-secondary funding and a cap on international student tuition for over a decade, also submitted evidence to the funding review in 2022 and is calling for its completion.
“There’s been deficits at institutions without putting this [visa] cap in place,” said Chirino, whose organization wants an additional $500 million in annual provincial post-secondary funding, a temporary tuition fee freeze followed by a reduction for both international and domestic tuition, and an extension of the province’s annual two per cent cap on domestic tuition increases to cover international tuition.
In an emailed statement to The Tyee, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Post-Secondary Education and Future Skills said it is “analyzing information” and “considering next steps” with regards to the review.
The BC Federation of Students is also concerned about the impact these changes are having on international students themselves, especially as the conversation has been couched in blaming them for a housing crisis that began long before they arrived.
“These students are not the one to blame,” said Chirino. She added that welcoming fewer international students to B.C. would translate into less diversity, less innovation and exchange of ideas and less contribution to the B.C. communities they would have moved to.
“Students have been very vocal about all these issues and we’ve always been so open to dialogue and ways to work together. It’s very unfortunate that we have to come to this point,” Chirino said.
Neera Agnihotri, an immigration consultant with One Voice Canada, an advocacy group for international students, added that many international students work precarious jobs where they are vulnerable to exploitation and mistreatment. Others, she said, deal with depression and other mental health challenges because of the cost of living in Canada and challenges finding housing.
She agrees the system is broken but laments that governments’ cures will mean that everyone — not just bad actors — will bear consequences.
“All the good people — all the good students, all the good colleges, all the good consultants and lawyers who are doing what they’re supposed to do — are going to suffer as well because of the five to 10 per cent that are ruining it,” Agnihotri said.
David Robinson of the Canadian Association of University Teachers agreed with the call for addressing the barriers students are facing.
“If international students are coming to Canada, we have to ensure we have the supports for them,” he said. “And we didn’t do that. I think that’s a huge failure of the system in Canada.”
*Story updated on Feb. 8, 2024 at 10:45 a.m. to correct that Melissa Chirino is chairperson of the BC Federation of Students, not president.