Who Benefits from the New “Aligned” Strategy on International Student Recruitment?

Commentary, Education, Jack Buckby

Recruiting and teaching international students in Canada is big business for private universities, and the federal government has backed a scheme that puts more cash in the pockets of university administrators and wreaks havoc with the Canadian job market. 

In 2000, some 122,665 people held study permits in Canada. In 2018, that number reached 572,415. Citing positive effects on Canada’s economy, including an increase in exports of aircraft, lumber, and car parts, the federal government has begun implementing a new “aligned” strategy that is designed to bring in even more international students to the country.

President of Universities Canada, Paul Davidson, told the press he envisioned Canada becoming a key education destination for students from growing economies, including Colombia and Africa, and it appears the plan is well on track. The Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development has estimated international students will comprise 20 percent of all enrolments in Canadian universities by 2022. In the 2019 federal budget, $148 million was set aside to achieve that goal. 

Rather than being a truly effective way at boosting Canada’s economy and job market, however, it seems the plan might represent something more nefarious. At best, the plan could be seen as the exploitation of foreign students. At worst, it is a political diversity scheme that opens the door to thousands of people and their families from all over the developing world. The system is not only extremely vulnerable to visa fraud already, but students are now telling the press that agents representing private colleges are using international recruits for financial gain. In some instances, international students report signing up for university courses they had no interest in, as it allowed them to gain a Canadian work permit upon entry. 

The Canadian government already has no system in place to monitor student visitors once they enter the country, and under the new proposals, students will find it much easier to gain permanent residence after completing their studies anyway. A combination of lax enforcement, active encouragement by the federal government for more people to enter the country on student visas, and private universities proactively seeking high tuition fees from aspiring immigrants, has exposed the aligned strategy as little more than a political and financial scheme. 

A Globe and Mail investigation found recruiters taking large sums of money from international recruits, promising full work permits. Upon arrival, those recruits discover their permits allow only 20 hours of work per week. Recruits also reportedly said they struggled to find Canadian businesses willing to offer them jobs at the end of their studies. So why is the government pushing for larger numbers of more diverse international students? 

Perhaps, instead, it is a part of another kind of “aligned” strategy that aims to improve access to cheap labour. As part of the scheme, the Canadian government will introduce legislation to make it easier for students to become permanent residents. When students themselves report difficulty finding meaningful work after completing university courses, why would the federal government make provisions for more students to gain residency? 

Measures put in place by the previous federal government, which included the change of residency requirements from three years to four, are expected to be repealed to facilitate the new plan. It is clear who benefits from the new measure, and it’s not the Canadian people. Universities that already dish out hefty salaries to its administrators and tenured professors will benefit from increased numbers of students and an increase in tuition fees for those foreign students. 

A study by Toronto start-up OneClass.com recently found that every one of Ontario’s 19 universities had become increasingly reliant on fees paid by foreign students. Analyzing data from years 2006 to 2017, the report found that the average international student pays roughly four times more in tuition than Canadian students. It also found that, should trends continue over the next 10 years, domestic students could lose out on places at university in favour of more profitable international students. The universities clearly profit, but so too does the government through the appeasement of big business.

Much in the same way that the European Union’s free movement of people has fundamentally transformed the national economies of major Western European economies, an influx of foreign students who quickly become permanent residents will serve as a pool of cheap labourers. New arrivals with virtually meaningless degrees can and will work for less than the average qualified Canadian. Meanwhile, Canadian citizens will find themselves losing out on university places to new arrivals and struggling in a realigned job market that prioritizes those who compete for the lowest salaries. 

Paul Davidson might be right to cite the initially positive effect foreign students can have on businesses operating in Canada, but he fails to recognize the negative impact it will have on the average Canadian citizen.