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Canada introduces new visa process for conditional admissions

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • On 13 July, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada changed its processing guidelines for international student files involving conditional admissions
  • Under the new processing policy, visa officers are instructed to issue a study permit – that is, a Canadian study visa – only for the period of the student’s prerequisite studies
  • After successfully concluding any such preparatory studies, the student will now be asked to apply for a further study permit to cover the period of their planned academic programme
  • This is a departure from the previous practice which saw visa officers issue a single study permit for the entire duration of both programmes

The Canadian government has quietly introduced an important change to how it processes visas for students entering Canada to pursue conditional admissions or pathway programmes. In such cases, students are required to complete specific preparatory studies, often to develop their English or French proficiency, before continuing to an academic programme in Canada.

Up until now, the common practice when processing applications involving conditional admissions was to issue a single study permit (that is, a student visa) for the entire duration of both programmes (plus an additional 90 days). This meant that students could be assured that their Canadian study visa was in place for their entire, planned programme of study and could transition more smoothly from any perquisite studies to their full academic programme. The convention in such cases has been to list the institution delivering the final academic programme as the Designated Learning Institution (DLI) on the study permit.

On 13 July 2016, however, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) announced a change in how such files would be processed. Effective that date, Canadian immigration officers have been instructed to issue the study permit only for the duration of the first programme of study – that is, for the prerequisite or preparatory studies alone. “Once the prerequisite programme has been completed,” the department’s statement continues, “the student can apply for a new study permit and demonstrate that the requirements of the first programme have been met.”

That is to say that, once they have completed their preparatory studies, students will now be asked to apply for a new visa to cover the period of their planned academic programme.

The stated purpose of the change is to ensure that reporting requirements are matched to the designated institution where the student is actually studying (in other words, to avoid the current situation where the academic institution, noted as the DLI on the study permit, may be asked to report on students that are actually enrolled in preparatory studies with a separate school). IRCC also seems to be responding to a concern among some visa officers that “[students] may not successfully complete their prerequisite programme but will continue to hold a valid study permit allowing them to work.”

Canadian education providers have been taken aback by the unexpected change in processing practice and are moving to respond. “We have sent a survey out to our members to better measure the impact that this will have on them,” says Languages Canada Executive Director Gonzalo Peralta. “It is very clear, however, that nobody is happy about this. There is no doubt that Canada will lose international students as a result.”

“Immigration policy does not exist in a vacuum and should not be made behind closed doors,” he adds. “The biggest issue with [the 13 July IRCC announcement] is that it demonstrates a fundamental lack of the necessary coordination between immigration policy and international education policy in Canada.”

Educators are also concerned that the new process will result in additional burdens for both students and institutions. Languages Canada points out, for example, that the additional demands of a further visa application cycle will trigger additional expense and effort for all concerned, and that the need to secure a further study permit will impede the transfer of students from prerequisite to academic studies.

“What if a student is taking their TOEFL or IELTS in July in order to commence an academic programme in September?” says Mr Peralta. “They won’t have enough time to renew their permit. Do they take a semester off? Do they return home, or possibly transfer to study in another institution or another country?”

“If the  process proves overly onerous and complicated, or there are processing delays that mean international students cannot start their respective intended programmes on time after completing their prerequisite requirements, this may have a future impact on whether international students choose Canada,” agrees Jacquelyn Hoult, director of communications for the Canadian Bureau for International Education. “CBIE’s Immigration Advisory Committee and CBIE members have expressed concern over clarity (does the regulation apply when the student attends the same institution for the prerequisite and intended programme), implications for PhD and Masters students, and how it will impact students going to Quebec who require a Quebec Acceptance Certificate (CAQ).”

The questions that many educators now have of the new processing guidelines for pathway or conditional admissions closely reflects the recent experience of their American colleagues. Coincidentally also released on 13 July, the US Department of Homeland Security’s long-awaited policy statement on conditional admissions opened the door to a host of practical implementation questions for American educators and foreign students in the US.

The new policy and processes announced by the two countries are in fact quite similar, in that they clearly demarcate, for visa processing purposes, any prerequisite studies from the academic studies that follow. Under the new US policy, American universities may not issue an I-20 (the document that international students need to acquire a study visa) for academic studies until the student has met all requirements for admission. This is now effectively the approach in Canada as well.

Canadian educators have opened a discussion directly with IRCC in order to better understand the decision making and intent around the new processing guidance set out on 13 July, and to explore its implications and implementation. Representatives from the country’s peak education bodies have arranged a meeting with IRCC officials later this month and we will update our coverage on this item as developments warrant.

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