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17th Feb 2021

Canada: International students can complete studies online and still be eligible for post-study work permit

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • International students can complete 100% of their programmes with an approved Canadian post-secondary institution from their home countries and still be eligible for the Post-Graduation Work Program (PGWP)
  • The announcement follows others in the past months indicating that the Canadian government is prepared to assist colleges and universities in the pandemic through more flexible immigration policy
  • Providing employment and permanent residency opportunities may be an increasingly important component of Canada’s ability to maintain market share in a quickly changing competitive landscape

International students enrolled in Canadian post-secondary institutions will now be able to apply for Canada’s popular Post-Graduation Work Program (PGWP) regardless of how much of their programme is completed online and remotely.

Canada’s Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, Marco Mendicino, announced last week that international students can complete up to 100% of their degrees from outside of Canada and still be eligible for the PGWP. This is an expansion of the previous exception announced in September 2020 that permitted international students to complete 50% of their studies remotely due to pandemic travel challenges.

Mr Mendicino says the new flexibility is in line with Canada’s immigration goals: “This new policy means that students hoping to work in Canada after graduation won’t miss out on opportunities, while ensuring that Canada meets the urgent needs of our economy for today and tomorrow."

"Our message to international students and graduates is simple: We don’t just want you to study here, we want you to stay here.”

To be eligible, international students must:

  • Be enrolled in a PGWP-eligible programme;
  • Be studying in a programme that began – or will begin in – any semester from spring 2020 to fall 2021, or whose programme was already in progress as of March 2020;
  • Have a study permit or approval for a study permit, or have applied for a study permit prior to starting their programme that is eventually approved;
  • Meet all other PGWP criteria.

Just last month, the Canadian government announced that former international graduates whose PGWP is expired or about to expire are now eligible to apply for an open work permit valid for 18 months. Previously, students were only able to apply for one work permit term under the PGWP.

Post-study work policies exceptionally important during COVID

International students across the world are closely monitoring developments in preferred destination countries pertaining to border restrictions and whether in-person learning will soon be offered. Part of their interest lies in the hope for a rich, face-to-face experience of learning on campus in a new culture. Another part of their motivation relates to a desire to not only study abroad, but also be able to work after graduation and eventually immigrate.

In the past, work rights and immigration opportunities have been tied to students’ completing programmes in their host country. With the prospect of doing so made temporarily impossible for many students, concerns have mounted for students that they will be shut out of work and immigration opportunities.

It isn’t only students who have been concerned: educators know that they are more able to compete for international students in the context of welcoming and flexible immigration policies established by their governments. The greatly expanded PGWP flexibility will provide Canadian educators with a key recruitment lever in the pandemic.

Currently, main competitor countries do not offer quite the same level of immigration flexibility as Canada. For example, the UK’s pandemic-linked flexibility allows international students to remain eligible for the Graduate route provided that they eventually “arrive in the UK to complete one term’s face-to-face learning.” And in the US, 2020 was marred by former President Trump’s threats to end work-related programmes such as OPT and his suspension of the H-1B programme. It is likely President Biden will encourage a more welcoming immigration environment, but it remains to be seen how his policies will directly affect international students.

Employment opportunities will remain central to Canada’s ability to maintain market share

As we observed this week, Canadian educators are quickly coming up against new competitive pressures. Vaccines are rolling out more slowly than in the US and the UK, and Australia will soon launch its own ambitious vaccination programme – which will be key to its opening its borders once again to international students.

Throughout 2020, the attractiveness of the UK as a study destination rose in the eyes of international students, thanks in large part to the government’s decision to restore post-study work rights as of summer 2021. There was significant growth from the key Indian market – which is also Canada’s top market in terms of enrolments.

Add to that a far more globally attractive America now that President Biden is in power, Australian universities’ urgent need to rebound from their pandemic losses, and Canada may suddenly its education brand overseas on less secure footing.

As Louise Nicol wrote in University World News last year,

“With the UK on the move, Australia hungry to get back in the game and the US possibly resurgent if Biden wins in November [ed: which he did], Canada may only have a six-month window to differentiate its offer.”

Canada announced its first extension of the PGWP in the fall of 2020 and followed it up quickly in January with the new 18-month open work permit extension for former international students. The announcement today of still more increased flexibility regarding international students’ ability to enter the PGWP suggests that the Canadian government is ready to assist Canadian educators in enhancing their competitive position overseas through immigration policy.

International students inject more than CDN$21 billion annually into the Canadian economy.

For additional background, please see:

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