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Continuing visa delays putting Canada’s competitiveness at risk

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Continuing processing delays, and a mounting backlog of visa applications, remains an area of growing concern for Canadian educators and foreign students and partners alike
  • Canadian immigration officials are moving to add staff and reduce processing times but the considerable backlog has meant that some students are faced with the prospect of deferring their programme starts this year
  • In a related development, the Canadian government has extended its COVID-era policy allowing students to complete up to 100% of their studies online and still be eligible for a Post-Graduate Work Permit

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) processed 360,000 study permit applications between 1 January and 31 July 2022, and projected recently that it would handle another 104,000 applications during the month of August.

The volume of applications – and study permits granted – continues to surge above pre-pandemic levels this year but even so there remains a considerable backlog of files awaiting processing. IRCC had previously reported that, as of 29 June 2022, the backlog of temporary residence applications (a category that includes study permits and other temporary resident visa classes) had grown to more than 1.5 million files (representing a near doubling of processing volumes as of October 2021).

The situation is such that potentially thousands of foreign students are at risk of having to defer their planned programme starts this year if they cannot receive their study permits in time.

Speaking recently to the Globe & Mail newspaper, Universities Canada president Paul Davidson said that the scale of the current processing delays are putting at risk Canada’s competitiveness in international student markets.

“The universities have done an exceptional job of marketing themselves virtually and having students enrol online,” he said. “That’s the 90% that they need to do. And then if we can’t get [the students] onto campus, it’s a blow, not only for universities. It’s the third or fourth fall like this, where we have been unable to meet the mark on visa processing.”

Criticism is coming from outside the country as well, with the Indian government pressing Canadian immigration officials to make faster progress on the backlog. “The Indian High Commission in Ottawa has asked the Canadian authorities to look into the problems faced by college students enrolled in Canadian universities, who are unable to join the academic courses due to delays in the processing of their visas and student permits,” reported the Economic Times recently.

The Times of India, meanwhile, reported on a case from the Indian city of Gurugram, where one family has been waiting for their son’s study permit for several weeks. “We have applied for the study permit through the student direct stream (SDS) because we were advised that it would be faster than the normal stream and my son would get the visa within 45 days. But it’s now over 55 days and the document is not yet here. There is a long queue and there are cases pending from the beginning of May and I have no idea when my son, who was scheduled to join an undergrad course in business at the University of British Columbia (UBC), will be able to travel,” said the father.

The Canadian government is taking action

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau created a cross-government task force in June 2022 and gave it a mandate to tackle the massive processing backlog for immigration files of all kinds. Speaking at a 29 August update on the task force’s progress, Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said that IRCC was taking steps to improve services and reduce processing times.

The Minister cited in particular the hiring up to 1,250 new staff members through summer and fall in order to increase processing capacity, and a further streamlining of operations at IRCC to help reduce processing times over the longer term.

“Families, communities, and businesses deserve an immigration system that works for everyone,” said Minister Fraser. “Through targeted investments to address the backlog…we will reduce wait times and work hard to attract and retain skilled workers, as we continue to help communities across the country access the talent they need.”

Extending eligibility for online studies

In another apparent nod to its continuing struggles with the current processing backlog, IRCC announced on 25 August an extension for the COVID-era policy allowing international students to apply for Canada’s popular Post-Graduation Work Permit (PGWP) regardless of how much of their study programme is completed online.

IRCC says that this policy will remain in place until 31 August 2023. Students studying online, or who have submitted a study permit application by that date, will remain eligible for a PGWP.

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