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Canada to “modernise” student visa programme with Trusted Institution framework

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • Canada will establish a two-tiered structure for Designated Learning Institutions starting in 2024, where some DLIs will be designated as Trusted Institutions
  • Applicants to Trusted Institutions will receive expedited visa processing
  • The move is part of a larger strategy to modernise Canadian Immigration’s International Student Program
  • It comes amid growing concerns around access to housing for visiting students and even discussion of a cap on international students numbers in Canada

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) is quickly moving ahead with plans to implement a new Trusted Institution framework by 2024. This new model is part of a broader strategy to modernise IRCC's International Student Program (ISP).

Details are sparse at the moment but the core concept is that post-secondary institutions would be assessed against "criteria that demonstrates that they are reliable partners with regard to sustainable intake, identifying genuine students, monitoring and reporting on their compliance, and providing a safe and enriching experience for their international students."

Institutions that meet a certain threshold for such criteria would be designated as Trusted Institutions. The implication of the designation is not yet clear, but IRCC has indicated that it would "provide certain facilitations to [a] Trusted Institution, such as lighter-touch, expedited processing for its applicants.”

Any Canadian institution receiving international students must be classified as a Designated Learning Institution (DLI), which is to say they are approved by their respective provincial or territorial government to host international students. And international students must have an acceptance letter from a DLI in order to apply for a Canadian study permit. IRCC's new framework will effectively establish a two-tiered structure among Canada's Designated Learning Institutions (DLIs), where some will be classed as Trusted Institutions and some will not.

Building the new framework

The Trusted Institution framework was first introduced by IRCC in a June 2023 briefing for selected peak bodies and stakeholders.

The concept arises from the recent Strategic Immigration Review, alongside a review of the ISP, that identified a number of points of concern, including:

The Trusted Institution framework will rely on two broad categories of data, some of which will come from IRCC's own files (or other Government of Canada data sources), such as study permit approval rates, country of origin, and post-graduation student outcomes (e.g., transition to post-graduate work permits or other IRCC programmes).

But DLIs will also be asked to join a new reporting scheme through which they will be obliged to share additional data with IRCC, including retention rates for international students, on-time programme completion rates, percentage of revenues derived from international tuitions, institutional spending on international student support services, availability of DLI-administered housing, and teacher-student ratios.

Those metrics were reviewed during an invitation-only town hall event held by IRCC in early August 2023. The August event was attended by 20-30 Canadian institutions who had been selected to participate in a data gathering pilot this month. IRCC notes that the participating institutions had been selected to provide adequate representation by "region, language, level of study, and institution type and size, as well as consideration of operational risk, and post-graduation outcomes."

Following the initial pilot exercise, IRCC intends to refine its data gathering survey and then make it available to all DLIs in fall 2023. The resulting data will be compiled and analyses through spring 2024, at which point the initial Trusted Institution destinations will be established.

Details will follow

When asked for additional detail on the implications of the Trusted Institution framework, an IRCC spokesperson said that, "Given that these discussions are ongoing, IRCC cannot speculate on any future policy decisions. However, any new developments would be communicated publicly."

In the meantime, Canada's Minister of Housing Sean Fraser and Minister of Immigration Marc Miller said earlier this week that the government may need to consider caps on the number of international students in Canada. "The International Student Program makes extraordinary economic and social contributions to Canada," said Minister Fraser, in a 22 August interview with CBC News. "But what we've seen recently is that there has been such rapid growth, given that the programme is typically uncapped, that certain communities are having difficulties managing the population growth that [the ISP] has attracted."

The Minister's remarks come amid growing concern about access to affordable housing in Canada, and within a growing conversation about the need for Canadian institutions to play a greater role in ensuring adequate housing for the students they attract.

Dr Mike Moffatt is the Founding Director of the PLACE Centre at the Smart Prosperity Institute and a professor at the Ivey Business School at Western University. He has written widely on the subject and appeared as an expert guest at a recent retreat for government ministers.

Dr Moffat argues that governments, the private sector, and institutions should be partnering to quickly expand housing capacity for their students. And he has gone so far as to tie investment in housing to an institution's ability to retain its DLI status, writing that, "Colleges and universities should be given funding and instructed to build on-campus student housing to support a rapidly growing population of international students or risk losing their status as designated learning institutions, which would eliminate their ability to bring in those international students."

These are all important signals to the marketplace that an institution's ability to admit international students could potentially be limited or capped in any way, or that it might be tied to housing availability or other key metrics. For the moment, reaction continues to come from stakeholders across the country to the suggestion of an international enrolment cap.

Quebec was then first province to respond: “Quebec does not intend to impose a cap on the number of foreign students in its jurisdiction. Although issuing study permits is the responsibility of the federal government, education is the exclusive power of Quebec. It’s up to Quebec and its educational institutions to determine the number of people they can accommodate,” said Alexandre Lahaie, a spokesperson for Quebec's Immigration Ministry.

"The housing crisis is not caused by international students," said Languages Canada Executive Director Gonzalo Peralta. "Even as a temporary measure, in the time it takes for [enrolment caps] to have an impact, Canada’s educational institutions will have lost much needed revenue as we recover from the pandemic. The country will lose on talent attraction, filling the workforce gap, and export revenues. And what about the thousands of Canadian families that count on hosting international students at home and count on those revenues to pay inflated mortgages? Instead of caps, government should focus on supporting efforts to bring together investors, developers, and housing service companies to create the best conditions to welcome students. Canada is a prime spot for investment currently, let’s take advantage of that and make this a positive instead of a negative."

"Students are not to blame for Canada’s housing crisis; they are among those most impacted," added a statement from Colleges and Institutes Canada. "Canada’s colleges and institutes have long recognized housing shortage challenges and have taken decisive action to accelerate the development of and approvals for building new accommodations."

Indeed, there have been a number of announcements recently of new housing developments on or near Canadian campuses, including a new on-campus development at Western University that will house 1,000 students and a number of new housing developments at Trent University that will add a combined 1,000 beds.

What the current news cycle makes very clear is that there will be many more such announcements to come, and that Canadian policymakers will be looking to institutions to demonstrate more concretely – particularly in terms of housing capacity, student supports, and graduate outcomes – that they are well able to accommodate the growing numbers of foreign students arriving in communities across Canada.

For additional background, please see:

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