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9th Dec 2023

Canada: Immigration ministry tightens student visa rules and raises minimum funds requirements

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • International students applying for a permit to study in Canada will now need to prove CAN$20,635 in available funds
  • The government’s decision comes amid scrutiny of the country’s international education sector and how well it protects students’ welfare
  • The temporary measure allowing international students to work unlimited hours while studying has been extended to 30 April 2024
  • Extensions of Post-Graduation Work Permits (PGWPs) will soon be phased out
  • Some online study will still count towards PGWP eligibility until September 2024

The Canadian government has announced that it is raising the cost-of-living financial requirement for international students applying for a study permit. Individual students will now have to prove they have CAN$20,635 in available funds, on top of the amount they need to pay for tuition and exclusive of any fees for other family members coming with them to Canada.

This is more than double the amount that students are required to have in savings now (about CDN$10,000). The new rule will apply to study permit applications received on or after 1 January 2024. This is the latest in a series of policy changes demonstrating that the federal government is looking far more closely at Canada’s international student programme and how it operates.

The steeper financial requirement is designed to remedy a trend in which some students arrive in Canada believing they have enough money to support themselves given that they have met the $10,000 threshold – only to find that they do not. In those cases, students can be more vulnerable to shady landlords and exploitative employers as they struggle to make ends meet.

The new amount (CDN$20,635) represents 75% of the low-income cut-off in Canada, known as LICO. Economists have determined that LICO “represents the minimum income necessary to ensure that an individual does not have to spend a greater than average portion of income on necessities.”

This is the first time in ten years that the amount of savings required for study permits has been raised. We can expect the savings threshold to change more frequently going forward as the government says it will keep adjusting the amount according Statistics Canada’s updates to the LICO.

Marc Miller, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, says:

“International students provide significant cultural, social and economic benefits to their communities, but they have also faced challenges navigating life in Canada. We are revising the cost-of-living threshold so that international students understand the true cost of living here. This measure is key to their success in Canada. We are also exploring options to ensure that students find adequate housing. These long-overdue changes will protect international students from financially vulnerable situations and exploitation.”

Not all students will be able to meet the new level of savings

The government acknowledges that not all students will be able to prove they have CDN$20,000+ in savings, but that there is a plan to pilot new ideas that will help “underrepresented cohorts” of international students to come to Canada to study.

Until then, we can assume that relatively less wealthy cohorts will find it impossible to study in Canada. Speaking with Canada’s Global News, Sarom Rho, the national coordinator of Migrant Students United, described Ottawa’s immigration policy as a “rollercoaster” and said:

“The feds just doubled the financial requirements for study permits, effectively creating a cap and excluding prospective working-class students worldwide who will now be scrambling in the next three weeks to find an extra $10,000 dollars.”

Mr Rho said that his association will push back against “monthly improvisations and chaotic twists that let exploitation and abuse continue” and continue to speak up for stable, fair rules and permanent residency for all."

Spiralling costs of living are affecting many international students

While the new savings threshold will come as a shock to many students, it is also true that a notable portion of international students are finding it difficult to live comfortably in Canada given how much the cost of living has increased over the past couple of years.

A September 2023 survey by the Daily Bread food bank of 180 international students who regularly visit four major Toronto food banks found that “Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada’s estimated living expense used during the application process is nearly half of what a student in Toronto typically spends.” The Daily Bread said that “When asked how their experience in Canada compared with what they were expecting, respondents noted that Canada was much more expensive than they thought it would be, particularly with respect to housing and food.”

The proportion of food bank users with temporary status – i.e., student/visitor/work visa – rose from 10% 2022 to 24% in 2023. Of “new food bank users,” i.e., people who have never relied on a food bank before their first visit, 87% were born outside of Canada.

Minister warns institutions and provinces to improve student supports

Speaking to the media, Mr Miller said that the government expects that institutions “only accept the number of students that they are able to provide for, that they’re able to house, or assist in finding off-campus housing. He continued:

“Ahead of September 2024, we are prepared to take necessary measures, including significantly limiting visas, to ensure that designated learning institutions provide adequate and sufficient student supports.”

Mr Miller said it was “imperative that all stakeholders – provincial and territorial governments, learning institutions and other education stakeholders” work together at ensuring international students are well supported, but he added:

“Enough is enough. If provinces and territories cannot do this, we will do it for them and they will not like the bluntness of the instruments that we use … Provinces have a number of tools at their disposal — namely the regulation of the designated learning institutions, that in some cases just need actually to be shut down.”

The national government has become much more active over the past year in moving to regulate Canada’s international education sector. In 2024, it will roll out a “Trusted Institution Framework” that will see some designated learning institutions (DLIs) rewarded for providing exemplary support and outcomes for international students.

Many details of this new framework have not yet been made public, but the core concept is that colleges, universities, and other post-secondary institutions will 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.”

Three other announcements

Extended off-campus work hours protected until 30 April 2024: The government has been considering what limits to place, going forward, on the number of hours that international students can work while studying in Canada. Because this year’s current students are only halfway through their academic year, Mr Miller said the decision had been made to extend the current rule allowing students to work more than 20 hours per week until 30 April 2024. He said that after that, his department might set the limit at 30 hours per week. He ruled out the possibility of full-time work for international students during study periods.

Online study to count towards PGWP until September 2024: During the pandemic, the government allowed students studying online to remain eligible for a Post-Graduation Work Permit (PGWP). Initially, 100% of a programme could be online for this eligibility, but in 2022 the online portion was reduced in scope. This week, the government said that online study would continue to count for students beginning a Canadian programme before 1 September 2024 – provided it constitutes less than 50% of their total course. The vast majority of international students enrolled in Canadian higher education are now studying in-person in Canada.

Extension of PGWP to be phased out: On three occasions, and in response to pandemic-related labour shortages, international students have been provided the ability to extend their post-graduation work permit by 18 months. Those international students whose work permit expires up to 31 December 2023 will be able to apply for an extension. After that date, extensions will no longer be available.

For additional background, please see:

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