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17th Jan 2024

Canadian immigration minister says government is considering cap on international student visas

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • The Canadian government has raised the prospect of a cap on the number of visas it will issue for international students
  • The move comes in the wake of growing public concern around immigration levels in Canada, especially in relation to a continuing housing affordability crisis in the country

The Canadian government is facing increasing criticism – and extensive media coverage – of its management of immigration to the country. The number of immigrants has soared to record-high levels at the same time as an affordable housing crisis is impacting thousands of Canadians. Under increasing pressure, the government is signalling that it may soon set caps on the number of visas it will issue to international students and temporary foreign workers.

In a series of media interviews on 14 January, Immigration Minister Marc Miller addressed the question of limiting international student visas more directly than he has done previously and said his department is actively working on how it might administer a cap. “[The volume of incoming international students] is disconcerting … it's really a system that has gotten out of control,” he told CTV News. With regard to rising interest rates on housing, Mr Miller said to CBC News, “It isn't immigrants that raised interest rates, but volume is volume and it's something that we need to look at."

A public opinion poll conducted in November 2023 found that three-quarters of Canadians now believe that immigration is driving the housing crisis and straining the healthcare system. Close to two-thirds believe that the current volume of new migrants is adding pressure to the Canadian education system. At the same time, strong majorities also believe that “higher immigration contributes to the cultural diversity of the country and young immigrants “contribute to the workforce and tax base, which supports older generations.” But public sentiment is shifting: the number of respondents who said they want fewer immigrants coming to Canada rose from 39% in March 2022 to 48% in November 2023.

When and how would a cap come into effect?

Mr Miller said his department would be looking at how to better control the flow of international students in the first half of 2024. After spending the second half of 2023 tightening its own rules and processes around student visas, Mr Miller’s department will now look with “a little more granularity at what individual academic institutions are doing in different provinces.”

“We have a sense of what those [international student] numbers would look like, what the reduction of those numbers look like. Out of courtesy to my colleagues in the [provincial governments], those are discussions that we're first going to have around the negotiating table.”

In Canada, it is the provinces, rather than the federal government, that accredit Designated Learning Institutions (DLIs) and determine which institutions and schools can host students entering Canada on student visas. At the same time, the Canadian government is responsible for the student visa system, including processing applications and issuing Canadian study permits. Because of that division of responsibility, the federal government will need to negotiate with provincial governments on the issue of how an overall, nationwide cap can be applied across regions and institutions. For the moment, it is clear that Mr Miller has concerns about how the DLI system is being administered currently, telling CTV News:

“There’s a challenge to the integrity of the system and it comes with institutions that have been leveraging the fact there has been this permissive Designated Learning Institution model and getting people outside the country paying a premium dollar and not necessarily getting the education they were promised.”

Mr Miller did indicate that “the needs of academic institutions” will also be a factor in deliberations concerning how a cap might be administered.

In Canada, as in the UK, higher education institutions have become increasingly reliant on international student enrolments for financial stability. As such, any decline in student numbers could profoundly affect the financial health of Canadian institutions.

Mr Miller declined to comment on the degree of the cap being considered. In 2022, there were more than 800,000 international students on active study visas, an increase of 30% over the previous year and representing growth of 43% over the past five years. Mr Miller expects the new total for 2023 will reach 900,000.

Commenting on the prospect of an enrolment cap, peak body Colleges and Institutes Canada said that, "Any measures taken must avoid unintended consequences on a sector that brings diversity to our communities and significant value to Canada’s economy...Solutions need to recognise regional differences and steer clear of a one-size-fits-all approach, which could be detrimental to those communities that have ample capacity to welcome additional students."

What’s motivating the likely policy shift?

The reason the government might cap international student visas stems in part from a little-known fact: while there are carefully administered caps on the number of people who can permanently migrate to Canada, there are currently none on non-permanent residents, including international students and temporary foreign workers. Amid a context in which housing supply in many Canadian cities and towns has not kept up with demand, government data shows that in 2023:

  • The population of non-permanent residents (NPRs) grew by more than half a million people, a sharper increase that in any year in the past five decades;
  • The number of non-permanent residents rose to 2.5 million people, up from 1.7 million in 2022;
  • The total non-permanent resident population has increased by 80% since the fourth quarter of 2021.

A chart created by CTV News shows the extent to which the number of non-permanent residents are driving net migration. In 2023, the net immigration total (counted as the total of immigrants minus the total of emigrants) was just over 433,000 thousand, while the net NPR population (counted as incoming NPRs minus outgoing NPRs) was close to 700,000.

Between 2021/22 and 2022/23, StatsCan data show that net migration actually decreased by 6% (from 458,630 to 433,380). But the net NPR population of students and temporary foreign workers increased by 256% (from 195,770 to 697,700).

Canadian population growth by type, July 1972–June 2023. Source: CTV News

Speaking about the effect on the housing market of so many people coming to Canada to study/work and live, Benjamin Tal, managing director and deputy chief economist, CIBC Capital Markets, said, “We need to wake up … this is an affordability crisis that we are facing.” He noted that immigrants do not come to Canada “carrying a house on their back.”

While ideally, the affordable housing stock in Canada would quickly expand to accommodate new residents – permanent and temporary – the reality is that it will take years for housing supply to catch up with demand.

For additional background, please see:

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