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31st Jan 2024

What we’ve learned (so far) about Canada’s new student visa rules

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • Canada has effectively suspended processing of new study permit applications for undergraduate, college, and long-term language students, until such time as a new “provincial attestation” process is put in place by provincial and territorial governments across the country
  • Study permit applications for K-12, master’s, and doctoral students – all of which are exempt from the cap – can still be processed at this time
  • Short-term language students – those booking study programmes of six months or less – can also still continue with their study plans
  • Under the new cap, provinces and territories will be allocated a share of a total national volume of study permit applications for 2024
  • Provincial and territorial governments have already received a proposed cap allocation from IRCC, and discussions are ongoing to finalise those numbers and to determine how they will be further distributed among the Designated Learning Institutions (DLIs) in each region of the country

The Canadian government's 22 January announcement of a new cap on study permits for international students sent shockwaves across the country and around the world last week. Along with a hard cap on new study permits in 2024 and 2025, the new policy settings include:

  • That students enrolled in programmes delivered via public-private partnerships will no longer be eligible for post-graduate work permits (PGWPs) as of 1 September 2024.
  • That there will be new limits on work permits for spouses of international students.
  • That study permit applications will now need to accompanied by a "provincial attestation letter," with provinces and territories expected to put mechanisms in place to provide those letters "no later than 31 March 2024."

Since the announcement, it has become increasingly clear that the government moved quickly to introduce the new policies – so quickly that peak bodies in Canada, to say nothing of provincial and territorial governments, were completely surprised by the new rules and have been scrambling to respond in the days since.

Particularly in that context, there is plenty of room for confusion and uncertainty around the announcement. Some aspects have become clearer over the past week, however, and we have summarised them here. That said, this is a very fluid situation and we will update this post and otherwise extend our coverage as new information becomes available.

Canada has suspended processing of new study permit applications. However, students who are exempt from the cap can still apply.

Effective 22 January, Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) requires a "provincial attestation" letter to accompany each study permit application. The obvious challenge in this is that there are currently no mechanisms in place to allow provinces or territories (PTs) to produce those letters. As above, IRCC expects that PTs will have those processes in place on or before 31 March. In the meantime, this means that study permit processing is effectively suspended for many students. IRCC has been reportedly returning any new study permit applications to students received since 22 January, and refunding application fees.

An IRCC spokesperson explained to ICEF Monitor, however, that, "The requirement for a provincial attestation letter applies only to certain study permit applications received after the Minister’s announcement." The IRCC response confirms that new applications will continue to be processed in cases where the applicant is exempt from the cap, "such as those applying for an extension, pursuing a master’s or doctoral degree, or attending primary or secondary school."

The processing pause – even if only for students affected by the cap – has been a particularly shocking development for Canadian institutions and schools, and industry groups and other stakeholders have urged IRCC to reconsider.

In a 30 January joint letter to Immigration Minister Marc Miller, Universities Canada and Colleges and Institutes Canada said that, "This sudden halt [in study permit processing] while provinces establish attestation systems is already impacting enrolments. The absence of a pre-existing process in most provinces compounds the issue, hindering eligible students from obtaining study permits. Faced with uncertainty, these students are likely to choose alternative destinations, posing a significant risk to Canada’s post-secondary sector and hindering our efforts to attract global talent for years to come."

"The potential consequences are difficult to overstate," continues the letter. "We urge your department not to impose the letter of attestation requirement for college and undergraduate study permit applications until at least 31 March or until the provinces establish an effective process."

In a related development, nearly half (47%) of prospective students responding to a flash survey conducted by IDP immediately before and after the 22 January announcement said that the new policy settings will have a "high or very high impact on their study abroad plans." The same survey revealed that 42% of prospective students, including those who had already applied to study in Canada, were now more inclined to choose another destination or otherwise reconsider their study abroad plans.

Study permit applications filed before 22 January will still be processed.

IRCC confirms that, "All study permit applications received prior to the signing of the new Ministerial Instructions on 22 January 2024 establishing the study permit cap will continue to be processed without the need for a provincial attestation letter."

Longer-term language students are captured under the cap.

On the question of how the cap would apply to language students, an IRCC spokesperson confirmed to ICEF Monitor that, "Many students pursuing language training in Canada don’t require a study permit, as their course is shorter than six months, and would not be counted under the cap or require a provincial attestation letter. Those pursuing programs that last six months or longer would be subject to the cap and the attestation letter requirement."

The "provincial attestation" letter is tied to the student cap.

IRCC Minister Marc Miller explained on 22 January that a portion of the total national cap on new study permits would be allocated to each province and territory based on population. Ontario, for example, which holds 39% of the Canadian population, would be allocated 39% of the total cap for new study permits.

This explains IRCC's thinking behind the provincial attestation process. "The attestation process will enable provinces and territories to distribute spaces within their allocation," says IRCC. In essence, it is a mechanism which allows the province to attest (that is, to confirm) that it has space remaining within its allocated cap for a given study permit application.

IRCC has already proposed cap allocations to the provinces and territories, and they are based not on the number of study permits issued but on the number of study permit applications filed.

While this has not been publicly reported, ICEF Monitor understands that IRCC has already formally proposed cap allocations to provinces and territories. One such letter obtained by ICEF Monitor explains that the cap is based on the number of study permit applications filed with IRCC for the year – as opposed to the number of study permits actually issued.

It appears that IRCC has relied on historical acceptance rates to determine a cap, "[that] is based on study permit applications at approximately 600,000, which should result in some 360,000 study permits being approved in 2024." In other words, the actual commodity that is being distributed among provinces and territories is a share of a total volume of study permit applications, that will be somewhere around 600,000, and that, if historical acceptance rates persist, should yield 360,000 approved study permits.

One province, British Columbia (BC), has publicly disclosed its proposed cap allocation, with Post-Secondary Education Minister Selina Robinson confirming on 29 January that the province has been told it will be able to accept 83,000 study permit applications for this year, which could result in 50,000 study permits issued under the cap based on current approval rates, not counting those that would be issued for K-12, master's, and doctoral programmes (all of which are exempt from the cap process).

BC is home to roughly 14% of Canada's population, so that allocation of 83,000 study permit applications would suggest a total national cap of just over 602,000 study permit applications.

We should note that allocations to provinces and territories are not yet finalised. "Establishing a cap is different than the allocation," says IRCC. "Conversations are ongoing with provinces and territories and more information will be announced in due course. Matching allocations with a province's per capita share of the population is the prime consideration, but other considerations are also part of those conversations as we finalize allocations."

From recent media reports, we can understand that those other considerations include local labour market demands, among other factors.

Once the share of study permit applications is finalised, each province and territory will then have to determine how that allocation is distributed among DLIs in each region.

IRCC explains: "With these new measures, provinces and territories will control how permits are allocated in their jurisdiction. The resulting change in the number of international students will be affected by a number of factors, including how PTs use their allocation and whether the approval rate for study permit applications increases or decreases in 2024."

The cap is based on a "zero net-growth model."

IRCC has attempted to calibrate its cap so that there is no further growth in foreign enrolment in Canada over the next two years. As an IRCC spokesperson explains: "The national cap aims to deliver no growth in the number of international students while it is in place. The national cap is based on the number of study permits that expire in 2024, adjusted for the number of study permit extension applications expected to be received, and what the application approval rate will likely be."

For additional background, please see:

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