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Over the last two decades, the number of foreign students studying in Canada has increased almost sevenfold, to more than 800,000. The jump has been particularly sharp in recent years. At the end of 2022, there were nearly half a million more visa students than in 2015.

At first blush, this sounds like a success story: Canadian higher education must be so outstanding that record numbers from around the world are lining up to pay university and college tuitions several times higher than those for Canadian students.

Foreign students clearly believe that they’re paying for something that offers a positive return on their investment. But what are they paying for? And what are they getting?

Also: What are we getting?

For many international students, what they are buying is mostly not education. And what many – or most – schools are selling is not education. A big part of what is being bought and sold are public goods: the right to enter Canada, to legally work and to get on a track to citizenship.

There are, of course, excellent university and college programs attracting the best and the brightest to this country. That’s what tying higher education to immigration is supposed to be doing: boosting economic vitality by pulling in, say, the world’s best engineering or computer science students, and giving them opportunities to become Canadians after graduation.

Using foreign student recruitment to raise the education and skill level of the work force benefits all Canadians. When highly-skilled and productive foreigners graduate from a high-level program and become even more skilled and productive – and choose to become Canadians – everyone wins.

But much of the current visa-student pathway is about something else. It has become an important, though unofficial, stream of temporary foreign workers – a bottomless supply of labour to flip burgers, stack boxes and deliver late-night burritos, at minimum wage. And the number of student visas on offer is not capped.

Opinion: Want to ease Canada’s housing crisis? Let’s start by being responsible about international student visas

Consider what’s happening at Ontario’s 24 public colleges. Between 2012 and 2020, their foreign enrolment grew by 342 per cent. There’s been more growth in the last three years. But a large part of that growth comes from public colleges selling their name, and their publicly-bestowed credentials, to private operators.

Students in these so-called public-private career college partnerships are often hosted at a “campus” that is a few classrooms in a strip mall or office park, usually somewhere in the Greater Toronto Area – and often hundreds of kilometres from the public college whose credentials the private partner paid to use.

Consider Lambton College in Sarnia. According to its strategic mandate agreement with the province, between 2020 and 2024 it expects domestic student enrolment to drop from 2,104 to 2,038. But international student enrolment will more than double to almost 9,000. Most visa students study at one of two campuses in Toronto, run by private operators in suburban office parks.

Why is a foreign student willing to pay $25,460 tuition for a four-semester course in hotel and resort management, from a Lambton-affiliated private business called “Queen’s College,” in a warehouse district in Mississauga?

Perhaps because the holder of an education visa can legally work while enrolled. And thanks to private Queen’s link with public Lambton, the federal government will issue another work visa upon graduation. Even a low-level Canadian educational credential plus Canadian work experience boosts one’s chances of claiming “PR” status – permanent residency, the last stop before citizenship.

That’s what many schools are selling. At $25,460, it’s a bargain.

But it brings me back to the question of why Canada is not being more selective. Using the education-to-citizenship pathway to recruit highly skilled, future Canadian citizens is a great idea. It boosts GDP-per-capita, increasing the size of the economic pie by more than the number of forks in the pie.

But much of the educational visa stream is no longer about that. And graded on the curve, Lambton is far from the bottom of the class.

The federal government lists 526 higher-education institutions in Ontario as “designated learning institutions.” Most are private and may not offer much in the way of education. Yet enrolling at any DLI includes the opportunity to come to Canada on a student visa, and the legal right to work while enrolled.

Even more than at public colleges, that’s what foreign students at private career colleges appear to be paying for: the right to enter Canada, and to work, mostly at low-skill, low-wage jobs.

However, despite the fact that governments have allowed private operators access to a bottomless helping of student visas, they’re sufficiently dubious of their education that completion of a private career college program generally does not gives students the right to a post-graduation work visa – unlike grads from public-private partnerships.

When these private college students are asked to stop working and leave Canada upon graduation from their short course, will they? Don’t bet on it. But that’s a column for another day.

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