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People walk past the University of Toronto campus during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on June 10, 2020.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Canada on Tuesday said it would make it easier for foreign students to study online from abroad and to qualify for a work permit after graduation amid strict border closings to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The changes come after Canada ramped up approvals of new study permits for foreign students in May, even though the country’s borders remain closed to all non-essential travel.

In Washington on Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump’s government unexpectedly reversed course on an order handed down a week ago that could have forced tens of thousands of foreign students to leave that country if their schools moved to offering online-only courses because of COVID-19.

That order had seemed a boon for Canadian universities, which compete with their U.S., British and Australian counterparts to attract English-speaking foreign students. Foreign students pay more than domestic students and can help bolster university finances.

Canada issued 30,785 study permits in May to new foreign students, up 11 per cent from 27,810 permits in May, 2019.

The University of Toronto said its international acceptances were up nearly 20 per cent compared to last year and the University of Waterloo, in Ontario’s tech-hub region, said it has seen interest from foreign students jump.

“We are significantly higher than in other years for international students … which caught us by surprise, we didn’t expect this,” said Christine McWebb, assistant vice-president, international operations at Waterloo.

As part of the plan announced Tuesday, Immigration Canada said it will fast-track permit processing for foreign students who submit complete applications online,and offer two-stage processing to allow applicants to start their studies even if some of their documentation is delayed owing to the pandemic.

It will also allow foreign students to count time spent studying online from abroad toward eligibility for a postgraduation work permit, so long as at least 50 per cent of their program is completed in Canada.

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