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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

Colleges and universities say they’re anticipating financial losses possibly in the billions of dollars due to a drop in international enrolments caused by the global pandemic.

The government of Canada last week took additional steps to make it easier for students to study online from abroad, but the national associations that represent universities and colleges say the losses are still likely to be significant. The associations are lobbying the federal government to make money available for postsecondary institutions.

Denise Amyot, president of Colleges and Institutes Canada, said a mid-June survey showed colleges expected their new international enrolments to fall by two-thirds this term, from about 90,000 to 30,000. It’s still unclear whether those fears will be realized, as data are not yet available, but colleges are hoping the impact will be less than expected, Ms. Amyot said.

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“Administrators are worried right now. They’re worried about the financial impact. They’re worried they’ll have fewer programs to offer domestic students,” she said. “Every student counts right now. I can’t think of a better way to put it.”

International students are crucial to university finances because they represent half of all tuition revenue. The impact of the pandemic may be more pronounced for colleges, though, as they tend to offer shorter programs that result in more frequent student turnover.

International students contribute nearly $22-billion a year to the Canadian economy, according to federal government estimates, with billions flowing from postsecondary tuition fees alone. Ms. Amyot said an analysis conducted on behalf of the colleges estimates between $1.8-billion and $3.5-billion in lost revenue, depending on the length and severity of the pandemic.

Universities Canada said it does not yet know the extent of losses across the sector. Some universities, including the University of British Columbia and the University of Alberta, said international acceptances are in line with previous years, but numbers aren’t firm as students still have a month to withdraw. And the picture may be quite different from one institution to another.

“We are in active discussions with federal government departments about how we can work together to stabilize from the potential loss of international students,” said Cindy McIntyre, assistant director, international relations at Universities Canada.

Education is primarily a provincial responsibility. Ontario provided an additional $25-million to postsecondary institutions early in the pandemic to cope with some of the additional associated costs. Quebec gave $75-million to institutions and made more money available in student assistance. But the national postsecondary associations are aiming to persuade the federal government to contribute some pandemic-specific funds to the sector, as they did with the $2-billion recently announced for elementary and high schools.

Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISEDC) said Wednesday that Ottawa is having conversations with the provinces and territories regarding the types of supports that are needed. And Ottawa has since taken steps to ease some of the concerns of institutions, including a two-step process to speed approval for those who want to start their studies online. It has also allowed U.S. students to cross the border as long as they quarantine for 14 days on arrival and increased federal student financial aid.

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At the moment only those with permits issued before mid-March whose travel is deemed essential and those from the U.S. are allowed to enter Canada.

Last week, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) announced measures that will allow students to complete one-year programs online without being penalized on the length of their postgraduate work permit. But the decision many institutions are waiting on is whether other international students with visas processed after mid-March will be allowed to enter the country. At the moment provincial and federal health officials are assessing plans submitted by institutions for the safe isolation of arriving students.

“It’s now too late to get international students here for the start of the fall semester, but many of our institutions still have an interest in seeing international students arrive over the course of the fall,” Ms. McIntyre said.

When asked whether Ottawa would step in with more funding to address the shortfall, ISEDC did not answer the question directly, but pointed to changes the government has already brought in, including $450-million in funding for academic research. IRCC also cited previous measures to help international students.

“Recently, changes were brought forward to give international students more certainty about their ability to enter Canada once travel restrictions are eased in Canada and their home countries,” said Mike Jones, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino. “Students who have submitted a complete application will receive priority processing to make sure they can begin their classes while outside Canada, and complete up to 50 per cent of their program from abroad if they can’t travel sooner.”

There were more than 700,000 international students at all levels in 2018, a number that has grown rapidly over the past decade. Normally tens of thousands of new students would be arriving in September, but not this year. At the moment only those with permits issued before mid-March are allowed to enter Canada.

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Gautham Kolluri, who runs an international student recruitment company, said students and families are apprehensive about starting an expensive degree at a time when it’s unclear when they will be able to travel to Canada. Many international students pay tuition fees of $20,000 or more, which many plan to partly fund by working part-time while studying.

Mr. Kolluri said he has a few hundred clients who have been accepted by Canadian institutions but he believes a majority will either defer admission or drop those programs in the next month. He thinks only a quarter will pursue their programs online from their home countries.

“They will lose networking opportunities and they will lose the Canadian experience they want, so they will delay and wait and see,” Mr. Kolluri said. “Investing $30,000 without knowing what will happen is a big gamble.”

He said Canada remains a top destination country, as political developments in the U.S. have made it a less desirable option.

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