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A war of words between two Ontario college presidents has drawn concern from the board of governors at one of the schools, reflecting growing tension over the future of international student tuition fees, a multibillion-dollar revenue stream now threatened by the federal government’s two-year cap on study permits.

The flap began when John Tibbits, the president of Kitchener’s Conestoga College, one of Ontario’s largest colleges, took exception to remarks by David Orazietti, president of Sault College, a smaller school in Sault Ste. Marie.

On a podcast produced by the community news company Village Media, Mr. Orazietti said Conestoga, which received more international study permit approvals than any other school in the country in 2022, had played a role in creating a local housing crisis. He asked how it was possible to bring roughly 30,000 international students to a community and not create chaos in housing and other services.

Dr. Tibbits shot back at a public event on Tuesday, where he planned to discuss Conestoga’s contribution to the local economy. According to the news website Cambridge Today, he said Mr. Orazietti, a former provincial Liberal MPP, needed to learn “to shut his mouth.” Dr. Tibbits took aim at Sault College’s satellite campuses in the Greater Toronto Area, which are run by a private-sector partner under a licensing agreement with the college.

“Like Orazietti, why are his ... students in Toronto? Why not up there? Talk about a whore. I mean, he’s taking a percentage of the profits of an operation,” Cambridge Today quoted Dr. Tibbits as saying. “I can’t stand the guy, by the way.”

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In a statement issued Thursday, Conestoga’s board said the language Dr. Tibbits used is unacceptable and doesn’t align with the values of the institution. “Dr. Tibbits has communicated his regret for making those comments and apologizes for the offensive remarks. The board is reviewing this matter internally,” the statement said. Dr. Tibbits was not available for an interview.

The dispute highlights the tension that has pervaded the sector as colleges try to determine who is to blame for the problems that led to the study permit cap being imposed.

Immigration Minister Marc Miller announced in January that he would cut the number of new international study permits by 35 per cent this year, to about 360,000, as part of the two-year-long cap. He said uncontrolled growth in the international student program was straining housing and health care across Canada.

He added that the program’s integrity was under threat as schools, hungry for the greater revenue promised by international tuition fees, which are much higher than domestic fees, upped their intake of foreign students.

While the cap is in place, provinces will be given shares of the country’s supply of study permits based on population size. For Ontario, this means the number of new international students could be reduced by as much as 50 per cent, creating pressure on the province as it determines how those permits will be allocated, and pressure on institutions that have come to rely on that revenue.

One of the key questions is how to handle large colleges such as Conestoga, which has eight campuses in Kitchener and neighbouring communities and has generated significant surpluses from international tuition. Sault College is among a group of schools with satellite campuses in the Greater Toronto Area that cater to international students. These campuses have been criticized for placing stress on some sectors of the city’s housing market.

Conestoga ran a $106-million surplus last year, according to its published financial statements.

Sault College has about 2,800 students at its satellite campuses, Mr. Orazietti said in an interview Thursday. He called this a modest number, well below the 7,500-student limit for satellite campuses set by the province.

He said the federal government’s study permit cap is a blunt instrument that aims to prevent schools from bringing in thousands of students without being able to provide them with adequate housing, and that his views reflect “a shared concern around the volume of international students being brought to a community and a campus that I think is frankly irresponsible.”

“Schools like ours are being negatively impacted when we are in compliance with all of the ministry policies and rules,” he said.

He said he wants to see Ontario’s Auditor-General look into Conestoga’s operations. “There’s this staggering number of students being recruited to the community,” he added. “I would have some questions.”

He noted that he had never met or dealt with Dr. Tibbits, apart from a few meetings where they were among large groups of people.

“I’m shocked that a public college president would make these types of comments and resort to lashing out with personal attacks,” he said.

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