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Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marc Miller speaks to the media during the federal cabinet retreat in Montreal, on Jan. 22.Christinne Muschi/The Canadian Press

On Monday, Immigration Minister Marc Miller announced a set of measures aimed at easing pressures that an influx of international students is putting on services such as housing and health care.

The number of international students in Canada grew rapidly in recent years to more than one million by the end of 2023, with just over half of them in Ontario, according to figures from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

Temporary residency programs, such as study permits, are a big driver of population growth in Canada, which is rising at its quickest pace since the 1950s. That growth is one of the reasons why economists say Canada is caught in a “population trap” and the housing shortage is so pronounced – the number of new rental and housing units is not keeping up with demand.

Here’s a breakdown of Ottawa’s cap on international students, additional measures and the federal government’s hopes for the changes.

The cap on international student permits

The federal government will impose an immediate cap on the number of international study visas over the next two years. Ottawa says it will approve approximately 360,000 undergraduate study permits for 2024 – a 35-per-cent reduction from 2023.

Previously, study permits were issued to qualified applicants who had a letter of acceptance from a designated learning institution, with no limit on the number that could be issued every year.

Under the new system, a fixed number of permits will be issued to each province based on its share of population. The federal government said on its website that this will “result in much more significant decreases in provinces where the international student population has seen the most unsustainable growth.”

Ontario, which hosts by far the largest number of international students, could see its intake cut by as much as 50 per cent, Mr. Miller said. Ontario and British Columbia have already issued statements saying they would work with the federal government. B.C. said it will release its plan next week, which will in part “significantly increase quality standards.”

Students currently enrolled in the International Student Program won’t be affected, and master’s and PhD programs will be exempt. The restrictions will also not apply to elementary school and secondary school education permits.

The government said it will announce the cap for 2025 by the end of this year.

A pause on application program for foreign undergraduate students

In addition to the cap, Canada has temporarily paused the application program for foreign students entering undergraduate or college programs.

The federal government will require international students to provide an attestation letter from a province or territory with their federal application. Ottawa has given the premiers until March 31 to establish a process for issuing the documents, except in Quebec which already has a process in place.

Some international students not eligible for postgraduation work permits

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Cape Breton University says it has instituted a new code of conduct for international student recruiters to protect against giving prospective students unrealistic expectations about the school and life in Sydney, N.S.Steve Wadden/The Canadian Press

Starting on Sept. 1, international students who begin a study program at a school operating under a public-private partnership model – a private college that has been licensed to deliver the curriculum of an associated public college – will no longer be eligible for a postgraduation work permit.

These types of private colleges have less oversight than public colleges, but they have seen tremendous growth in recent years, benefiting from the higher tuition they charge foreign students and the draw of the postgraduation work permit loophole.

Graduates of master’s and other “short graduate-level programs,” however, will soon be able to apply for a three-year work permit, according to the federal government. Currently, the length of a post­graduation work permit is based solely on the length of an individual’s study program. The federal government says that process hinders “master’s graduates by limiting the amount of time they have to gain work experience and potentially transition to permanent residence.”

Restrictions on work permits for spouses of students

Open work permits will only be made available to the spouses of international students in master’s and PhD programs. Spouses of international students in other levels of study, including undergraduate and college programs, will no longer be eligible.

The changes will be made “in the weeks ahead.”

What does Ottawa hope will come from these measures?

Ottawa’s cap and the other measures are aimed at easing the pressure that foreign students are putting on services such as housing and health care.

The temporary foreign worker stream, which barely existed until the early 2010s, now accounts for more arrivals than traditional immigration. But one of the biggest strains has been in the housing market, where construction has lagged behind demand from newcomers.

Economists welcomed Ottawa’s cap because the number of newcomers has grown so dramatically that the economy can no longer absorb them. Benjamin Tal, deputy chief economist at CIBC Capital Markets, told The Globe and Mail it was “perhaps the most significant one in recent years to address affordability.”

Columnist Campbell Clark writes: “Foreign students are not the problem. They bring many benefits to Canada. … The problem is that the numbers grew so big, so fast in recent years that they stretched housing capacity and services.”

The new changes may also address schools that are abusing the system by churning out foreign graduates like “puppy mills” and providing a subpar education, Mr. Miller previously said at a press conference in December.

What has been the opposition to the measures?

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Students and pedestrians are photographed walking along Gould St. on the Toronto Metropolitan University campus on Jan 22.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The Globe’s Joe Friesen reports that the new policies will put pressure on the bottom lines of universities and colleges that rely on international student fees.

Colleges and Institutes Canada, which represents publicly funded colleges and polytechnics, warned that the move will have far-reaching consequences, from layoffs to program closings and a need to increase tuition fees, all of which could hurt domestic students as well as those from abroad.

International student tuition fees, which are several times higher than those paid by domestic students, have become a crucial income source for many schools, which have made up for declining levels of provincial government funding.

Critics also wonder how provinces will decide on the allocation of study permits, citing fears that it will create a situation where universities, public colleges and private career colleges have to scramble for their share.

With reports from Marieke Walsh, Marie Woolf, Joe Friesen and Matt Lundy

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