In 2012, Ontario’s Conestoga College had about 10,000 full-time students, nearly nine out of 10 of them Canadians. A decade later, the college had about the same number of domestic students, but it has more than doubled in size thanks to huge enrolment from abroad. And with those foreign students has come a tripling of revenue and a massive windfall for the school.
The college, located an hour’s drive west of Toronto in Kitchener, Ont., had more international study permits issued last year than any school in Canada, and almost as many as the two of the country’s leading universities, the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia, combined.
Conestoga’s transformation is part of a broader shift to internationalization in Canadian postsecondary education, one that some Ontario colleges have embraced. In 2016, a little more than 35,000 study permits were issued for Ontario colleges. Now it’s more than 100,000 a year and rising.
At least seven of Ontario’s 24 publicly funded colleges, job-focused institutions that primarily offer one and two-year programs, had more international students than domestic in 2021-22. Sarnia’s Lambton College, for instance, was 82 per cent international students, according to full-time student stats from the provincial government. Northern College, based in Timmins, was about 80 per cent international students; North Bay’s Canadore College was 72 per cent; and Sault College about 60 per cent. Cambrian College and Loyalist College, based in Sudbury and Belleville, were more than half international students. In several cases, the growth in international enrolment is focused at satellite campuses or partner schools in the Greater Toronto Area.
As governments have chosen to allow postsecondary funding to stagnate, colleges and universities have found financial salvation in international student fees, which can range from three to 10 times greater than those for domestic students. But the speed and scale of this transformation has had other consequences. The presence of more than 800,000 foreign students in Canada in 2022 has exacerbated a housing crisis. It has also added a large pool of low-wage labour that has been described as a new temporary foreign worker stream.
The result is that international students have become a hot political issue. Last week, Canada’s Housing Minister Sean Fraser suggested the federal government consider a cap on study permits to alleviate some of the pressure. That drew immediate opposition from Quebec, which portrayed the idea as a federal incursion on education. It was also met with concern by Colleges and Institutes Canada (CIC), the national lobby group, which called the remarks “troubling.”
“We want to emphasize that students are not to blame for Canada’s housing crisis; they are among the most impacted,” the statement from CIC said. The next day Prime Minister Justin Trudeau struck a more cautious note, saying international students were the latest group to be blamed for a multifaceted crisis.
The largest cohort at Canadian colleges today hails from India. At least six of Ontario’s colleges have more full-time students from India than Canada. More than 150 countries send international students to Canada, but recent data show about 40 per cent of permits went to India, followed by China at 12 per cent, Philippines at 4 per cent and many other countries with smaller shares.
When they enroll, international students are charged a higher price because their seats are not subsidized by a provincial grant. But their higher fees are also supporting a postsecondary system that wouldn’t exist at its current scale without them.
While an image persists of international students as the children of privileged families, that’s not necessarily the case. Many take on huge loans to fund their studies. And in communities such as Kitchener, international students are also living with the consequences of a dire shortage of affordable housing.
Kartik Purani, 23, shares a 625-square-foot one-bedroom apartment in Kitchener with three other students from India. One sleeps in the hallway just inside the front door. One sleeps on a mattress in the living room, and two share a bedroom. They eat their meals on the tile floor. Each pays between $400 and $500 of the $1,800 monthly rent.
Mr. Purani already has a three-year bachelor of commerce from an Indian university. He’s pursuing a graduate certificate in financial technology at Conestoga, for which he’s paying about $15,000 in tuition, and plans to take another certificate afterward in order to apply for what he hopes will be the maximum three-year postgraduate work permit. He dreams of working in high finance.
He spent the first semester studying entirely online, and after living in Canada for several months, he has visited the college campus fewer than five times, he said. He has played pool twice and gone for vegan shawarma once, but otherwise hasn’t experienced much of what would be considered college life. His singular preoccupation is finding work.
“I’m under pressure. I have to earn the fees,” Mr. Purani said.
Without more work, he won’t be able to pay for his next semester of courses, he said. He had a job collecting eggs at a farm in nearby Elmira, Ont., but the employer also asked him to dispose of carcasses, which he found troubling, so he quit. He has a job at an Amazon warehouse on weekends, but the job is more than 50 kilometres away in Hamilton. He has to book a ride, which eats a chunk of his earnings.
The pressure and anxiety weigh on him, he says. His roommates have come home to find him crying a few times. Last week he visited a mall food court to look for work. The coffee shop and fast-food employees he spoke to were kind, but they weren’t hiring, they told him. He attended a restaurant job fair, but by the time he arrived, there were already 800 applicants ahead of him, mostly international students.
Mr. Purani is clear that he chose to study in Canada, rather than the U.S. or the U.K., because its immigration rules are attractive.
Students can work while they study, get a two- or three-year work permit after graduation and have a shot at being granted permanent residency. (Statistics Canada data show about 30 per cent of students get permanent residency after 10 years, but rates are higher in recent years for those who get a postgrad work permit.)
The price of tuition is high relative to incomes in India, but the gamble is worth it, many students say.
“Permanent residency policies are the main attraction,” says Vaibhav Patel, one of Mr. Purani’s roommates and the apartment’s elder statesman at 30 years old. He had a well-paid job as a software engineer in India but gave it up to pursue a life in Canada. Now he washes dishes on the late shift at a café in Kitchener and rides a bicycle home after the 2 a.m. closing time on weekends. He sleeps in the main room next to the kitchen, so he has no privacy. He shrugs off the hardship.
“It’s okay if you’re a student,” Mr. Patel said.
In the long run it will pay off, he added. “Students do jobs that Canadians won’t do,” Mr. Patel said. “And colleges and universities have reached a point where they can’t survive without the money that international students bring in.”
There are currently two federal government reviews of the international student program under way, one by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and one by Global Affairs. But attempts to curtail the program will have to reckon with its impact on the schools, because international funding has become crucial to Canadian higher education.
Many of the Ontario colleges that have a large proportion of international students have expanded via branch campuses in the Greater Toronto Area or partnerships with private educational providers. The partner schools teach curricula from the colleges and the students receive Ontario college degrees and postgraduate work rights. Both Conservative and Liberal provincial governments have made attempts to limit the size of these lucrative public-private operations. The latest policy imposes a per-college cap of 7,500 students.
Cambrian College, which has a partnership with a private college in the GTA, said its home campus enrolment still has a domestic majority. It said it takes a measured approach because it doesn’t want to bring in more international students than the college or the Sudbury community can accommodate.
The schools have been encouraged on the international path by both provincial and federal governments. The federal government, which aims to attract half a million immigrants a year by 2025, is hoping to build a talent pipeline already equipped with Canadian educational credentials. The provincial governments benefit by placing a growing share of the postsecondary funding burden on prospective immigrants.
According to a report from Ontario Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk, Queen’s Park provided by far the lowest level of government support to colleges of any province in 2018-19. The funding gap that colleges face has been exacerbated by the Doug Ford government’s decision to cut domestic tuition fees by 10 per cent in 2019 and freeze them at that level.
Provincial funding per full-time-equivalent
domestic public college student
2018-2019, in thousands
the globe and mail, Source: Office of the Auditor
General of Ontario
Provincial funding per full-time-equivalent
domestic public college student
2018-2019, in thousands
the globe and mail, Source: Office of the Auditor
General of Ontario
Provincial funding per full-time-equivalent domestic public college student
2018-2019, in thousands
the globe and mail, Source: Office of the Auditor General of Ontario
McMaster University economist Arthur Sweetman, an expert on immigration and public policy, said the growth in international students is an example of what happens when policy makers misunderstand the incentives they create.
The federal government has placed no limits on student visas, he said, and the provinces are happy not to increase their grants to postsecondary institutions. The result is that some schools have pushed the envelope.
“I think it’s a regulatory failure,” Prof. Sweetman said. “If you tell people to go make money and here are the rules, people are going to make money and go right up to the edge of the rules.”
Conestoga said in a statement that the well-being of its students is a priority and that it works with them to find affordable housing options. This year, it signed onto a sector-wide set of standards on how best to support international students.
Revenue generated through increased enrolment has helped the college boost hiring, invest in new facilities as well as in new programs and student services, the statement added, including supports for students seeking employment. It has expanded its Kitchener campus, opened one in downtown Guelph and will open two new locations in Milton next year.
David Agnew, president of Seneca, said international students are now the majority at his Toronto college, and that they enrich the learning environment and college experience for everyone on campus. Domestic students aren’t displaced by the international students, as schools are required to offer places in high-demand programs to Ontario applicants first and Canadians second. The school is, however, able to offer more programs for domestic students thanks to the funding that international students provide.
“We haven’t had a grant increase in more than a decade and now we have frozen tuition. We [wouldn’t] have enough money to operate anything close to the high-quality educational institution that Ontarians should expect,” Mr. Agnew said.
Seneca recently crossed the international majority threshold among full-time students, but the ratio drops to 39 per cent when continuing education students are included. Mr. Agnew admits that the concentration of international students at some Ontario colleges could be perceived as a concern by some people. But he says it’s wrong to lay the blame for housing shortages at the feet of international students.
He said housing affordability is an issue that cuts across society. Seneca has about 1,350 residence spaces and more than 28,000 students. The college would like to work with governments and the private sector to build more, Mr. Agnew said.
“Let’s not demonize international students,” Mr. Agnew said. “Let’s work on solutions to the affordable housing issue rather than trying to blame people.”
International enrolments have been growing steadily for years. What made it a political issue this summer is the realization that additional renters are having an impact on an already stretched housing market.
In a presentation to Hamilton City Council this year, Steve Pomeroy, an industry professor at McMaster’s Canadian Housing Evidence Collaborative, said the biggest added pressure in the housing market is the rapid increase in non-permanent residents, a large chunk of whom are international students or former students. He places the inflection point at 2016, when international enrolments began to jump.
“When these folks come into the housing system they’re trying to find relatively affordable housing and they’re also displacing other folks who are trying to find relatively affordable rental housing,” Prof. Pomeroy said. The competition heats up and international students, who are nearly all renters, often outbid low-income Canadians in the bottom quartile of the rental market.
With as many as 900,000 students expected in the country this year, Prof. Pomeroy said in an interview it’s reasonable to assume they’re adding demand equal to somewhere between 5 per cent to 10 per cent of the national rental housing market of 4.5 million homes.
Economist Mike Moffatt was surprised when he first noticed the close links between the real estate crunch and higher education in London, Ont., where he teaches at the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey Business School. The share of the impact on rent prices attributable to international students hasn’t been quantified, Prof. Moffatt said, but rent increases are happening at the start of term and appear to be rising faster in locations near campus.
London, Kitchener, Windsor – mid-sized Ontario cities that have both university and college campuses and high numbers of international students – have seen record rent increases and the lowest vacancy rates in 20 years, according to a January report from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.
The international students do not deserve any blame, Prof. Moffatt said.
“Enrolment growth is not being fed into housing policy and it’s causing all kinds of local tensions,” he said.
At a Brampton gurdwara on an August Sunday, a steady stream of students from a range of Ontario colleges with GTA campuses arrives to join the prayers and stay for a free meal served by the community kitchen. Many of them say it’s a struggle to pay tuition and meet their basic needs.
Jaspal Kaur, a 26-year-old from Amritsar, said she hasn’t been able to find a steady job in Canada. Her husband has come over from India to join her on an open work permit (spouses of students can apply to enter Canada and work) and his job installing kitchen cabinets has kept them going. They share a basement apartment with two other people, paying $1,000 in rent.
She can afford her groceries at the moment, but there’s no savings.
Ms. Kaur said she needs to raise $9,000 by November to pay her tuition at Loyalist College, which has a branch campus in the Toronto area.
Sahil Bhatia, a 20-year-old studying at Canadore College’s GTA campus, works at a Brampton grocer for minimum wage and lives in a four-bedroom house shared by 12 people. Rent is $425 a month, he said. His family, farmers in India’s Punjab province, borrowed to fund his studies. His $15,000 tuition is about six times their annual income. For it to pay off, he needs to succeed in getting permanent residency.
Amardeep Kaur, 22, is an office administration student at St. Clair College’s GTA campus. She takes a break from her job at a restaurant a short drive from the gurdwara to explain that she wants to one day work in a hospital or clinic. She shares a single rented room in a house with her parents, who have come on a visitor’s visa, and works 20 hours a week. Eight people share the basement of the house where she lives in Brampton. Her younger sister wants to follow her, but Ms. Kaur said she’s trying to dissuade her.
“I told her, but everybody has a dream,” she said. “They don’t know the reality.”
A generation ago, international students weren’t allowed to work off campus. The thinking was that students should be focused on their studies. In 2000, just slightly more than 20,000 international students declared earnings from work. That increased more than ten-fold by 2019, according to a Statscan study, and has only accelerated since.
At the moment, international students are permitted to work up to 20 hours a week off campus. A special pilot project announced by the Liberal government last fall, however, temporarily bumped that rule to 40 hours a week for some. The move was framed as an attempt to address a labour shortage, while also allowing hard-pressed students to earn more money.
Employers have been supportive, while economists have pointed out that an increase in the supply of labour at the low-end of the wage scale tends to keep wages from rising.
For those who have come to Canada to study, the experience they describe is often mixed.
At Conestoga’s downtown campus in Kitchener, Mr. Purani walks hallways that are still unfamiliar to him. He hasn’t studied in any of these classrooms yet. He doesn’t bump into anyone he knows.
He recalls that when he was working at the farm, he found it difficult to also manage his studies, which required about 30 hours of class time and study a week. Still, he’s desperate to find another job. Not working is much worse.
Every day his roommates go to work and he stays home with online classes and YouTube for company.
“I overthink a lot,” he said. “What will happen next if I don’t get my fees in time? You have the burden of debt on you.”
He passes a bulletin board decorated with encouraging messages about mental health. A handwritten poster proclaims, “The purpose of our lives is to be happy.”
He believes that, he says, even if happiness is fleeting right now.
“You have to go through the struggle to get to happiness at the end. That’s the goal,” he said.
With reports from Vrunda Bhatt
Historic trends: How many international students have come to your province or territory?
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