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People sit on the grounds of the University of Toronto in Toronto, on Sept. 9, 2020.

CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

Universities, colleges and language schools will soon be able to welcome thousands of new international students to Canada, even if many will still be studying primarily online.

The decision to open the border to new pupils, announced by the federal government Friday, provides a significant boost to the $22-billion international education sector, beset by financial uncertainty since border restrictions were enacted in March to deal with the pandemic.

For universities and colleges, the prospect of offering a Canadian experience enhances their appeal in a competitive global market for international students, and sends an important signal about Canada’s commitment to one of the groups it targets as a source of immigrants.

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But there will also be questions about how to safely open Canada’s borders to students as COVID-19 case counts continue to rise amid the pandemic’s second wave. And with campuses shifted mainly online, most students won’t be getting much in-person instruction.

“It’s a really important step forward. It has taken a lot of work,” said Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada, the umbrella group that represents universities at the federal level.

“International students have been able to enrol online this fall, but their stickiness, how committed they would be to Canada, was a bit of a question if there was no prospect of the border opening. This is a real boost that distinguishes Canada.”

International students have become a crucial pillar of postsecondary education funding in the past decade as provincial government funds have stagnated. They typically pay tuition fees several times higher than domestic students, and over the past 12 years their numbers have more than tripled, to more than 640,000.

Universities, colleges and language schools must obtain provincial government approval for each institution’s plan to quarantine students for 14 days, otherwise they will not be allowed to enter the country. The list of institutions that have already been approved has not been made public, but more are expected to apply now that the window has opened.

In Ontario, just seven institutions had their plans approved as of October 2, and a number of others are under review, the government said. The detailed planning requirements that schools have to meet include a mandatory, supervised 14-day quarantine period with provisions for transport, meals, check-ins, as well as at least one COVID-19 test.

The University of Toronto, where nearly 25 per cent of undergraduates are international students, is among those institutions already approved. Its quarantine and testing plan will be offered at no cost to students.

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In a statement, Ontario’s Ministry of Colleges and Universities said its top priority is the health and safety of students, faculty and staff at postsecondary institutions.

“As we move toward the recovery phase post-COVID-19, we will continue to work with our partners to welcome international students back on campuses in a way that is responsible and safe,” the ministry said.

Universities Canada had been lobbying for months to allow new students to enter the country. The organization had hoped these provisions would be in place before the start of fall term in September, but it took longer to reach agreements with the many local, provincial and federal agencies involved.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada could not say precisely how many study permits have been issued since the March 18 border restrictions were enacted. Universities Canada reported hearing that more than 50,000 had passed the first step of a two-step approval process.

Bryn de Chastelain, chair of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, said the reopening is positive for foreign and domestic students.

At St. Mary’s University in Halifax, he has heard of students who travelled to Canada only to be turned back at the border. While some have been able to study successfully in their home countries, he said, others have struggled with internet access and significant time-zone differences that have impeded their education. Domestic students will benefit from the range of experiences and perspectives that international students can offer, he added.

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“There’s definitely been a number of students that are keen to come to Canada and start their journey here,” Mr. de Chastelain said.

“ … This will allow international students to try and come to Canada prior to the winter semester to be able to complete their mandatory isolation.”

Mr. Davidson said the sector had worked with local public-health authorities as well as provincial and federal agencies to devise a plan that would be safe. They studied the outbreaks that occurred among migrant farmers earlier this year, he added, as well as the bubbles set up by professional sports leagues, to determine which safety measures were most effective.

“We want to do this in a way that’s safe for Canadian communities,” he said.

Languages Canada, a group that represents about 200 English and French-language schools, said the opening to new students represents a lifeline for its members.

“Many of our members were heading straight for closure by year-end because they were unable to welcome students,” Gonzalo Peralta of Languages Canada said in a statement.

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