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

The head of a group that represents Ontario’s publicly funded colleges says the federal government has created chaos for prospective international students by imposing what amounts to a moratorium on their applications for study permits.

What to know about Ottawa’s two-year cap on international student visas, and other measures

Marketa Evans, the president of Colleges Ontario, an association of the province’s 24 public colleges, said the federal government’s new cap on the number of study permits, announced earlier this week, has already resulted in permit applications being returned to students abroad without explanation. This, she said, had left them unsure whether they will be able to study in Canada.

Ms. Evans was sharply critical of the government’s decision. She called it rushed, and said it had been made without consultation. Ontario’s public colleges host a large proportion of Canada’s international students. They accounted for about 40 per cent of study permits issued in 2022. Many of these schools rely on the fees foreign students pay, which are much higher than domestic tuition.

“The focus for our members right now is dealing with the panic of international students who are already in the pipeline,” Ms. Evans said. “Our first call to action is for the federal government to put an end to the moratorium that they have imposed, because it’s wreaking havoc with people’s lives.”

A spokesperson from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

Study permits, issued by the federal government, allow foreign students to attend Canadian institutions. The cap, which Immigration Minister Marc Miller announced on Monday, would reduce the amount issued this year by about 35 per cent, compared to 2023. The federal government had not previously placed an upper limit on the number of these permits, leading to concern that an influx of students was adding to housing pressure in some communities.

The aim of the policy is to slow growth in the program and relieve pressure on Canada’s housing and health care, Mr. Miller said Monday.

Ottawa’s international student cap will create financial risks, university and college leaders say

Set numbers of study permits will be allocated to each province according to its size. Ontario is expected to see a reduction of about 50 per cent. The government also announced that, beginning in September, international students who begin programs of study at schools operating under public-private partnership models will not be eligible for postgraduation work permits.

Colleges Ontario has requested a meeting with Mr. Miller. Asked if the minister would grant this request, Aïssa Diop, his spokesperson, said, “We cannot confirm future meetings until they happen.”

The international student program has nearly tripled in size under the Liberal government. In 2015, there were 352,325 foreign students in Canada; by the end of 2023 that number had soared to 1,028,850. As of 2022, there were 411,985 international students in Ontario alone, according to the Canadian Bureau for International Education.

The federal government also announced a new requirement that provinces provide applicants with letters of attestation before their study permit applications can be processed. But no province outside Quebec has such a system in place, and it will take time to create.

In the meantime, international students wishing to start at Ontario colleges in May are stuck, Ms. Evans said. Their visa applications can’t be processed. Normally, about 25 per cent of all international students start their programs in May, unlike at universities, which gear more of their admissions to September.

Ms. Evans said temporarily lifting the requirement for letters of attestation would be an easy and inexpensive fix.

She also called on the federal government to allow international applicants with university degrees to be exempt from the visa caps. The government has already announced such an exemption for applicants to Master’s or PhD programs.

“Many of the international students at colleges already have an undergraduate credential from their home country. So they can enter the labour market much more quickly,” Ms. Evans said.

About 25 per cent of current job vacancies in Ontario require applicants to have college credentials, Colleges Ontario said in a statement. Ontario is predicting a shortage of 8,500 early childhood educators by 2025-26, and 4,500 international students are now enrolled in early childhood education programs, it added.

The organization also called for discussions with Ottawa and the Ontario government, about the possibility of exempting students in high-demand programs.

Ms. Evans added that the overall impact of the visa cap on the Ontario college system is still being assessed. She said the change will likely have different consequences across the province’s 24 publicly funded colleges.

Michael Sangster, chief executive officer of the National Association of Career Colleges, which represents private vocational schools, said he shares some of the public colleges’ concerns, including their worry about the feasibility of the attestation letters. He said only 10 per cent of international study permit applications are for registered career colleges.

“Everyone’s scrambling now, trying to figure out how to react to this system that’s been put in place,” he said.

Mr. Sangster met this week with Ontario Minister of Colleges and Universities Jill Dunlop. He said the conversation focused on the pressure facing the provincial government to institute a new system “with no notice and no consultation.”

A spokesperson for Ms. Dunlop did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

In 2022, 14 of the top 20 Canadian institutions ranked by the number of study permits issued were Ontario colleges. All but one college in the province posted an operating surplus last year, despite average domestic tuition fees of about $2,700.

A large number of Ontario colleges have arrangements with private education providers to offer college-approved courses at satellite campuses, mainly in the Greater Toronto Area.

A blue-ribbon panel on postsecondary finances has recommended the Ontario government lift its four-year freeze on domestic tuition prices and boost its grant to institutions by 10 per cent. Colleges Ontario has asked the province to approve a $135 increase in per-student annual tuition and adopt the 10-per-cent grant increase.

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