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Egyptian student Sara Awad just received her student visa to study in Canada.Courtesy of Sara Awad

Just days before thousands of students around the world are set to leave home to begin earning a Canadian education, some still don't know whether they will be allowed into Canada in time to start school.

An ongoing strike by the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO) has caused a backlog in processing visas of all types, including those required for international students landing at Canadian colleges and universities. The rate of visa approvals has dropped by 15 per cent, and there has been a 5 per cent decline in requests for visas, a PAFSO representative said.

The hold-ups are bad timing for Canadian schools making a co-ordinated push to raise the country's profile as a destination for top foreign students. A federally commissioned panel has set the goal of doubling Canada's international enrolments by 2022, but higher education officials fear the headaches over visa delays are doing harm to Canada's reputation, and that could have lasting consequences. Each international student kept out of Canada represents a dent in a school's bottom line. Foreign undergraduates bring important revenue to universities, paying an average of $18,641 in tuition and fees annually, and international students spent an estimated $7.7-billion in 2012.

"It is potentially a very serious issue," said Gail Bowkett, director of international relations for the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. "Perception is key, and if a perception starts spreading that Canada's difficult to get into, then that really could damage our brand."

After being admitted to McGill University, Sara Awad, 18, put in her visa application in mid-July through an agent in her hometown of Cairo, Egypt. She was stunned to learn it would take six to seven weeks – she was supposed to be on campus by then.

"My friends who are going to the U.S., they got their visa in three days, or even people going to France, they got it in 10 days," despite the political turmoil that has engulfed Egypt, she said. "It was a bit difficult."

Ms. Awad worried she might not make it to McGill in time, and considered the American University in Cairo as a backup plan. Luckily, her father had a contact in Cairo's Canadian embassy whom he pressed for help, securing her a visa just last week. She is relieved, but will still arrive late in Montreal, and "will miss some parts of the orientation week," she said.

Many higher education officials had predicted the backlog would be much worse. "So far, it's not as bad as I thought," said Ysaac Rodriguez, manager of international student services at Saint Mary's University, where 26 per cent of students come from abroad – the highest proportion of any Canadian university.

Most colleges and universities are hearing from small numbers of students whose visas are yet to be processed, and who are starting to worry. Mr. Rodriguez has had a few such conversations, and wouldn't be surprised if he winds up 50 students short at the school's September orientation. At the University of Waterloo, about 15 students have voiced concerns, while about 20 others have told the University of Calgary they are anxiously awaiting visas.

"We think [the number of affected students is] a bit bigger than that 20, but until a little closer to September, when they're needing to get on the airplane, we're not entirely sure," U of C registrar David Johnston said.

The Association of Canadian Community Colleges (ACCC) was one of several groups to huddle with government and foreign-service union officials, making their concern known. "As we get closer and closer, if [a student] hasn't received word from Canada about a visa and they've got an acceptance to another country – an Australia or a Germany or so forth – then they may go for that option," ACCC spokesman Shawn Dearn said.

However, the ACCC was assured student requests have been prioritized where possible. Students fearing they won't get their visa in time "may also submit a letter from an educational institution indicating that the institution would accept a late arrival, specifying until when," Citizen and Immigration Canada spokesperson Julie Lafortune said in an e-mail.

In response, most schools have given international students a grace period – often until the first week of classes finishes in mid-September – through which they will hold spaces and residence rooms. "We are expecting late arrivals," said Virginia Macchiavello, director of international development at Centennial College in Toronto, which had 5,000 international students last year. "We will provide support services to catch them up."

For those who can't make it soon enough, schools are recommending deferrals until next semester, or even next fall, and crossing their fingers the students don't go elsewhere instead.

"The worst thing that could happen is that they arrive [too late] and then fall behind," Mr. Johnston said.

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