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The provincial nominee program allows master's and doctoral grades who earned their credentials from an Ontario university to apply for permanent residence.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

An Ontario program that gave international students a quick pathway to residence in Canada has stopped accepting applications as it tries to address a backlog of thousands of people – yet more evidence that Express Entry has made immigration to Canada more difficult for some groups.

Last week, the province announced it was temporarily closing the provincial nominee program (PNP) for master's and doctoral grads who earned their credentials from an Ontario university. The program aims to attract highly skilled and educated immigrants to the province by promising a streamlined, faster process to become a permanent resident in Canada.

Since 2007, about 40 per cent of Ontario's 5,000 PNP entrants held master's or doctoral degrees, and could expect to become permanent residents within a year.

This year, the province greatly increased the number of spots available, but it was flooded with applications and is now working its way through 7,000 applicants. About half are estimated to be recent grads, a source from the Ministry of Citizenship, Immigration and International Trade said.

As a result, wait times for processing have increased, along with uncertainty.

"As an international student who doesn't have any status in Canada, you don't have any voice," said Amir, an MBA graduate from Ryerson University who applied last fall and is still waiting for a response. "Next week, Ontario could say we've stopped issuing provincial nominations and we can't do anything – you're stuck," he said. (Amir did not want his real name used as he is working on contract.)

By November, the backlog is expected to be whittled down enough to accept applications again, the government says. However, students who are only entitled to a one-year work permit could lose status because of the delay.

Universities are increasingly fighting for international students and a rapid pathway to immigration has been one of Canada's competitive advantages. But changes over the past year have raised fears some students will choose to study elsewhere.

Since it was introduced in January, 2015, Express Entry has been plagued by complaints from recent grads who say they are finding it difficult to be approved for residence.

Fewer than a quarter of the 31,000 applications for Express Entry approved last year went to people who had some experience studying in Canada, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

The federal government is now working on improving the system, partly with the goal of easing pathways for international students.

"The question is when will the points required come down to the point where increasing numbers of international students will be selected?" said Sarah Anson-Cartwright, the director of skills and immigration policy for the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

This winter, the chamber released a report that recommended the government consider awarding points to students who finished a full-time postsecondary program in the country.

"We do have to see how the points shake out in the course of this year as opposed to the first year," Ms. Anson-Cartwright said.

Ontario's PNP is one of the most flexible in the country compared with other provinces. Students with a master's degree in any field can apply for permanent residence in the province.

In British Columbia, students with a graduate degree will only be accepted through the provincial program if they have a degree in science, technology or health, or a job offer. Since 2015, 640 students have applied successfully. In Nova Scotia, recent grads who don't have a job offer must have work experience.