Ontario is making it easier for foreign graduate students to stay in the province when their studies are completed, part of a wider strategy to fuel the economy by casting the province as a destination for higher education.
The new rules will allow students who have earned their PhD at an Ontario campus to be fast-tracked for permanent residence status. The measures are part of the province's new Open Ontario plan, which aims to increase foreign student enrolment in Ontario by 50 per cent in the next five years.
"The economy today is more and more based on innovation. We want to make it easier for [PhD graduates]to remain in Ontario," said provincial Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Eric Hoskins. "It's good for us. It's good for them. It's good for employers, as well."
In the past, only graduates with a job offer were eligible to be fast-tracked under the Provincial Nominee Program, which allows the government to select economic immigrants. Under the new rules announced Monday, students can apply themselves for the fast-track program as soon as they complete the requirements for their degree.
As well as keeping graduates in Ontario, Mr. Hoskins said the changes are designed to attract future students and increase the profile of the province on the international stage.
"This sends a message that Ontario is a better place to come," he said. "This is a very specific program that allows this province to select what we feel are the highest value, most highly skilled individuals that are the greatest value to our economy."
University of Toronto graduate student Wei Li, who recently completed a PhD in chemistry, said the new rules will help individuals who do not have Canadian work experience. Still, he said under the current system some graduate students such as himself have been able to get residency status because they get credit for work they do as research assistants during their studies. But as a past head of the campus Chinese Students Association, he said he knows that policy has not always been consistent.
The changes in Ontario come as jurisdictions across the country and around the world compete for foreign students and skilled workers. Several provinces, including New Brunswick, Quebec and Manitoba, have taken steps to hold onto foreign students after graduation, said Jennifer Humphries, a vice-president with the Canadian Bureau for International Education.
At the same time, jurisdictions such as Australia and Scotland, which calls its initiative Fresh Talent, have long had special programs aimed at making it easier for foreign students to stay when their studies are done, she said.
Research by the CBIE has found that about half of all foreign students in Canada are interested in working or remaining in the country after graduation, up from just 25 per cent five years ago.
Changes by the federal government now allow students from other countries to remain in Canada for three years following their graduation, during which time they are eligible to work.
"I do like Ontario's new focus on international talent," Ms. Humphries said, noting that about one-third of all foreign students in Canada are at campuses in the province.
Still, she said if Canada hopes to increase its profile in higher education, its provinces need to work together to put forward a national strategy and brand.