The federal government has revised how it assesses applications for permanent residence from former international students and expects to release the changes later this month, bolstered by recommendations from its panel on economic growth that argued this group is key to Canada's immigration strategy.
The changes follow many complaints from international students that Express Entry, the new immigration system introduced on Jan. 1, 2015, has diminished their chances of staying in Canada after graduation. Under the new point-based system, applications from workers who can show that employers need their skills and that no Canadian residents can meet that need have been processed in record time. Thousands of international students, however, have seen their files languish.
"The problem is that people have come here hoping that their time in Canada, on a Canadian campus, will be properly evaluated and valued in the citizenship process," said Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada. "And over the last couple of years that did not transpire …"
Universities Canada has lobbied the government for reforms to Express Entry that place less emphasis on work experience and more on Canadian credentials. Universities Canada argues that international students are the ideal immigrants, socially integrated and with work experience here, as well as with valuable connections to the world.
"An image that we have been using in Ottawa is to talk about universities as the Pier 21 of the 21st century," Mr. Davidson said. Pier 21 was the Halifax pier where about one million immigrants landed between 1928 and 1971 – it is now a national museum of immigration.
"Universities can send a signal to the world that we want you to come and every step of the way we make it seamless," Mr. Davidson said.
The federal government is currently debating the role immigration will play in economic growth over the next decade and beyond. A federal advisory panel headed by Dominic Barton, global managing director with McKinsey & Co., recommended that the number of immigrants Canada takes in increase by 50 per cent within five years. International students and highly skilled workers are most likely to succeed economically, the panel said, and their recruitment should be prioritized.
While the government rejected that ambitious growth target when it set immigration levels on Nov. 1, John McCallum, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), said the problems faced by international students must be resolved.
Multiple people familiar with IRCC's plans say that one of the principal changes is likely to be awarding more points for degrees earned in Canada. Other changes could include relaxed requirements for labour market impact assessment (LMIA) applications for employers wanting to hire international students, a recommendation made in the Barton report. (Any employer wanting to hire either a temporary foreign worker or a worker who wants to settle in Canada must apply for an LMIA, which assesses whether Canadians are available to do the job.)
The review of how Express Entry affects international students included "job offers, the LMIA requirement and how Express Entry can be used to support former international students and candidates with siblings in Canada," a department spokesperson said.
Making it easier for international students to become residents and eventually citizens will help Canadian colleges and universities stay competitive with countries such as Australia, Britain and the United States. Over the past decade, Canada has seen almost a doubling of international students studying here.
The number of students staying permanently has also increased, from about one-quarter in the 1990s to one-third in the most recent 10-year period.
But growth in student recruitment has now slowed.
"There was an idea that there was an unlimited pool of young people who move around, and some of them love Canada and will just show up. That's still part of the landscape, but it's a much smaller part," said Daniel Guhr, managing director of the Illuminate Consulting Group, an educational consulting firm that focuses on internationalization trends.
Indeed, a Globe and Mail analysis of IRCC data reveals that student numbers from the top 10 source countries grew by only 5 per cent last year, less than half the rate since 2007.
Dr. Guhr says the decrease is not unexpected after such a fast rise, but Canada must invest in its recruitment strategies and immigration pathways to prevent further slides.
"The problems with the implementation of Express Entry and [provincial programs] should be ironed out," Dr. Guhr said.
Yet even as international students are touted as most likely to succeed, evidence shows not all live up to expectations.
Those with high-skilled, well-paid jobs do better than all other immigrant groups, recent Statistics Canada research has found. Others lag.
"Only those international students with skilled jobs or high-paying jobs in Canada before obtaining permanent-residency status had significantly higher earnings than immigrants who were directly admitted from abroad," wrote Feng Hou, a principal researcher for Statistics Canada, in an e-mail interview. Dr. Hou has studied the labour-market outcomes of international students in several studies.
Other countries have discovered similar issues. International students in Australia who have poor language skills or earn degrees in low-demand fields have much lower salaries than domestic graduates.
"The challenge for us is now working with employers to make them aware of the benefits of employing international student graduates," said Belinda Robinson, chief executive of Universities Australia. "What we are seeing is that while international students have the right to stay and work, they are not always able to access the employment they would like," she said.
The problem in Canada has been that for the past year, even students who found success here did not see that translate into positive immigration applications.
For Viviana Moran, a native of Ecuador who graduated from Bishop's University in Sherbrooke, Que., and worked for almost two years for a technology company in London, Ont., that has meant some tough choices about her future.
Without enough points to qualify for permanent residence and her work permit on the cusp of expiring, Ms. Moran got on a plane in September and headed back to Ecuador.
"If I wait until the last minute, I still have to buy a plane ticket, still have to tell my landlord I am leaving. My work needed to find someone who can do my job," she said. "This way, I am the one who is choosing."
Ms. Moran says she hopes her return to Ecuador is temporary. When the rules change, she expects her application will be approved. Then she'll come back and start again.
Global uncertainty could send more students to Canada's doorstep, experts say
"Never let a good crisis go to waste," Winston Churchill is reputed to have said, and the sentiment could well apply to how Canadian universities and colleges could benefit from the Brexit crisis gripping Britain.
Other security issues or global conflicts in the past have drawn international students to Canada's safety, observers point out.
"There was a blip after 9/11 of international students coming to Canada," said Paul Davidson, the president of Universities Canada. Similarly, the double-digit increases in international students arriving here in the past several years were partly due to a drop in those choosing Australia or New Zealand.
Now, in the wake of a divisive election debate in the United States and with Brexit sowing uncertainty, students from many countries will likely once again look beyond the top three destinations of the United States, the U.K. and Australia, Mr. Davidson suggested.
Even before the Brexit vote, Britain was seeing its market share erode in the wake of more restrictive visa rules that made it harder for former international graduates to stay and work in the country.
"We've gone from 6 per cent growth annually 10 years ago to about 1 per cent now," said Dominic Scott, the chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs, a London-based think tank. "The government argues that numbers are being maintained, but the sector argues that we are not keeping up," he said.
The universities are losing the argument.
In early October, U.K. Home Secretary Amber Rudd said the Conservative government would like to reduce the number of international students from its current level of approximately 165,000, making up 60 per cent of all non-European Union migrants. Top-ranked and research universities might have more leeway to accept foreign students than lower-tier schools, she added in a speech.
Protests from the university sector greeted the idea.
Even if the British public is skeptical of immigration overall, most are not opposed to students, universities say. In fact, surveys have shown that a majority supports accepting international students.
"Students come to learn, not to earn," Mr. Scott said. And because most are not immigrants – less than 5 per cent last year were successful in obtaining work visas – they should not be counted toward reduction targets, schools say.
To fight the proposed cuts, the sector is doubling down, launching a campaign to keep borders open for students, faculty and staff no matter what a post-Brexit future looks like. Younger people overwhelmingly voted Remain, said Anne Marie Graham, the head of outward student mobility for Universities UK, the national lobbying association for the sector.
"It's an opportune time to show that we want to be open-minded," she said.
– Simona Chiose