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Canada Work permit program for international students needs reform, experts say

Students cross the front campus at the University of Toronto's downtown campus.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A federal government report showing that many international students are working in low-wage jobs after graduation is leading to calls to redesign Canada's liberal employment rules for foreign graduates.

Canada is unusual among the world's top destinations for international students in allowing graduates on a work permit to work in any field after they finish their studies. An internal report from Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) found that the post-graduation work permit program (PGWP) was creating a poorly paid, underemployed work force among recent international student graduates at colleges and universities. The Globe and Mail obtained the report through access-to-information legislation.

"The study is important information. We need to know what are the downstream impacts of having a wide-open program when maybe it should be tailored a bit more, maybe it would be more conducive to the success of the student and to society in general," said Jennifer Humphries, vice-president at the Canadian Bureau of International Education.

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In other countries, the CIC report pointed out, international students must find work in an industry related to their degree rather than being able to look for a job in any sector. Some countries, like the United States, prioritize graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering or math, giving them longer work permits than other disciplines.

Any restrictions must be carefully designed or they will risk making Canada a less attractive education destination, Ms. Humphries added. Changes to visa and work permit rules that made it harder for international students to work in the U.K. have led to fewer international students there, she said.

"It is perceived, and it is, as a closing of the doors and it has led to a big downturn and interest in the U.K. They are not doing brilliantly in terms of their attractiveness," she said.

Changes to the work permit program need to carefully weigh international students' entire economic impact, others said.

The PGWP "was never designed to be a low-wage program, and if we find the data show it is skewing in a way that it was not intended, then there may be ways it could be corrected," said Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada. But any restrictions need to consider that international students add $10-billion to the country's economy and make up about 10 per cent of the student population in universities.

The federal government will consider any adjustments to the PGWP as part of its wider review of how the current immigration system is serving international students, CIC said in a statement.

Canada's problems are not unique. In fact, a study released last year that compared Canada to Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands reported that a third of international students in Germany had not found a job a year after graduating.

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International students are increasingly seen as "designer" immigrants, who know the language and culture of the country where they studied, the report from an independent German think tank said. But in reality, they lack social connections and need extensive and co-ordinated support from universities, business and government to get their careers off the ground.

Nova Scotia's Connector program, which links up students and business for information meetings, is one model, Mr. Davidson said.

Until 2008, Canada restricted international students to working in jobs connected to their field.

But lobbying from the postsecondary sector and concern about the employment outcomes of recent immigrants led to an expansion of the PGWP. A more liberal system has attracted more international students to study here, an increase of 65 per cent since 2009.

According to the CIC study, more than 70,000 students were working on such a permit in 2014. Fifty to 60 per cent of international students apply for a work permit after they graduate.

Even if international students flounder at first, in the long run, they bring wider economic benefits, said Amit Chakma, president of the University of Western Ontario in London and chair of a 2012 task force on Canada's international student strategy. "Our population is aging. We get a demographic windfall by bringing in immigrants of that age," he said.

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