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Students walk on St. George St. near the University of Toronto, on Nov 23, 2022.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Timid as it is, the federal Liberals’ mulling of a cap on the (already astronomical) number of international student visas met with instant opposition from Quebec and postsecondary institutions.

The provinces huffed that it is not up to Ottawa to determine how many students it admits. Colleges and Institutes Canada expressed deep concern over the possibility − including that any restrictions might end up “exacerbating current labour shortages.”

That last objection tells you all you need to know about the international student program, which has mutated into a private-sector immigration stream that charges young migrants eye-popping sums for sometimes marginal education, torques already strained housing markets and has created a readily exploited pool of low-cost labour.

The number of international students in Canada has more than doubled since the Liberals took office in 2015, rising above 800,000 in 2022. Would a cap simply freeze that number, or cut it? How would the resulting quota be apportioned between provinces? Between postsecondary institutions? Even without Quebec’s immediate and vehement opposition, the logistics are daunting.

But there is a much better path available to the Liberals, one that would also go a long way to flushing out any diploma-mill exploitation of international students: Return such visas to their original purpose as a ticket to study in Canada.

Shortly after taking office 2006, the Harper Conservatives loosened the rules for visas at publicly funded postsecondary institutions, allowing students to work off-campus for up to 20 hours a week. Over time, the Tories expanded that initiative to include private institutions. Since 2014, students could work those 20 hours without having a permit.

Last fall, the Liberals allowed students with permits to work more than 20 hours, citing the national labour shortage. That was the final step in the transformation of student visas into what is effectively a temporary foreign worker program.

There may be a case to be made for bringing hundreds of thousands of more temporary workers into Canada (we have our doubts). If so, the government should make that case, and allow for more workers under the existing programs. But international student visas should not be a backdoor into Canada’s labour market, or to permanent-residency status.

How to shut that door? The Liberals are thinking of a cap on enrolments, with all the complexities that entails. There is a much more straightforward approach, however. Ottawa can instead eliminate the ability of international students to work off campus.

At a stroke, that would eliminate the ability of bad actors to exploit migrants by peddling faux degrees. Diploma mills, presumably, would not be able to offer much in the way of on-campus employment.

Such a move would also inevitably reduce demand for international student visas for legitimate postsecondary programs, and roll back the explosive growth of the past eight years. And Ottawa would not need to dicker with every university and college in the country over quotas.

Fewer international students would relieve some pressure on housing markets. The Liberals have been at pains to say that international students did not create the housing crisis. It’s true that housing costs would be high without the growth in study visas, but it’s equally true that the additional demand from those new arrivals has added to price pressures.

Even the prospect of a change in rules could cool down housing markets by discouraging speculative investors from snapping up houses to convert into student rentals.

There are downsides, of course. The budget of postsecondary institutions would be squeezed, particularly those who have exploited the hopes of international students and become dependent on the resulting tuition revenue. Those who acted more responsibly will feel less pain.

Businesses deprived of low-wage workers may squawk as well. But as this space has argued before, such firms do not have a right to what is effectively a subsidy of cheap labour.

As for the students, they would pay for a quality education, not the often false hope of a fast track to permanent residency.

There is one last enticement for the Trudeau Liberals to restoring student visas to their roots: they could rightly claim they were fixing Stephen Harper’s mistake.

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