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After months of pressure, the Trudeau Liberals are finally attempting to slow down the runaway growth in study permits for international students. The system has “gotten out of control,” Immigration Minister Marc Miller said over the weekend.

That is an accurate description, although Mr. Miller neglected to mention who, precisely, might have been so negligent as to let things get quite so out of hand. The results, though, are plain to see: hundreds of thousands of additional temporary residents who have put added strain on housing markets (and who have felt the sting of rising rents themselves) and questions of possible exploitation of foreign students by unscrupulous actors.

The government is now floating the idea of a cap on the number of foreign students in British Columbia, Ontario and Nova Scotia. It’s a half-measure that won’t get at the fundamental issue, namely that the progressive loosening of the rules over campus work has transmuted student visas into a temporary foreign workers program.

And that half-measure targets just half of the problem – actually, more like a quarter. The bigger question, and one that the Liberals have yet to address beyond vague statements of intention, is that of temporary workers.

Data from Statistics Canada for the third quarter of last year tell the tale. As of Oct. 1, there were 2.2 million non-permanent residents with work or study permits, a gain of more than 380,000 in the preceding three months.

Nearly three-fifths of that increase came from non-permanent residents holding work permits; those with study permits accounted for only 27 per cent of the rise. There is a similar split if the measure is total permit holders: 52 per cent have work permits, and 30 per cent have study permits.

Another pertinent measure is postgraduate work permits, issued to international students when they complete their degrees. Such permits allow the holder to stay and work in Canada for up to three years. The number of postgraduate permit holders has tripled since 2015, rising to 284,605 in 2022.

That, too, would seem to be part of the system that is spinning out of control. But the Liberals remain curiously lethargic about doing much about it. To date, they have made only the foggiest of pronouncements. In late October, the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship said it would be assessing the postgraduation work permit program “in the coming months.” Yet again, a plan to come up with a plan, at some indeterminate point.

The lethargy is hard to fathom. Yes, there are stakeholders to consider. Postsecondary institutions have grown overly dependent on the fat tuitions paid by foreign students. Businesses have become similarly dependent on cheap labour that sometimes borders on indentured servitude.

But it should be abundantly clear to the Liberals by now that temporary immigration is far too high, and is distorting housing and labour markets. The government needs to stop with the trial balloons, musings and half-measures and instead lay out a comprehensive plan for restoring Canadians’ wavering confidence in the immigration system, beginning with serious reform of temporary migration.

Study permits are a key part of any reform. The government’s moves to date are too tentative. A better approach, as this space has argued before, would be to reduce the economic incentive for puppy-mill colleges to offer faux degrees by limiting international students to on-campus work.

Postgraduate work permits are also in need of reform. If the number of study permits can be pared back, that will in turn reduce demand for postgraduate permits. But the government should rethink their duration as well: A three-year temporary permit is an oxymoron.

Lastly, there is the core temporary foreign workers program, which the Liberals have allowed to grow beyond the earlier structure that was largely limited to the agricultural sector. This government, usually indifferent to the problems of corporate Canada, has been oddly accommodating to the pleas of a labour shortage by business lobby groups. That accommodation needs to end: the immigration system should not be used to subsidize employers who cannot, or will not, pay a market wage.

As Mr. Miller has seemingly recognized, the immigration system has indeed spun out of control. Quick action is needed to restore its stability: not in coming months, but now.

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