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Students and pedestrians are photographed walking along Gould St. on the Toronto Metropolitan University campus on Jan 22. The federal government has announced a two year cap on international student visa applications.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The Ontario government is awarding nearly its entire allotment of international study permits to universities and publicly funded colleges, shutting out private career colleges and concentrating the funds generated by the international student program in the public sector.

In January, federal Immigration Minister Marc Miller imposed a two-year cap on the number of international study permit applications that the federal government will process, in a bid to curb rapid growth in the number of foreign students entering Canada. The cap, intended to reduce the number of permit approvals by 35 per cent compared to last year, was allocated to each province based on population. Provincial governments were left to decide how to distribute the limited number of application spots.

Ontario, which has a disproportionately large share of foreign students compared to other provinces, was expected to be hard hit.

The province announced Wednesday that 96 per cent of its international study permit applications for this year will go to publicly assisted colleges and universities, with the remaining 4 per cent given to language schools, private universities and unspecified “other institutions.” The colleges will receive the majority of the application spots, 80 per cent of the total, according to Colleges Ontario. The provincial government said Ontario has been granted 235,000 applications in total for the year.

Private career colleges, which provide vocational courses that are often shorter than diploma programs at public colleges, will not receive any applications, the government said.

Over the past decade, international student tuition, often several times higher than domestic student fees, has contributed billions in additional funding to Canadian postsecondary institutions. But the program has come under scrutiny in recent years, as the international student population has increased to more than one million, nearly triple the figure from 2015.

When the federal government announced the cap, it said in a news release that the measure was intended to relieve strain on the country’s housing and health care, and to clamp down on private institutions Mr. Miller has said are providing students with subpar educations.

Number of international students now exceeds one million, official figures show

Marketa Evans, the president of Colleges Ontario, which represents the province’s 24 public colleges, said in a statement that the institutions are pleased with their share. But she added that the sector still expects to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue as a result of the cap. She said colleges are looking to cut costs, because they are not permitted to run unfunded deficits.

“No organization can absorb such losses without significant cuts to operations,” Ms. Evans said. “The business model for funding public college programs is severely broken.”

The Ontario government said only 11 of the province’s public colleges are expected to keep international applications at 2023 levels. Conestoga College, in Kitchener, Ont., and colleges that offered partnerships with satellite campuses run by career colleges, will see the largest declines, the government said. Conestoga has the highest number of international students of any college in the province.

“We are protecting the integrity of our province’s postsecondary education system by attracting the best and brightest international students to Ontario to study in areas that are critical to our economy,” Ontario Minister of Colleges and Universities Jill Dunlop said in a statement.

The provincial government said it will prioritize allocating permit applications to institutions that emphasize high-demand areas of study such as skilled trades, health human resources, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), hospitality and child care.

The government also said no institution will be allowed to exceed its 2023 international permit levels, and that the ratio of permits at each school can’t exceed 55 per cent of its 2023 first-year domestic enrolment – although there will be exemptions for high-demand fields of study. French language enrolment will also be prioritized.

Ontario’s universities had asked that the province grant them 35 per cent of the study permit applications, but they emerged with less than 20 per cent. The provincial government estimates that 22 of the province’s 23 public universities will keep international applications at 2023 levels, with only Algoma University, based in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., seeing a decline.

Ontario college presidents feud over international student cap

Algoma president Asima Vezina said in a statement that the university is in a strong, stable financial position and will be able to adapt to the change. She said it isn’t expected to affect staffing levels.

Steve Orsini, president of the Council of Ontario Universities, said the provincial government has recognized that Ontario universities have expanded international enrolment at a responsible pace. Still, he said, many universities were hoping for a small increase this year.

“Universities that have very low international student enrolment won’t be allowed to modestly increase enrolment next year, which will exacerbate the financial pressures that they are currently facing,” Mr. Orsini said.

More than 10 of Ontario’s universities are expected to run deficits this year.

The Ontario government announced in February that it would freeze tuition for another three years and add more than $1-billion in funding for colleges and universities, which amounts to about half of what an expert panel it appointed said was needed to stabilize the finances of the province’s postsecondary system. The Ontario budget, released Tuesday, predicted the international student cap would lead to more than $3-billion in lost revenue for the province’s colleges by 2026.

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