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Ontario Premier Doug Ford speaks to media in Ottawa in February, 2023. The number of foreign students in Ontario reached 411,920 at the end of 2022, more than half of the 807,260 total in Canada.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

For months now, federal Immigration Minister Marc Miller has been warning provinces that if they don’t rein in the boom in foreign students, Ottawa will have to do something. By provinces, he really means Ontario, the irresponsible actor that has blown up the system for the whole country.

Yet there’s been no word from Ontario Premier Doug Ford on whether he has any plans to fix the problem. So far, his government has done almost nothing.

It’s a big deal. A rapid increase in temporary residents has pushed up house prices and rents. And it has been fuelled by hefty increases in the number of foreign students, which roughly quadrupled between 2008 and 2022. More than half of Canada’s 807,260 foreign students are in Ontario. The province created a big-money foreign-student industry, and let it run amok.

Now that the feds have finally realized the scope of the problem, Mr. Miller has threatened to cap the number who get student visas unless provinces do something. That would probably affect British Columbia and Nova Scotia, but mostly Ontario.

It would make a lot more sense if the province acted. It could set policies that would effectively cap the numbers but encourage universities and colleges to recruit top-notch talent, instead of allowing colleges to pay hefty commissions to recruiters to pack substandard two-year programs and offer a (sometimes false) promise that it will be a path to permanent residency in Canada.

Yet Mr. Ford’s government is still sitting on its hands. Liz Tuomi, a spokesperson for Colleges and Universities Minister Jill Dunlop, said the province was reviewing a report completed in November by a “blue-ribbon panel” and looks forward to meeting with Mr. Miller. But Ontario is running out of time because new rules need to be announced months ahead of the next school year. If there’s a federal cap, it should affect Ontario most of all.

Foreign students can and do bring real benefits to Canada. Unfortunately, governments screwed up the system.

The federal Liberal government, responsible for immigration, provides study permits to students at postsecondary institutions designated by the provinces. It should have acted sooner to limit the growth. But the provinces are responsible for education, and their policies, particularly Ontario’s, caused a lot of problems.

The province has hundreds of postsecondary institutions; there are more than 30 in Brampton alone. Since 2014, Ontario’s public colleges have been able to strike licensing deals with private colleges to offer their curriculum, for which they can charge foreign-student tuitions. There are scads of other private colleges in a rapidly expanding business. The number of foreign students in Ontario grew from 151,610 at the end of 2015 to 411,920 at the end of 2022.

The foreign-student boom has also fuelled a temporary-worker boom because graduates of degree-granting institutions are eligible for a three-year work permit. In all, there were 2.2 million temporary residents in the country last year, according to Statistics Canada.

That has led to rapid population growth, and pressure on housing prices and rents. High housing costs encouraged Ontarians to move to other provinces, contributing to price increases in places such as New Brunswick.

The foreign-student revenues that filled buckets of money for private colleges in Ontario are also turning into a financial dependence for universities that have seen their public funding squeezed. Eighteen per cent of York University students are from abroad, but their fees account for almost half of the institution’s revenue, the province’s auditor-general reported last year. The report warned that a global downturn or foreign-policy shift could put the university’s finances at risk.

So what will happen if Mr. Ford continues to do nothing, and Mr. Miller caps the number of student visas? It will likely affect Ontario the most.

The feds won’t dramatically cut the number of study visas, instead probably capping the total at or around current levels. But they would have to divide the quota between provinces, and that might mean Ontario will no longer receive a disproportionate share. After all, it would be unfair to restrict foreign students in Manitoba or Quebec to deal with Ontario’s excesses.

That would compel Mr. Ford’s government to squeeze a federal cap onto the motley list of hundreds of postsecondary institutions in Ontario, when it should have fixed its own broken policies long ago.

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