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A student walks in front of the University of Toronto, St. George campus, in Toronto, on Sept. 26, 2023.WA LONE/Reuters

Canada’s universities and colleges sent an open letter to Immigration Minister Marc Miller this week about the cap he has imposed on new foreign students.

The gist was this: Please no, don’t do this yet, wait, hold on, we’re not ready, this is too sudden, can you give us a break?

Mr. Miller’s answer should be, in a word, no.

The warnings were ignored for too long – by the feds, by provincial governments especially in Ontario and British Columbia, and by colleges and universities. That left no option apart from ripping the Band-Aid off.

There is effectively a freeze on new foreign student visas for the next two months, while provinces figure out who should get the limited number of study permits. That has sparked the associations that represent Canada’s universities and colleges to ask him to lift the freeze. But that’s not feasible.

The federal government finally did its bit in dealing with the unplanned, uncontrolled boom in foreign students by capping the number of new study permits. That was a lever that Ottawa had to (belatedly) pull to slow the rapid increase in population and cool the housing shortage.

Ottawa will issue 35 per cent fewer visas for foreign students than last year. But the impact will mainly be felt where provincial governments have most recklessly ignored the warnings, in B.C. and Ontario.

If the numbers are divided among the provinces by population, then Ontario would get about 140,000 student visas, roughly half the number that were issued for it last year. The province’s universities and colleges are fretting their numbers, and their revenues, will be slashed.

When he announced the cap, Mr. Miller also froze the processing of student visas for two months, until the provinces build a system for deciding who should get them.

Now universities and colleges are pressing for Ottawa to lift the freeze. In an interview, Philip Landon, the interim president of Universities Canada, said talented foreign students that don’t get their visas approved will go to Australia or Britain.

But it would be foolish to lift the freeze now, before the provinces decide who should get the limited number of visas. That would spark a mad rush of applications for visas issued without any priorities.

Instead, the provinces have to make decisions about who should get a limited number: university students, nursing students or strip-mall college students.

Some, such as Ontario, have failed to do that, allowing an unsustainable boom, a lowering of standards and exploitation. And still, at a press conference Wednesday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford refused to admit his government was guilty of failing to act.

“I wouldn’t say dropping the ball,” he said. But yes, he dropped the ball. His government fumbled enough times to fill a blooper reel.

The growth of foreign students was massive, but it happened over roughly a decade. By the end of 2022, Mr. Ford’s government should have noticed that the number of foreign students had more than doubled in six years, even though there had been a pandemic in between. Or that there were 31 designated learning institutions eligible to accept foreign students in Brampton.

The province’s policy of allowing public colleges to license their curriculum to private colleges that could then attract foreign students who could get postgraduate work visas, and a path to immigration, fuelled growth.

There were official warnings. In 2021, the auditor-general of Ontario warned in a report that public colleges’ heavy reliance on foreign students for revenues put them at financial risk. The report suggested that the provincial government come up with a strategy to limit that dependence, but last year the auditor-general’s follow-up found little or no progress had been made since.

Still, the ball was dropped. The warnings went unheeded. The feds finally listened to them last fall, and Mr. Miller started telling provinces that Ottawa would act to control the numbers if they didn’t. And they didn’t.

It’s worth noting that the 35-per-cent cap is for new students, so those who are already here won’t get sent home. Colleges and universities will still have some. But there is a real price: Mr. Landon said it might amount to $1.7-billion in lost tuitions for universities alone.

After ignoring the warning, the bill has come due.

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