Scott Stirrett is the CEO of Venture for Canada.
Canada should be the global leader in international education. Millions of people around the world want to study in Canada because of our leading educational institutions, social stability, and high quality of life.
The number of international students living in Canada has surged over the past decade, to 621,000 in 2021 from 239,000 in 2011. Unfortunately, the infrastructure to support them has not kept pace with this rapid growth. Many international students struggle to access adequate support for their careers, health care, and housing.
International students contribute approximately $21-billion a year to the Canadian economy, paying tuition and student fees that are up to five times higher than those paid by Canadian students. Governments and postsecondary institutions need to view international students as more than cash cows and make real investments to ensure that they have a high-quality experience while studying here. Doing so is both morally right and in our national interest. Inaction will damage Canada’s reputation and reduce the number of individuals interested in immigrating and contributing to our country.
In 2021, Canada welcomed the largest number of immigrants in its history, with more than 400,000 people becoming new Canadian permanent residents. Without immigration, Canada’s rapidly aging population will result in a shrinking workforce, reducing Canada’s economic growth and prosperity.
International students are a significant and growing source of permanent immigrants to Canada. One of every three international students working towards a bachelor’s degree in Canada becomes a landed immigrant within 10 years. Between 2000 and 2019, the share of newly admitted economic immigrants who have Canadian study experience increased to 38 per cent from 6 per cent. Having international students choose to settle in Canada is an essential strategy for achieving the federal government’s ambitious immigration goals.
Over the past decade, Canadian postsecondary institutions have become increasingly reliant on tuition revenue from international students. In the 2017-18 academic year, this group paid approximately 40 per cent of the tuition fees earned by Canadian universities. Without international students, many Canadian postsecondary institutions would face dire economic circumstances.
A common misconception is that most international students are wealthy, but that does not reflect reality for most of these students. A recent survey found that 80 per cent of international students in Canada are “concerned” or “very concerned” about their ability to pay for their education.
Researchers in India recently found that four out of five students attending English-language training schools in preparation to study abroad came from small farming families. Many Indian families mortgage their farms to support their children to study abroad in Canada.
International students often face immense pressure to perform academically. Relatively minor mistakes, such as failing a midterm, can lead to devastating consequences, including deportation. It’s no surprise that a recent survey reported that 55 per cent of international students in Canada are at risk of depression and that 50 per cent are at risk of an anxiety disorder. Unfortunately, many of these students face barriers to accessing adequate treatment and support. A funeral home in Brampton, Ont., told The Globe and Mail that it handles four to five international student deaths per month, almost all suspected to be suicides or drug overdoses.
In addition to high fees, international students are among the only Canadian residents systematically denied adequate access to health care services, with those in Ontario, Yukon, and Manitoba ineligible for public-health insurance.
Rapid enrollment growth also means there is a shortage of affordable housing near many postsecondary institutions. Last month, the CBC reported on a rental property in Sudbury advertised as a three-bedroom home that, to the surprise of its international-student tenants, had actually been converted to a seven-bedroom dwelling with multiple beds per room. The students discovered the house was infested with cockroaches, bedbugs and rats.
Postsecondary institutions must recognize that international students need different supports than domestic students. Universities and colleges need to offer health and career services that are tailored to explicitly support these students, with a focus on accessibility. There also needs to be greater investment in building on-campus housing so that international students can feel secure during their studies.
Governments need to further regulate unethical recruitment agents working around the world on behalf of Canadian postsecondary institutions. These recruiters often present misleading or false information, resulting in international students having low-quality experiences in Canada.
Lastly, Canada needs to support programs that help international students enter the Canadian workforce, as many struggle to find meaningful work while also being ineligible for government wage subsidies. Supporting them in their careers will improve their living conditions and address Canadian workforce shortages.
We need to treat international students with more respect. Canada should aspire to be the world leader in offering international students a high-quality experience, rather than simply increasing enrollment numbers.