Canadian schools are accepting international students by the thousands — but nearly half aren’t being allowed into the country

Posted on January 2, 2024 in Education Policy Context

Source: — Authors: – News/Canada
January 2, 2024.   By Nicholas Keung, Immigration Reporter

Some public Ontario colleges see thousands of their international students refused, according to data analyzed by the Star.

Nearly half the international students who have been accepted by Canadian schools are being rejected by visa officers, and some public colleges in Ontario are seeing thousands of the would-be students they’ve admitted turned away.

New numbers analyzed by the Star offer a snapshot of the behind-the-scenes workings of this country’s international student system — a system that has become a major revenue source for post-secondary schools, but which critics, including the federal immigration minister, say has “lost its integrity.”

Immigration Minister Marc Miller has gone so far as to compare the system to a “puppy mill,” one that critics say is being exploited by for both schools and those looking to work and earn permanent residence here.

The new data, in the eyes of one policy expert, shows the system is being flooded with subpar applicants, a consequence of schools’ hard push to get as many international students through their doors as possible.

Between Jan. 1, 2022, and April 30, 2023, the Immigration Department approved 54.3 per cent or 470,427 of the 866,206 study permit applicants who had been accepted by a school here — so-called designated learning institutions that have been authorized by provinces to host international students.

Ontario is the top destination for international students and home to the largest number of the 1,335 designated learning institutions in Canada.

Approval rates vary vastly among the schools.

Public colleges generally had higher rejection rates than public universities. Private institutions had still higher rejection rates, though students destined for private institutions made up less than 10 per cent of the overall applications.

According to the data from the Immigration Department, among Ontario universities with larger international student populations, U of T had a 90 per cent approval rate; Waterloo and McMaster, both around 86.5 per cent; Western and Windsor, both at 80 per cent; Ottawa, 77.6 per cent; Carleton, 76 per cent; Brock, 71.5 per cent; and York, 66 per cent. Trent and Algoma universities had 56 per cent and 52 per cent of applications granted respectively, while Laurentian had a dismal 20.7 per cent study permit approval rate.

Among the public colleges in the province, Lambton had 70 per cent of the study permit applications approved, while most other colleges had rates ranging between 50 per cent and 69 per cent.

Conestoga College — the learning institution with the highest volume of study permit applications in the system across Canada — had 51 per cent of its 61,612 applications approved in the period. The approval rates for Niagara College (main campuses) and St. Clair were 42.6 per cent and 42 per cent respectively, while Loyalist College was at 47 per cent, though its Toronto Business College campus had a 65 per cent grant rate.

Experts say study permit approval and refusal rates do not necessarily reflect the quality of education offered by educational institutions, but these numbers will matter to Immigration Minister Marc Miller as he tries to rebuild confidence in Canada’s international student program that he said “has lost its integrity.”

“There is a responsibility on behalf of the provinces that designate the learning institutions in question to make sure that those are actually the institutions that are worthy of getting visas,” Miller told a recent news conference.

Student program under scrutiny

The fast-growing international student program has been in the spotlight amid aggressive recruiting campaigns by the post-secondary education sector, and by unregulated foreign agents. Migrants increasingly look at studying in Canada as a backdoor to work and earn permanent residence here.

The number of study permit holders in Canada has tripled in the past decade, from 300,000 in 2013 to nearly 900,000 this year. International students, through spending and tuition, contribute $22 billion to the economy and support 200,000 jobs. However, the current affordable-housing crisis and rising cost of living have seen many international students struggling to seek employment and secure shelter and has led to some turning to food banks.

With dwindling provincial funding, post-secondary education institutions have turned to international students as a revenue source. Employers have grown used to the ceaseless supply of students to fill low-wage jobs in fast-food joints, retail, warehouses, factories and gig work.

Education agent and policy researcher Earl Blaney said it’s a waste of the immigration system’s scarce resources when almost one in every two study permit applications are refused because subpar files jam up the system, causing processing delays. He blames the high refusals on what he called a “mass volume” recruitment approach by many of the learning institutions in the past five years.

When Blaney started his career as an education agent in 2012, most institutions directly contracted individual recruiters in other countries to recommend prospective students. Now, the institutions have off-loaded the work and recruit en masse through aggregators’ online platforms, which work with thousands of sub-agents on the ground.

Colleges and universities assess a candidate’s educational eligibility to a program before issuing a letter of admission, but sub-agents are responsible for preparing and submitting study permit applications to ensure the applicants meet the immigration requirements.

“The bottom line is: we’re getting some of the worst-quality (study permit) applications ever presented to the embassy,” he said. “The more applications, the higher yield of revenue for these agents. They’re dumping them in dump trucks through the internet.”

Since schools don’t work directly with these agents, Blaney said in many cases administrators had no idea how many of their students’ study permit applications are going to the visa posts.

“Even though refusal rates go up with mass-volume applications, more students eventually will get through the pipeline. That’s what’s attractive for the schools at the end of the day,” Blaney said. “Why do they care at all if their refusal rate is 55 per cent? Because they’re still getting more students.”

Immigration officials said all study permit applications are considered on a case-by-case basis, based on the information the applicant has provided in their application.

Some study permit applications are denied because the applicant is unable to meet the financial requirement for their studies. Other reasons include: an officer not being satisfied the applicant will leave the country if they no longer have a valid status in Canada; incomplete application; missing payment; or submission of fraudulent documents.

In recent months, Miller has wielded the tools at his disposal to crack down on the “puppy mills,” including introducing a “recognized” institution regime to scrutinize “trusted” colleges and universities for faster study permit processing.

However, provinces are responsible for regulating education and designating the designated learning institutions that are permitted to enrol international students. Ottawa will continue to work with the provinces “around threats to the integrity of the system,” a federal immigration spokesperson told the Star.

In a statement, Colleges and Institutes Canada said international applicants to public colleges tend to be older, with prior work and study experience, but modest economic means. Along with a general lack of understanding of the college systems among visa officers, these conditions have historically contributed to lower approval rates than public universities.

“It’s important that (the Immigration Department) work with provinces and institutions to ensure deserving students with more modest means can still demonstrate sufficient funds appropriate to their study destination and economic reality,” said the national advocacy group for the sector. “Scholarships and other financial supports should all be accurately accounted for in the assessment of students’ financial situations.”

Critics believe the new measures will help rein in the number of international students in Canada, particularly in the college system. And they say publishing learning institutions’ study permit approval and refusal rates will help guide policies.

The Canadian Immigration Lawyers Association has made a submission to the federal government on the international student program and recommends overseas education agents be regulated by provinces and designated learning institutions be accountable for their agents’ activities and conduct.

It urges Canada to mandate the institutions to employ overseas agents directly and release their names, citizenship and location of work.

“Their agents should be listed in public so they know who they’re dealing with, we know exactly who’s doing it and which countries,” said immigration lawyer Betsy Kane, a vice-president of the lawyers association, who penned the submission.

“Is the commission (to agents) higher at these colleges with the higher refusal rates than let’s say the U of T? One of the things we have called for is the transparency on their agents abroad who are getting a commission to place students in those schools.”

Immigration lawyer Lou Janssen Dangzalan said the buck has to stop with designated learning institutions, and he hopes the recognized institution regime would be an incentive for some of them to clean up their act and weed out the bad actors.

Dangzalan said some learning institutions and prospective students will find ways to circumvent the new rules because the “profit motive” and the lure for permanent residence are real; he has already hearing people talking about “spoofing” bank accounts to get past the study permit financial requirement that takes effects in January.

“Reputationally, Canada will not be seen as an education powerhouse if these shenanigans keep going. They can’t just keep riding on the idea that permanent residence is easy” in order to attract international students, said Dangzalan, also a vice-president of the Canadian Immigration Lawyers Association.

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