The Supporting Canada’s Covid-19 Resilience and Recovery Through Robust Immigration Policy and Programs report by The Royal Society of Canada provided an overview of Canada’s immigration system prior to the pandemic. 

“These students are seen as an attractive source of skilled migrants”

It set out the system’s vulnerabilities as revealed by the pandemic, and indicated what federal and provincial/territorial governments might do to optimise immigration for Canada. 

The report noted that international students play a vital role in Canada’s economy, and provide the country with a much needed source of labour. 

However, students have been facing numerous challenges including visa processing delays and high levels of stress, anxiety and uncertainty. The report also highlighted that some have not been eligible for emergency social and financial relief. 

“A major reason for the government of Canada’s interest in attracting international students is that these students are seen as an attractive source of skilled migrants, with many international students studying at the postsecondary level,” the report said. 

“International students are relatively young, are proficient in at least one official language, have Canadian educational qualifications and can help address this country’s current and pending labour market needs, particularly for highly skilled workers.

“The ability to retain international students as permanent residents and skilled workers is seen as especially critical for regions with a declining labour force,” it added.  

The report said that by retaining international students, these regions can rely on a new source of highly skilled labour able to contribute to their growth and prosperity.

As of December 2019, there were more than 642,000 international students in Canada, a 185% increase since 2010 according to data from CBIE.

The report explained the number made Canada the third ranked study destination in the world for attracting international students, a trend the government of Canada had supported with its commitment to attracting more international students. 

“High levels of stress, anxiety and uncertainty have resulted”

However, disruption caused by Covid-19 has meant that international students in Canada and those trying to reach the country to study, have faced numerous challenges. 

A June 2020 survey conducted by World Education Services found that 26% of international students reported losing their primary source of income and 34% reported finding it difficult to afford rent or utilities. 

“High levels of stress, anxiety and uncertainty have resulted. The vulnerabilities caused by a lack of federally funded settlement supports for international students have become especially apparent. 

“For those who had not yet traveled to Canada to begin their studies, the border closures and delays in permit application processing meant that their ability to enter the country to begin their studies was hampered,” the report said. 

The pandemic also showed how dependent the country’s post-secondary education sector was on tuition fees provided by international students. Some 58% of new study permits for foreign students decreased in June to August 2020, compared with the same period of 2019, according to Statistics Canada. 

“Although some universities have not anticipated drops in enrolment in the 2020-2021 year, overall, colleges and universities are expecting large financial losses, possibly in the billions of dollars, because of some drops in enrolment, reductions in residence fees, and other revenue losses,” the report said. 

“Post-secondary institutions have especially large impacts in smaller communities”

It also noted that a recent study by Statistics Canada projects losses to universities of $377 million to $3.4 billion during the 2020-21 academic year, depending on the size of the reduction of international student enrolments. 

“Post-secondary institutions have especially large impacts in smaller communities and international students contribute significantly to many small urban and rural economies.

“In addition, these students represent potential immigrants and are key to filling labour market gaps in smaller communities, as many remain in the community after graduation,” the authors of the report said.

They also noted that an economic impact assessment conducted by the Northern Policy Institute estimates that a 20% decrease in international students in Northern Ontario’s post-secondary institutions would result in an estimated $23 million in lost tuition revenues and an estimated $20 million loss in contributions to their communities.

To tackle these issues the research advised that the federal and provincial/territorial government should allow international students to renew post-graduate work permits during the period of post-Covid economic recovery. 

They should also “pilot an expansion of universal healthcare coverage to include international students” and “provide sufficient funding to colleges and universities, on the one hand, and place caps on the tuition costs for international students, on the other hand”. 

The report also recommended that the government increase eligibility for some federally funded settlement services to include international students.

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