Canada easing work rules for its valued foreign students

Government backs universities on imperative of satisfying full-tuition visitors

May 18, 2020
People waving Canadian flags
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The Canadian government has been easing employment rules for its foreign students during the coronavirus pandemic, hoping to aid a constituency that increasingly subsidises its system of higher education.

In the latest such move, the Canadian government announced this past week that it will waive its usual requirement that time spent studying outside of Canada is deducted from the length of the time for which post-graduation work permits are eligible.

The government earlier lifted a rule limiting the hours and situations where foreign students can work, both to help the students and to relieve pandemic-stressed sectors of the economy including health care.

Canadian university leaders have been calling for such assistance, on federal visa policies and provincial budgetary support, as they await a 1 June deadline that many of them have set for foreign student acceptances for a fall semester of largely unknown formats.

How we treat international students will determine the success of attracting international students going forward,” Paul Davidson, the president of Universities Canada, the nation’s main higher education lobby group, said in an appeal to policymakers.

Without an improvement in their conditions, Mr Davidson warned, Canada could suffer staggering losses in foreign student enrolment that would ripple through academia, forcing institutions into fundamentally new business models.

On the federal level, the government's announcement of the waiver on time requirements, and its general spirit of flexibility and commitment to speed on visa issuances, is a positive step that will help mitigate the effects of the virus on students and institutions, Mr Davidson said.

Individual institutions share Mr Davidson’s concern about overall risks they face, though for now they appear to be presenting a confident face.

“On paper, everything looks great,” said Dan Seneker, director of student recruitment and retention at Bishop’s University, a small liberal arts institution in Quebec that draws more than a quarter of its 3,000 students from abroad − one of the nation’s highest rates.

The “vast majority” of foreign students currently enrolled at Bishop’s have decided to stay in Canada during the pandemic-related shutdowns, Mr Seneker said.

Their decisions, he said, were aided by policies in Canada that, compared to the US − where foreign students are struggling with much higher tuition rates and a ban on taking jobs – are already generous in terms of their rights to stay and find available employment.

That said, Mr Seneker admitted that he could not be sure how students, especially those from abroad, would react to the idea of taking courses remotely for the same price as an on-campus experience. One early positive sign, he said, is that Canadian students appeared far less interested than their US counterparts in demanding cuts in tuition to compensate for the loss of in-person instruction.

Currently, Mr Seneker said, the number of students submitting deposits at Bishop’s is within about 5 per cent of the level at the same time last year.

But, he wondered: “What is that going to look like, and what are they going to say, when push comes to shove?”

A much larger institution with a relatively high share of foreign students, McGill University, is talking even more confidently. McGill is among several universities that have already declared they will begin the fall semester in a remote-teaching format.

McGill, like all universities, expects some drop in enrolment due to the pandemic, said a spokeswoman, Cynthia Lee. But the prestigious institution has spent months adapting its courses to remote formats and Ms Lee predicted that students will find that “the value of the McGill degree remains despite this temporary interruption”.

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