On January 22, Ottawa announced a two-year cap on the number of international undergraduate study permits the federal government will issue, halving the number of permits it allots to Ontario postsecondary institutions.

In interviews with The Varsity, U of T student leaders said that the cap doesn’t actually address the fundamental issues that international students, the postsecondary sector as a whole, and the Canadian economy are facing. They argued that widely limiting permits in the short term discounts the contributions that international students make to resolving the issues facing the country.

Study permit limits: The breakdown

On January 22, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marc Miller officially announced that the government will only approve approximately 360,000 international undergraduate study permits for 2024 — a 35 per cent reduction from the number of permits it approved in 2023. 

The cap will also halve the number of international undergraduate student permits Ontario universities and colleges will receive. The plan gives the provincial government authority to determine which institutions will receive these permits.

In addition, the federal government announced that it will stop automatically issuing open work permits to all spouses of undergraduate students automatically. Ottawa will also allow all masters degree graduates to apply for a three-year work permit. Previously, the federal government had based post-graduation masters degree work permits on the length of the given masters program.

The cap won’t impact current study permit holders or students seeking permit renewals. It also does not address visas granted to students pursuing master’s and doctoral degrees.

Why the cap?

In a statement to The Varsity, Isabelle Dubois — a communications advisor for Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada — wrote that the government hopes to deter “bad actors who pose a threat to the system.”

Miller previously criticized some colleges for operating like “puppy mills” when recruiting international students, arguing that they lure in international students but then provide inadequate education or lack resources to properly support those students when they arrive.

In a statement responding to Minister Miller’s announcement, Migrant Workers Alliance for Change wrote that the change to limit study permits “does not fix the failures of the massive expansion of such get-rich institutions to which recruiters will continue to funnel vulnerable students.”

Although Dubois acknowledged the “immense contributions” international students make to postsecondary institutions and the economy at large, she claimed that the growing number of international students has increased the demand for housing and other services “that all Canadians must be able to access.” 

For some postsecondary institutions, their residences have not kept pace with the number of students they’ve recruited, leading to a student housing shortage. Currently, neither the Ontario nor federal governments require universities to build housing that actually corresponds to the number of students they receive.

International students currently make up almost 30 per cent of the U of T undergraduates. In a post on X — formerly known as Twitter — U of T Vice President (VP), International Joseph Wong wrote that the university supports the federal announcement. 

The university plans to work with the provincial government to “ensure that the allocation of permits recognizes institutions like U of T —which uphold rigorous & transparent recruitment and admissions processes, offer robust student supports — and addresses the problem where the challenges lie.”

He highlighted the need to support international students’ success. “Let’s be thoughtful and precise about how we do this.”

Students weigh in

University of Toronto Students’ Union VP Public and University Affairs Aidan Thompson told The Varsity that trying to limit the number of international students reflects a “short-term” calculus on the federal government’s part. 

“Who is going to build those houses if not for the future contractors, electricians, welders engineers, who are training right now in our colleges and universities? If you blanket ban the people who want to contribute to Canada’s economy from getting here in the first place, how are you possibly going to see Canada’s economy rebound?” he said.

Canada has faced a shortage of construction workers and engineering graduates in the past few years, with enrolment in mining engineering falling over in recent years and tens of thousands of construction jobs unfilled nationwide as of summer 2023.

Thompson also noted the danger in peddling rhetoric that blames international students for the housing crisis. “There is a spike in xenophobia across our province and our country, and it’s being normalized under the guise of this open, ‘we’re just trying to build housing,’” he said.

Radhika ‘Rads’ Gupta, an eighth-year international student from California majoring in women and gender studies with a double minor in history and city studies, spoke to The Varsity about the impacts of the cap. 

“It’s blatant anti-immigrant, anti-migrant sentiment [to me]. Canada loves to pride itself on being a mosaic over America’s ‘melting pot.’ But they only like immigrants when we can be of use to them.”

Gupta also spoke about how the cap will change things going forward. “I think that Canada benefits a lot from immigrants. And so to now do this and set these caps, I think will have really deep, drastic, and devastating impacts.”

In an interview with The Varsity, Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) VP Equity Vyshnavi Kanagarajamuthaly mentioned that she feels mixed emotions about the cap.

“You have some international students claiming that the cap is a good idea because they had no idea… they would be experiencing things like this housing crisis, the cost of living crisis [when they arrived at school],” she said. However, she noted that many international students may now feel unsure about whether they can attend a Canadian university.

Universities’ demand for international students

Steve Orsini, president and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities — an organization which provides a forum for universities, including U of T, to collaborate on a variety of advocacy projects — released a statement on January 22 condemning the cap. He wrote that Ontario universities are “responsible players” and have taken steps to ensure they can meet students’ needs.

However, he noted that in the context of falling provincial funding and the continuing freeze for domestic Ontario tuition, the potential cut to international student enrolment threatens the university sector. 

SCSU VP Operations Akaash Palaparthy noted in an interview with The Varsity that university budgets often greatly depend on international students, and as the number of international students decreases, they will have to look to other funding methods. 

“U of T specifically overcharges its international students. It absolutely exploits its international students — they’re cash cows,” he said. 

In 2019, the provincial government cut domestic tuition and imposed a tuition freeze that extended through the 2023–2024 school year. Since the 2021–2022 academic year, the Ontario government permitted institutions to raise the tuition of domestic non-Ontario students by three per cent annually. Now, some post-secondary institutes are advocating for the province to cap tuition increases for such students at five per cent per year.

2019 also saw funding from international student tuition surpass the amount U of T received from either provincial grants or domestic tuition. In its proposed 2023–2024 budget, U of T predicted that it would receive $661.4 million of its revenue in provincial grants — only 20 per cent of its total operating revenue.

“If any other institution in the province or the country was only 20 per cent publicly funded, we would not call it a public institution, we would call it a private institution,” Thompson told The Varsity. “That has ramifications for sustainability.”

The university has previously maintained that the tuition prices charged to foreign students accurately represent the genuine cost of delivering a U of T education. Nonetheless, U of T’s international tuition costs continue to be significantly greater than those of comparable Canadian universities.