U of T’s January 31 Business Board meeting revealed that the federal cap on international student visas, coupled with the province’s decision to continue its domestic tuition freeze, is top-of-mind for members of the board as they draft the 2024–2025 budget. 

Following Canada’s announcement on January 22 that it will slash the number of Ontario’s postsecondary international student visas in half, U of T vice presidents have pointed the finger at other Ontario institutions as the ‘real’ culprits behind the international student exploitation problem that the federal government has alleged, and asserted that its own policies should not — and will not — warrant government regulation. 

Postsecondary institutions across Canada have become increasingly dependent on international students’ tuition to fund their operating expenses ever since provincial governments started aggressively decreasing public funding over the past three decades. The Ontario government’s regulations on domestic tuition have hit its colleges and universities especially hard in the past four years as it cut domestic tuition by 10 per cent in 2019, and then froze this rate in place ever since. 

U of T was very optimistic that Ontario would end the freeze this year — the business board had drafted next year’s operating budget on the assumption that Ontario students’ tuition would increase by three per cent. 

This increase is what the provincially commissioned Blue Ribbon Panel strongly recommended. However, the Ontario government announced at the end of January that it is continuing the tuition freeze anyway. This decision has left members of the board “scrambling” to re-work the proposed operating budget for the 2024–2025 academic year, U of T Vice President Scott Mabury described during the University’s Business Board meeting in January.

Despite potential restrictions, U of T marches ahead 

Still, the Business Board has not lost faith in the provincial government but has simply redirected its optimism. “We appreciate the changes announced are focused on addressing abuses in the system by particular actors and are not intended to adversely impact universities such as ours,” wrote Joseph Wong, U of T’s Vice President in international affairs, in a statement to The Varsity

The federal government will issue approximately 120,000 international student visas to Ontario post-secondary applicants for the upcoming academic year, down from the approximately 240,000 visas it issued in 2023. The Ontario government is in charge of deciding how to allocate these visas amongst all of the province’s post-secondary institutions and has until March 31 to announce those numbers. 

The provincial government’s deadline to announce how it will allocate its visa permit limits has thrown a wrench into U of T’s internal admissions timeline, as the university generally starts sending out letters of admission to international applicants before March 31. According to prospective students’ online posts, some U of T programs have already started sending out letters of admission to international applicants for the 2024–2025 academic year as if nothing has changed. 

The U of T administration did not answer The Varsity’s inquiries as to what the university will do if Ontario limits the number of study permits for U of T below the number of international students that it is planning to admit. 

Wong asserted in his statement that Ontario will recognize U of T as a good actor in terms of their recruitment of international students, in that it “uphold[s] rigorous and transparent recruitment and admissions processes, and offer robust student supports.” An FAQ page for U of T applicants, in response to the question “what do Canada’s changes for international students mean for me?” states that “the new [federal] measures are not intended to impact the number of students allowed at the University of Toronto and other universities in Canada but implementation details remain to be decided.”

U of T Vice President Scott Mabury made similar remarks at the university’s January Business Board meeting as the board discussed the upcoming release of the proposed 2024–2025 university budget. “We are not the issue the government is trying to address,” Mabury said. 

Immigration Minister Marc Miller has previously accused post-secondary institutions of exploiting international students for their tuition payments and failing to provide quality education or adequate support for their living situations. Some other federal agents, such as a communications advisor for Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada in a January comment to The Varsity, have added that institutions’ recruitment of international students exacerbates housing shortages in university and college towns across Ontario. 

Mabury pointed to the university’s guarantee to provide university residence accommodations for first-year international students — including beds rented from hotels — as well as U of T’s bursary support for international students, which he said the university had increased. Mabury also noted that the university committed to diversifying the countries from which international students come — although he described that this has also been a strategic move on the business board’s part to not become dependent on a single “source country” and become vulnerable to that country’s particular economic or political changes. 

Pointing the finger

In the January meeting, Mabury asserted that Ontario must treat colleges and universities differently when determining who gets to admit how many international students. “Most of the bad actors are in the for-profit, private sector, college area,” he said. 

However, Mabury also called out Algoma University in Ontario and Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia as examples of universities that he said have engaged in exploitative practices. Neither university responded to The Varsity’s request for comment on this matter. 

A month after Mabury’s assertions, however, CBC News published data on the top 10 biggest recruiters of international post-secondary students across all of Canada: nine out of the 10 are in Ontario, and eight of those nine are colleges. However, all but one — University Canada West — are public institutions. This runs contrary to the claim from both government officials and private commentators — including U of T VPs — that private colleges were the driving force behind the surge in international recruitment. 

Ontario universities and colleges in hot water

With Laurentian University declaring insolvency in 2021 and Queen’s University potentially facing bankruptcy, the threat of Ontario colleges and universities going under is creeping closer than ever. 

“A lot of things changed today, and not in a positive direction,” Mabury said in the January meeting. The comment comes as the business board prepares to review its proposed operating budget for the 2024–2025 academic year. 

The university did not answer The Varsity’s questions on whether the university is equipped to balance its budget if Ontario significantly limits the number of international students it can admit.