It is a Risky Time to be Applying to be an International Student in Canada

July 2020

International students create big business for Canada, pouring 21.6 billion into the Canadian economy in 2018, and sustaining 170,000 Canadian jobs, according to the Canadian government. And the industry is growing. The number of international students in Canada close to doubled over the last decade, with over 600,000 international students in Canada by 2019. Only the USA and Australia attract more international students than Canada does. Canadian colleges and universities rely on international students, who pay much higher tuition fees than domestic students.


So, how does the Canadian government manage to keep this industry going, in the wake of COVID-19 travel restrictions?

Most international students applying to study in Canada for this fall will not start their studies in Canada. They will be studying online, as will most domestic students. Only those who must attend in person, such as for labs, will be permitted to enter Canada. Having internet restrictions (such as in countries where necessary websites are blocked by the government), or bandwidth limitations may also be reasons to be permitted entry.   See Travelling to Canada

The goal for most international students is to remain in Canada after graduation. The key is to apply for a post-graduation work permit, which allows the student to gain Canadian work experience after graduation. They can then apply to remain in Canada through the Canadian Experience Class permanent residency application process. Those starting their programs by studying online for the spring, summer and fall semesters 2020 will be able to include this time in the calculation of the duration of their post-graduation work permit, so long as the time spent studying online is no more than 50% of the duration of their program. See Measures to support international students during the COVID-19 pandemic

In order to be issued a study permit, applicants must give biometrics (fingerprints and photographs taken at a designated location), and some must undergo medical examinations. Closures of offices has delayed the ability to meet these requirements. Students have still been able to apply, and their applications have been kept open until they can complete the necessary steps. See Study permit: COVID-19 program delivery

In a recent announcement, the Canadian government stated that study permit applications will be processed in two steps. The first step will be an approval-in-principal based on the student’s acceptance into an authorized program of study, ability to show they have the required funds for their tuition and living expenses, and establishment that they will respect Canada’s immigration laws. Students passing this first step will be able to study online and begin their eligibility for the post-graduation work permit. Full approval will be granted after medical and security checks can be completed. See Minister Mendicino announces changes to facilitate online learning for international students

This two-step process makes me quite nervous. Many study permit applications fail at the first step, when officers look at the conditions of the country from which the student is applying from. They infer that the student may remain in Canada if unable to apply for permanent residence, if working in Canada without status is more financially advantageous than returning home. But students can also be rejected at the second stage based on medical or security grounds, even if they were approved-in-principal. By then, they will have already paid hefty tuition fees for their online studies. I also worry that if travel restrictions continue, and studies continue to be offered only in an online format, students in 1 to 2-year college programs will lose their ability to obtain post-graduation work permits. For these students, taking a gap year might be the best option.