Canada’s cap on international students shows a university bias

When Immigration Minister Marc Miller announced a new cap on international students last month, exemptions were made for master’s and PhD students because “these are the highly skilled people Canada needs.”

Another exemption was made for those who complete short-term graduate programs, who are now eligible for three-year postgraduate work permits so long as their credentials are earned at one of Canada’s universities.

To hear the minister explain it, the exemptions are designed to address labour market needs. But has Canada’s business community found itself suddenly short of doctoral candidates and MBAs? Job vacancy rates in the federal government’s own analyses suggest otherwise.

Instead, labour market demand data suggest shortages in advanced technical professions such as cybersecurity expertsfront-line health care workers, like nurses; and skilled tradespeople who are needed to address the housing crisis. By and large, these professionals graduate from one of Canada’s polytechnics or colleges.

This kind of biased policy thinking is surprisingly common in a country proud to point out it has one of the highest levels of post-secondary attainment in the OECD. This statistic actually relies heavily on polytechnic and college education, a system that contributed more than 282,000 work-ready graduates to the labour market in 2021.

These institutions are far from being a second-tier educational pathway. A third of those pursuing a credential at one of Canada’s polytechnics have a previous degree, diploma or credential. They come to polytechnics – often after graduating from university – because the training on offer boasts exceptionally high engagement with employers.

Industry partners inform program design and ensure it remains relevant by participating on advisory committees. Instructors are drawn from industry itself, with certified tradespeople in the classroom overseeing apprentices.

It is increasingly common to see work-integrated learning opportunities offered in every program, ensuring learners are building a professional network alongside pragmatic workplace skills. Because hands-on training requires access to up-to-date equipment, tools and systems, the business community are regular donors and frequent contributors to programs generating the graduates they hope to hire.

Further, business and non-profit partners come to polytechnics and colleges to engage in applied research activity – an exceptionally broad range of innovation supports that include prototype development, process improvement and field testing. Tens of thousands of students are actively engaged in projects every year, building an innovation-enabled talent pipeline as they work to address real-world challenges. Polytechnics and colleges have achieved all that even when federal investments in academic research of this kind amount to less than 5 per cent of the total.

These indicators would seem to suggest Canada’s post-secondary sector is achieving its mission: delivering highly skilled graduates the labour market needs at every level, in every sector.

So, it’s infuriating to hear a federal official suggest that colleges are rooms over massage parlours offering bogus credentials to uninformed international students.

Certainly, there are bad actors who have taken advantage of lax immigration policy. But these players should not be confused with the welcoming community hubs that support students both foreign and domestic with academic counselling, career and placement services, health care, and cultural activities, to name a few. There’s not nearly enough space above a massage parlour to train paramedics, police officers and automotive technicians.

The problems that have arisen from the growth in Canada’s international student population can be attributed to several factors, very few of which lie at the feet of public institutions.

While provinces have reduced educational operating grants and kept domestic tuition low, schools have sought alternative sources of revenue – often at the urging of their provincial leaders. It was Canada’s immigration policy that allowed for unmitigated growth in international student visas, a problem not created by institutions.

International students destined for polytechnics, many of whom have advanced degrees from their home countries, aspire to immigrate to Canada. An international education offers not just an attractive pathway for them but also a necessary one for this country, particularly when the training is focused and job-relevant.

While federal officials themselves often emerge from the university system, it is contingent on our leaders and bureaucrats to ensure policies are not biased toward one academic pathway over another. Nobody can argue with evidence-informed policy making. Let that be the guide.

About the Author

Sarah Watts-Rynard, CEO, Polytechnics Canada

Sarah Watts-Rynard is CEO of Polytechnics Canada, a national association of the country’s leading polytechnic institutions.