Missed immigration opportunity: Canada's international students
The number of international students choosing to study in Canada has doubled from 2007 to 2016. We would do well to see these students as future citizens, innovators, and contributors to the knowledge economy who have connections to global firms and markets.
Survey research by the Canadian Bureau of International Education indicates that a majority of international students intend to apply to immigrate to Canada after graduation. With their youth, Canadian post-secondary credentials, fluency in an official language, and time already spent in Canada, international students represent an optimal immigration source for this country. Moreover, their ties to the communities in which they study could be leveraged as a vehicle for attracting new immigrants to areas in need of skilled workers.
Despite the lure of Canada to international students, despite promotion of immigration prospects by post-secondary institutions, and despite our federal government having identified them as "ideal immigrants," international students have been declining as an immigration source, both proportionally as well as in actual numbers. In 2007, previous study permit holders who had applied for permanent residence under the Economic Class comprised 8.7 per cent of Canada's entrants. This proportion dropped to 5.3 per cent by 2016. International students were 4.8 per cent of all new permanent residents in 2007, but this figure also declined over the past decade to a low of 2.8 per cent in 2016, even as overall immigration numbers have risen.
Federal policies have inadvertently created barriers for international students wishing to become permanent residents of Canada. Specifically, the new Express Entry processing system effective January 1, 2015 has left international students in Canada in precarious situations at risk of losing their ability to work and to permanently immigrate. The creation of unfair conditions for international students undermines Canada's immigration and economic success.
In many cases, international students reside in communities where they would be happy to continue living and working if provided the opportunity. A long-standing interest in dispersing immigrants outside of Canada's biggest cities could be accomplished by allowing students who already have ties to university and college communities to remain in these places where their presence is needed.
Under Express Entry, applicants receive points for various criteria such as education, work experience, and age. The beauty of this "continuous improvement" system is that points and criteria can be manipulated to achieve desired outcomes. In this vein, we suggest a few simple policy tweaks that would enable international students to more easily qualify for permanent residence:
1. Award points to candidates for all work experience — including "high-skilled" and "low-skilled" — with candidates receiving a higher number of points for "high-skilled" work.
2. Allow Canadian work experience gained during their studies to count under the Canadian Experience Class (CEC). At present, many international graduate students have valuable research and teaching experience that receives no consideration in their applications under CEC.
3. Extra points should be awarded to job offers for work outside of Canada's largest cities. This is a simple yet tangible means of encouraging the regionalization of immigration.
At present, there is little awareness of and few resources for helping international students transition to permanent residence after they graduate. The thousands of international students who do wish to immigrate to Canada often face uncertainty and policy barriers precisely at the moment when they are making important life decisions.
Educational institutions recruiting overseas for students dangle immigration prospects as a reason to study in Canada, but they are selling a false hope to many students. Employers looking for STEM talent or to increase global connections could do worse than to look at recent international student graduates as a source of labour.
International students represent the convergence of policy areas of education and immigration, and an opportunity to help Canada craft long-term labour market goals that could be fulfilled through international students. Researchers, policy-makers, educational institutions, and local governments have a critical role to play in shaping the future of immigration policies and advocating for the retention of international students locally. The status quo is in no one's interest.
Sarah Wayland, PhD, works in the City of Hamilton's economic development division. Huyen Dam, MA, is a PhD candidate in geography at McMaster University. They are both affiliated with Global Hamilton Connect, a young professionals group that works to help international students transition to post-graduation life in Hamilton.