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Canada's international student spike was blamed on private colleges. Here's what really happened

Documents obtained by CBC News reveal which colleges and universities account for the greatest share of Canada’s steep growth in international students, and which have the most to lose from a new cap on permits to study in this country.

Data obtained by CBC News reveals which colleges, universities account for biggest share of rapid growth

A young woman holds a sign that says tuition fairness for international students.
Students stage a walkout to protest the rising costs of international students' tuition at Emily Carr University in Vancouver, B.C. in December 2022. Data obtained by CBC News shows what has been framed as a nationwide explosion in international student numbers is disproportionately linked to a handful of schools, the vast bulk of them public colleges, predominantly in Ontario. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Documents obtained by CBC News reveal which colleges and universities account for the greatest share of Canada's steep growth in international students, and which now have the most to lose from a new cap on permits to study in this country.

The data, obtained through access to information requests to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), shows the number of study permits granted each year since 2018 for foreign students to attend post-secondary institutions across the country.

The figures have never before been made fully available to the general public. See the data for yourself at the bottom of this story.

A CBC News analysis of the data reveals that what has been framed as a nationwide explosion in international student numbers — prompting Ottawa to impose an immediate two-year cap — is disproportionately linked to a handful of schools, the vast bulk of them public institutions, predominantly in Ontario.

  • Of the 30 Canadian colleges and universities granted the most international study permits last year, all but one are public.
  • Just 10 Ontario public colleges account for nearly 30 per cent of all study permits issued across the country over the past three years.
  • Twelve Ontario public colleges have at least tripled their annual permit numbers since 2018.

The data calls into question claims by both federal and provincial politicians blaming "bad actors" among private colleges for fuelling the spike in international students. 

The data also shines a light on what experts say was really driving Canada's dramatic rise in foreign student enrolment: Governments of all stripes actively pursuing international students both to shore up the skilled workforce and to bring hefty revenues into underfunded colleges and universities, with little regard for the ensuing demand for housing.

"It's a cash cow," said Richard Kurland, an immigration lawyer and policy analyst in Vancouver. "Each student likely generates at least $20,000 for an educational institution, and we're talking about thousands and thousands of students."

Foreign students paid billions amid austerity measures 

Over the six-year period covered by the data, more than 1.5 million study permits were issued for students to attend some 1,300 colleges and universities.

That translates into international students paying tens of billions of dollars into Canada's post-secondary system — at a time when provincial governments were imposing austerity measures on public universities and colleges.

In Ontario, the data shows foreign students recruitment has spiked significantly since 2018, when Premier Doug Ford took office.

The following year, Ford's government froze post-secondary funding, cut domestic tuition by 10 per cent and launched a program explicitly designed to attract international students and their lucrative tuition fees to public colleges.

A portrait of a man in a dark suit in front of a brick wall.
Earl Blaney, an immigration consultant and advocate for international students in London, Ont., calls the recent growth in international study permits in Ontario 'explosive and reckless.' (David Macintosh/CBC)

Ontario's public colleges alone accounted for more than 40 per cent of the 435,000 study permits issued to colleges and universities nationwide in 2023.

The growth in Ontario in recent years has been "explosive and reckless," said Earl Blaney, an immigration consultant and advocate for international students in London, Ont.

Public colleges — not private — are main destination 

"I'm shocked that it's got to this state," Blaney said after CBC News showed him the data. "The problem is everyone else has been clapping along, because everyone's making a ton of money off this."

The overall rapid growth in international students and the pressure their numbers have put on housing, particularly in southern Ontario and B.C.'s Lower Mainland, prompted the federal government to impose a cap on study permit applications for the next two years.

Both Canada's immigration minister and Ontario's premier have since tried to pin blame on private colleges, despite the data clearly showing public colleges and universities have been the prime destinations for international students.

Immigration Minister Marc Miller said in January some private colleges in Canada are the "equivalent of puppy mills that are just churning out diplomas," but didn't name names.

A politician stands to speak in Canadian parliament.
Immigration Minister Marc Miller and Ontario Premier Doug Ford have both placed responsibility for the rapid growth in international students on private colleges, with Miller calling them 'equivalent of puppy mills.' However, federal data analyzed by CBC News shows that public — not private — colleges and universities have largely driven the surge. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Miller commented further on Tuesday morning, after CBC News published the data. 

"Some of the really, really bad actors are in the private sphere, and those need to be shut down, but there is responsibility across the board," he told reporters on Parliament Hill. "We just need the provinces in question, in this case Ontario, to assume their responsibility."

WATCH | Ontario public colleges account for biggest share of international study permits: data:

Data reveals Ontario public colleges account for biggest share of international study permits

2 months ago
Duration 2:34
New data obtained by CBC News shows which colleges and universities have been driving Canada's sudden growth in international students. As CBC’s Mike Crawley reports, Ontario's public colleges account for a disproportionately high share.

At a news conference last week, Ford was asked about his government's plans regarding international students.

"There's some bad actors in the private sector colleges," Ford said. "I just believe in working within the ministry to kind of shoo out the bad actors, encourage the good colleges and universities to keep moving forward."

CBC News asked Ford's office for comment Tuesday morning and has yet to receive a response.  

Easier path to permanent residence

Observers pin the responsibility for Canada's spike in international students on both provincial and federal governments.

Various changes to federal immigration rules through the 2010s gave foreign students three-year work permits for completing just about any post-secondary program in Canada, and an easier pathway to citizenship.

"It was foreseeable that the volume of students coming to pursue permanent residency in Canada — with education being just incidental — would skyrocket," said Blaney.

"What was not foreseeable is the fact that the government would do nothing about it during that period, despite the fact that they were well aware that this was going on."

"There's a lot of money on the table," said Kurland. "Colleges and universities have now hit the panic button… because they don't know next year how many students the province is willing to send them."

When the immigration minister announced the cap, he said it will reduce the overall number of permits granted nationally by about 35 per cent, but the provinces that brought in disproportionately higher numbers of foreign students would feel the pinch more intensely.

Big drops in permits, big drop in revenue

Ontario's is expecting as much as a 50 per cent drop in permits. That could mean around 100,000 fewer international students will get permission to study in the province this year than in 2023.

With those students paying at least $15,000 per year for college programs, and more than double that for university degrees, rough math suggests Ontario faces losing upward of $1.5 billion in revenue.

Ontario has yet to make clear how it will divvy up its allocation of study permits among its colleges and universities, or how it will make up for the looming loss in revenue.

On Monday, the Ford government announced a $1.3 billion boost to post-secondary funding, spread over the next three years. That falls well short of the $2.5 billion increase recommended for the same timeframe by the government's own panel of experts in November, before the cap on international study permits was imposed.

Premier Doug Ford gestures with his left thumb and index finger held close together.
On Monday, the government of Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced a $1.3-billion boost to post-secondary, spread over three years — short of the $2.5 billion increase recommended by his government’s own panel of experts in November, before the cut to international student permits was imposed. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Reporters pressed Ontario's Minister of Colleges and Universities, Jill Dunlop, about how the government intends to make up for the loss in revenue from international students, but she repeatedly refused to give a direct answer.

"This is going to have an impact on the economy not just here in Ontario but across Canada," Dunlop said. "We recognize the disruption that the international students announcement has made." 

It all has observers predicting a battle over the shrinking pie of foreign students. 

"Schools are being pitted against other schools," said Kurland. "It's Darwinism. If you put a lot of creatures in one basket, at some point they're going to eat each other if there's insufficient food."

One example of that is a recent war of words between the presidents of two colleges: Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ont., which was granted more than 30,000 study permits in 2023, and Sault College, granted about 3,500 permits in 2023, mostly for students attending its satellite campuses in Toronto and Brampton, Ont.  

Conestoga topped the list of Canadian colleges and universities for international student study permits in four of the past five years. 

A man is walking away from Conestoga College campus on January 23, 2024.
More than 30,000 international students were granted study permits in 2023 to attend Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ont., more than any other post-secondary institution in Canada. Conestoga topped the national list in four of the past five years. (Cameron Mahler/CBC)

"Our growth over the last few years has been tied to our mission: to meet workforce demands in the communities we serve," said Brenda Bereczki, Conestoga's director of corporate communications, in a statement to CBC News. 

The statement cites Canada's record low fertility rate and shortages of skilled workers

"Communities across the country are experiencing a similar need for skilled full-time workers," said Bereczki. "The provincial and federal governments responded by encouraging growth in immigration and international student enrolment. " 

Filling gaps in skilled workers 

CBC News contacted the 10 institutions across Canada that saw the largest increases in study permits granted from 2018 to 2023.

A common theme in the responses from those that commented: Schools were simply doing what the federal and provincial governments wanted them to do. 

"Senior levels of government – federal and provincial – have spoken numerous times publicly about the lack of skilled workers now and projected into the future and how immigration is absolutely essential to filling those gaps," said Daniel Lessard, manager of communications for Cambrian College, whose main campus is in Sudbury, Ont. 

"We have absolutely grown. But that growth has been aligned with the overall immigration and labour force efforts of both the federal and provincial government," said Lessard in an email to CBC News. 

Key findings in the data obtained from IRCC suggest Ontario's public colleges specifically have a lot to lose from a deep cut to foreign student intake:

  • In 2023, permits were issued to 175,000 international students to study at Ontario's public colleges, more than four times the number issued for the province's universities. 
  • In each of the last three years, the national top 10 list of schools with the most international study permits included eight Ontario public colleges.
  • Ontario's public colleges account for 19 of the 25 Canadian schools with the most permits issued since 2021. 

There's another factor that will impact the 15 Ontario colleges that offer programs through what are known as public college-private partnerships, in which a private college delivers the public college's curriculum, typically at a satellite campus.

Under the changes announced by Miller in January, the federal government will no longer grant a three-year post-graduate work permit to international students who complete these programs. 

At least 23,000 permits were issued to international students to enrol in Ontario's public college-private partnership programs in 2023. However, the number was almost certainly higher, because the IRCC data does not separate out the figures for such programs at seven of the 15 colleges with public-private partnerships. 

As such, to accurately reflect the overall volume of permits approved at each college, CBC News grouped study permit figures for all public colleges with private partnerships or with multiple campuses in the same province.

WATCH | International students just 'looking for a better life':

What this Iranian doctor wants you to know about her experience studying in Canada

2 months ago
Duration 0:50
Shabnoor Abdullateef, 34, is a medical doctor from Iran who moved to London, Ont., to pursue a postgraduate certificate in health care administration management at Fanshawe College. Abdullateef says that despite just looking for a better life, some international students are made to feel unwelcome. "We are looking to work and pay taxes," she said. "We are not asking for anything for free."

Shabnoor Abdullateef, an elected member of the student union at Fanshawe College in London, Ont., says many fellow international students have come to her expressing stress and anxiety regarding the shift in Canada's policies and the backlash against them over the housing crisis. 

"Please don't put all of this on us," Abdullateef said in an interview. "I don't see this as international students' fault."

2-year college program costing $33K

Abdullateef is a medical doctor from Iran, working on a two-year postgraduate certificate in health care administration management at Fanshawe, at a cost of $33,000.  

When CBC News showed her the data indicating that some colleges ramped up their recruitment of international students by factors of three, four or five times and more over recent years, she described it as shocking.

"Now I can understand why they're putting caps for international students," said Abdullateef.

"It feels like schools are not there to help us, but to get our money," she said. "They don't care what will happen with this many students coming in, how they will find a home, how they can find health care. But it's just about numbers, right?"

students dancing in white shirts covered in colourful powder
Students covered in colourful powder dance at a Holi celebration on Fanshawe College's south campus. (Michelle Both/CBC)

Despite training as a physician in her home country, Abdullateef is anxious about her prospects of finding relevant work in Canada come springtime.

"You can have a Master's degree, you can have a doctorate degree, and yet you cannot find a suitable job," she said. "I have the self-confidence that I'm qualified enough for any job I can get into, but believe it or not, I'm not finding a job so far." 

CBC News asked Fanshawe College to comment on what the data shows about its growth in recruitment of international students: more than 11,700 permits granted in 2023, nearly triple its number from 2018. 

"We are very proud of our ongoing track record of high-quality education and student experience for students across the globe," said an email from Fanshawe's media relations department. "We continue to graduate students who fill the growing needs of the province and the communities we serve."

METHODOLOGY: How CBC News analyzed study permit statistics for Canadian post-secondary schools

The data in this story was compiled by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) and obtained informally by CBC through the Access to Information Act. The original release included statistics up to the end of February 2023 and the remainder of the year was obtained through an standard media request. There were minor discrepancies between the two documents: 178 schools appeared on only one but not both documents. For schools that could not be reconciled, the missing years were identified as "NA" (not available).

The geographic location of schools was retrieved using additional research and the IRCC's list of designated learning institutions.

For eight Ontario colleges with public college-private partnerships, the data provided by IRCC was clearly broken down between students applying for a study permit at the public college itself versus applications made to the public college-private partnership. For seven other colleges with these same partnerships, the data was not differentiated. To accurately reflect the overall volume of applications and approved permits at each college, CBC News grouped study permit figures for all public colleges with private partnerships and, similarly for all colleges operating multiple campuses in the same province.

Data cleaning and analysis: Valerie Ouellet, Senior Data Journalist (January - February 2024)

Additional research: Aloysius Wong, Associate Producer (February 2024)

 

With files from Aloysius Wong, Andreas Wesley and Catherine Cullen

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