Should Canada prioritize international students in STEM?


This op-ed was authored by Randolph K. Hahn, Partner, Farrell LLP.

I read with interest the piece Expansion of Post Graduate Work Permits for Career Colleges Not Needed.

My friend Sergio Karas, one of the co-authors, has made some points in a characteristically robust and unequivocal way about any possible expansion of the Post-Graduate Work Permit Program (PGWPP). The points raised are deserved of a response. Of course the views expressed below are mine alone and in no way reflect any official position of the Canadian Immigration Lawyers Association nor any of its members.

Sergio and his co-author Reeva Goel suggest that the PGWPP has flaws. They make a number of arguments including the following:

  • There is no guarantee that those who access the program, after typically paying significant fees as foreign students, will be able to transition to permanent residence.
  • There are incentives for post-graduate institutions to take as many foreign students as possible irrespective of how easily those students can transition to permanent residence.
  • There is too much opportunity for unscrupulous consultants and unlicensed consultants to take advantage of the system.

Given the above, why expand the program so that private Career Colleges can participate?

Moreover, they argue that there is a disconnect between labour market needs and availability of workers. It is argued that foreign students do not have the necessary language skills and that  Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) “should prioritize foreign students pursuing studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and computer science (“STEM”) disciplines or apprenticeships in trades, instead of those studying business, humanities, health, arts, social science, education (PHASE) who may not have good employment prospects.”

In addressing some of these points let’s start with the law. It may be broad, vulnerable to misinterpretation, or unevenly applied, but it is the authority under which the various programs and policies are established. Section 3 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) has twelve stated objectives for immigration to Canada. The first is “to permit Canada to pursue social, cultural (emphasis added) and economic benefits of immigration.” The second of the stated objectives is “to enrich and strengthen the social and cultural fabric of Canadian society….”

The legislators who passed IRPA understood that there is something more to immigration that simply trying to anticipate the needs of the labour market. There are many accomplished Canadians who came here and made significant contributions to the arts, culture, and business of Canada who were not simply STEM graduates. The economic benefits of a certain initiative may be important, but not conclusively so. As the poet and novelist Robert Graves put it “There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money either.”

Moreover it can be very difficult to anticipate the needs of the market at any one time; by the time the cumbersome bureaucratic machinery reviews and responds to certain data, the needs of the labour market may have changed significantly.

For example a perceived shortage of engineers at one point in time may then be followed by the unemployment or underemployment of engineers. Moreover there are already existing programs, for example, the Global Talent Stream, that gives priority to those with job offers in certain areas. Why the need to say to prospective foreign students that Canada is not interested in them unless they are studying a certain discipline? If they come to Canada as foreign students, they may have an advantage of transitioning to permanent residence as a result of the PGWPP, but there is no guarantee they will qualify as permanent residents. Why not allow them the opportunity to look for a job and then transition to permanent residence? Generally they will only qualify if they have Canadian skilled work experience, and if they do then they have shown that they can integrate into the work force.  If they are unable to obtain job experience in Canada as a skilled worker then it is unlikely they will qualify for permanent residence anyhow. It seems to make sense to prioritize those who are already in Canada. This is not a matter of crowding out other workers or would be immigrants. Those people can still qualify to come to Canada as temporary workers and then (if they qualify) transition to permanent status in the same way that those on post graduate work permits do.

As for the concern about language capabilities, there is no evidence that those in STEM disciplines are better able to work in either of Canada’s official languages.

Sergio and Reeva also point to the incentives that allow universities or colleges to recruit foreign students to strengthen their financial positions without taking into account the best interests of the prospective students. They are skeptical about extending such opportunities to career colleges. These are good points that are deserved of consideration. There may be the need to insist on clear messaging for prospective foreign students about how easily one may or may not transition to permanent residence.  And there may be good reason to cast a skeptical eye on whether graduates of private career colleges should be able to enjoy the benefits of being able to access the PGWPP.

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