The Moral Case for Curtailing International Students


This article was authored by Ravi Jain, Founder and Principal Lawyer, Jain Immigration Law. and Co-President, CILA in his personal capacity.

The topic of limiting the number of international students coming into Canada is now all over the news. Sean Fraser, the newly minted Housing Minister (who is also outgoing Immigration Minister) has indicated that his government should consider caps as part of the solution to the housing crisis.

Quebec has already rejected this proposal and other provinces will surely argue that the federal government would be impinging on education, which is a matter of provincial responsibility.

Nevertheless, who Canada lets in on student visas is a matter of federal jurisdiction. It is the federal government which maintains a list of “Designated Learning Institutions” (DLIs). The federal government also decides if students can work off campus and for how many hours. Moreover, the federal government is responsible for the annual levels plan relating to permanent residents and is highly cognizant of the fact that most international students wish to transition from temporary residents to permanent residents. If too many international students are admitted who cannot transition to permanent residence, it is the federal government which is (rightly) blamed.

Some may be surprised when immigration lawyers call for policy changes which curtail immigration programs. However, immigration lawyers are guided by rules of professional conduct that require a high duty of care towards our clients, as such many of us care very deeply about good policy given we see how it impacts the lives of our clients.

A year ago, on August 30, 2022, I sounded the alarm about the numbers of international students Canada is admitting. I wrote an article for The Lawyer’s Daily and was one of the first to call for a reduction. I wrote that “it is too simplistic to measure the success of international students only in terms of the billions of dollars they bring to Canada.” I said “we should be concerned that our schools now rely on these funds… [and] we should not allow greed by recruiters and schools to blind us to the basic needs of students in terms of things like accommodation given the lack of housing supply and the increasing cost of rent.”

In response to the recent call for limiting international students, we are seeing some disingenuous criticisms which we should ignore. As reported by the Globe and Mail, the Canadian Bureau for International Education stated in a submission to Ottawa that a cap would “constrain Canada’s ability to use international education (i.e., ‘soft power’) to advance foreign policy objectives in certain regions.” This is what is known as a ‘slippery slope’ argument. The reality is that no one is calling for an end to international students in Canada. We just need to bring the numbers down. Last year, the number of foreign students was 807,750 which is a 31% increase from the year before.

Another criticism is that educational institutions would suffer financially. But this just means that provincial governments need to step up to properly fund schools and the schools themselves need to innovate to curtail their reliance on international students. Indeed, they charge exorbitant fees of up to ten times what domestic students pay (provincial governments only regulate domestic tuition fees, not international ones).

Some opposition politicians are saying that the solution is to focus on building more housing rather than blaming international students. But curtailing the number of international students isn’t blaming the students. Rather, it is about protecting them from exploitation and from being ‘sold a lie’ (see the excellent CBC Fifth Estate piece by the same name).

Perhaps rather than a hard cap, Ottawa can make some moves that will seriously limit the number of international students. As a first step, Ottawa should remove from the DLI list any educational institution or program which does not lead to a post-graduate work permit. It is disingenuous and often misleading that Canada lets international students obtain student visas for programs which cannot lead to a work permit after graduation, and therefore presents no pathway to permanent residence.

Next, Ottawa should ban student visas to private colleges altogether, even those ‘affiliated’ with public institutions. There have been reports of such private colleges oversubscribing with students arriving and left in limbo. Students have been shocked to find that in some cases, over 90% of their classmates are fellow international students and so they are not rubbing shoulders with Canadians. We have also learned that the private colleges hold classes in strip malls or rented movie theaters – hardly the student experience we should be proud of as a nation.

A recent chart helpfully illustrates just how many international students are coming to community colleges:

Graph 1*

A Globe and Mail columnist recently noted that “publicly funded universities and colleges accounted for less than half of the total [of last year’s study permit holders]. Therefore, it would seem that most of the exponential growth in the chart above has been through private colleges – and again, this is where the federal government should focus.

Further, all DLIs and agents representing them need to be transparent about commissions and accountable to the students they are supposed to be serving.

Just as there has been a dramatic rise in international students, there has also been a rapid increase in the number of immigration consultants – from about just over a three thousand not too long ago to around 13,000 today (Canada allows non-lawyers to practice immigration law.) Some consultants are registered and regulated by a College but there are criticisms that the College is very weak and many lawyers have reported that in their interactions with them, registered consultants have no fear of their College and seem confident they will not face sanctions (unless the negligence or fraud is particularly egregious with media attention). Also, there may be an upcoming change where one can become a registered consultant even without being a Canadian or Permanent Resident, which will make it even more difficult for the government or the College to enforce compliance with Canadian laws.

Lawyers have worried about a conflict of interest given some registered immigration consultants take commissions from private colleges while also acting as legal representatives for their clients’ student visas. Lawyers are obligated under their rules of professional conduct to declare to their client the commission they received from a private college, while immigration consultants are not.  I have had many consultations with students who learned far too late that their immigration consultant steered them to a program which did not lead to a post graduate work permit.

Of course, there are also unscrupulous ‘agents’ and non-registered consultants abroad who provide false promises that students will transition to permanent residence.

Protecting international students means protecting them from poor advice. While agents and consultants have a role to play, I and others have long argued that their activities should be in partnership but ultimately under the supervision of a lawyer or a law firm. Lawyers are governed by strong rules of professional conduct and experienced law societies that take complaints seriously. Lawyers have a duty of candor to their clients to be honest about their prospects of obtaining permanent residence, and can’t act against them by putting the interests of the private school securing a new student over the best interests of the student.

There are moral issues at stake here. The number of international students committing suicide after being led astray by agents and consultants and exploited by private colleges affiliated with our tax-payer supported public institutions is staggering. I know from my own interactions with international students that many are spending their parents’ life savings. When they are misguided by negligent consultants about the rules for studying in Canada and qualifying for work permits and when they face refusals of study permit extensions or work permits some simply cannot face the shame they feel in returning home empty handed.

I’ve simply grown too tired of having to answer for my country when victim after victim asks me how Canada could allow them to be duped by non-lawyers holding their companies out as ‘law firms’ and themselves out as ‘lawyers’ and how Canada could issue student visas for extremely substandard private colleges. There are some easy fixes and some which will require political courage, but it’s worth it to protect vulnerable international students – and our reputation.

*Graph retrieved from the internet and based on IRCC data for 2023

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