Concerns Rising about the Future of Canadian Higher Ed

by Ben Outar, News & Campus Life Staff Writer 

Promotional material encouraging future international students to apply to U of T. 
Image Source: University of Toronto

On January 22nd, 2024, the Canadian government announced an incoming cap on the number of study permits to be given to international students. The planned reduction of “approximately 360,000 approved study permits” represents “a decrease of 35% from 2023.” 

This move comes after an influx of international students nationwide, with Canada reportedly hosting 800,000 last year. This figure is massive compared to the US, which hosts around one million but with around 6,000 colleges to Canada’s 500. 

The policy comes after increasing pressure on the housing and healthcare systems, which has been attributed by the government to the “out-of-control” population growth. The government has angled the policy to the benefit of international students, following reports of predatory recruitment processes from so-called “bad actors,” as well as the lack of a guarantee that universities are prepared resource-wise to take on more students. 

The University of Toronto, the highest ranked University in Canada, has a very large international student population. With a total of over 28,000 international students, cuts to this population — over a quarter of the university total — would significantly alter campus dynamics, resource allocation, and priorities. 

The 35% cut to permits is broad, and the actual allocation of permits will be determined in the future. The legislation states that there will be “more significant decreases in provinces where the international student population has seen the most unsustainable growth.” With a year-over-year housing price growth of 5%, the GTA housing market is certainly an area of interest. The distribution of permit cuts will likely be concentrated in Ontario, along with British Columbia and Quebec. 

While international students are a part of the housing problem in Canada due to the rising population and poor housing allocation decisions over the past 30 years, the repercussions of decreasing their presence may be even more problematic. 

In a letter to the immigration minister from Universities Canada, the point was made that “international students play a pivotal role in bolstering the economy by contributing over $22-billion a year to our country.” The question to be considered for the Canadian government is which is more costly: trying to eliminate the “bad actors” who take advantage of international students, or reducing the international population in Canada altogether. 

Another consideration is general immigration, which saw a huge spike post-pandemic, more than doubling from 2020 to 2021. Combined with 200,000 new international students entering annually, the total number of new people living in Canada per year is upwards of 600,000. As this policy’s implementation reflects, housing markets in cities with major global universities, such as Vancouver (UBC), Toronto (U of T), and Montreal (McGill) are some of the most expensive in Canada, with Greater Toronto and Vancouver being the two most expensive. 

A major concern for universities facing the brunt of these cuts is lower operational budgets due to the decline in revenues coming from international students. The impact of fewer international students will have a compounding effect. CBC reports that “many predict tuition fees increasing [and] existing international students will likely bear the brunt of this, whether they’re attending publicly funded universities, colleges or private institutions.” 

This has to do primarily with the fact that Canadian policies institute a tuition ceiling for domestic students. At the University of Toronto, the operating budget is $3.36B. 

In an explanation of this budget, the University notes: “[u]nfortunately, it appears that the Provincial Government will again extend the freeze on domestic tuition fees for Ontario residents for another year. The cumulative impact (…) is a $195 million reduction in annual operating revenue to the University in 2023-24.” 

This note was made before the reduction of international presence, meaning that the likely outcome of this policy is that the University will raise prices for existing and future international students. Most likely, this will end up lowering the willingness of international students to attend U of T generally. Since 68% of the operational budget comes from tuition payments, the overall budget figure could take a major hit in the next five to ten years. The impact of this has been predicted by the CBC as “fewer courses or programs offered, staff layoffs and other repercussions.” 

The University of Toronto advertises itself as what it is: a global institution with connections all over the world, with a huge international population and alumni network. This motto will necessarily have to change over time as the number of international students they are allowed to admit goes down. 

Or, as another potential outcome, the University could fight harder for more international students, thus maintaining their statistics and cash flow but at the expense of other universities’ existence. Small universities also rely on international tuition to fund much smaller budgets. These universities could face much more dire consequences, similar to the situation at Queen’s University, which faces enrollment caps and lower government funding. 

These enrollment caps could be seen at U of T as well. While the University will certainly not close or be threatened, the prospect of cuts and reductions in resources is nonetheless the principal trickle-down concern of this incoming policy. 

A realistic possibility is that, rather than U of T’s international student population diminishing significantly, it will be the smaller, more tuition-driven universities that go out of business or have significant resource cuts in order to compensate for the loss. 

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