Canada visa cap will damage diversity, leaders warn

Published 14/03/2024

Canada’s study visa cap risks making universities reliant on students from countries with strong visa conversion rates and damaging diversity goals in higher education, said leaders of French and English language programs in Canada.

The immigration minister Marc Miller announced in January a cap to limit the number of international study visas in Canada to 360,000, though this has recently been revised to 292,000 on the basis that the original figure included some cap-exempt students.

“The interesting thing is that the allocation cap is on applications, not actual study permits. That’s a game changer,” Cyndi McLeod, CEO Canada at Global University Systems, told Languages Canada conference 2024.

“So yes, we want diversity, but institutions will go to the countries that they know have good conversion rates. How is that promoting diversity?”

The federal government has said that a study permit application will only be processed if it has a provincial attestation letter included, which serves as proof that the student has been accounted for under each province’s limit.

Provincial attestation letters, or PALs as they have been coined by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, have been issued to the provinces by the federal government and will be sent by institutions to applicants upon acceptance of their study application.

If the attestation letter isn’t used by the student, it is not returned to the university.

The federal government had said it would issue 605,000 PALs to post-secondary institutions across the country based on the estimation that 60% – 360,000 – of these will result in applicants accepting the offer and study permits being allocated.

The government’s recent reduction of the cap to 292,000 has cast doubt on the total number of PALs it has issued to the provinces, but it is likely that forecasting has assumed the same 60% approval rate.

The reason that the cap is based on these predictions is because minister Miller only has the power to cap how many applications are processed by the IRCC rather than the number of new study permits that will be approved.

“It will be a struggle to pursue diversity in our language schools and in our institutions”

According to former president of Languages Canada Cath D’Amico, institutions have drawn up rubrics to determine which students are most likely to accept their offer. Schools are said to be considering recruiting students from countries with historically better visa approvals.

“It will be a struggle to pursue diversity in our language schools and in our institutions… and it’s going to be the low hanging fruit and the markets that have given us steady stream of students that people will rely on,” Randall Martin, executive director of BCCIE, told the conference.

“There’s going to be a lot more emphasis on the institutions to make darn sure that you use your provincial attestation letters appropriately and that you’re going to get some rate of conversion on that.”

Not only does this threaten student diversity, but it could also result in the final number of international students being higher than the revised 292,000 government target.

Graph showing the top origin countries of study permit holders in Canada in 2022.

Source: Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

In 2022, 41% of new study visas in Canada were issued to Indian students, contributing to a total of 319,130 Indian study permit holders in Canada, followed by 100,075 from China.

Other leading source countries included the Philippines (32,455), France (27,135), Nigeria (21,660) and Korea (16,505).

However, according to D’Amico, India’s visa rejection rate has now risen to 86%, and Canadian institutions should learn from their mistakes by “not putting all our eggs in one basket ever again”.

“We’ve seen it with China, we’re seeing it with India… you get a source country that has billions and billions of people, and an appetite for learning and mobility and suddenly we’re filling our classrooms and then it ends. The door slams. There are no longer perceived as being welcome. So as institutions managing risk means diversification.”

And yet, balancing diversity and visa approval rates will not be easy.

“If you look at the countries that have the highest approval rates for study permits and visas, they are not the countries that represent the greatest number of study permit holders in Canada,” said D’Amico.

Visa approval rates are highest for countries such as Japan and South Korea – 96% and 95% respectively in 2021 – but there is no longer significant demand from these students coming to Canada as a long-term study destination.

There is strong demand for study in Canada from India, Nigeria and Ghana, as well as other parts of Africa and the Middle East, but in 2021, the visa approval rate for Nigeria was 34% and for Ghana was just 18%.

“At some point you’re going to have to get those applications from Nigeria and start digging deeper into those applicants and looking at their criteria that gives them the strongest application for a visa and a study permit,” said D’Amico.

According to D’Amico, it is only by leveraging the value of language learning for student integration and academic success that the higher education sector in Canada can continue to benefit from a diverse student body. Whether institutions stick to diversity goals under the increased strain of the study visa allocations remains to be seen.

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