Op-ed published in the Toronto Star on January 31, 2024.
By: Pari Johnston, President & CEO, Colleges and Institutes Canada
Canada’s post-secondary sector is facing an unprecedented crisis. Unless you have been living under a rock the past week, you have heard the alarm bells sounding across the country about the rapid-fire rollout of the new international student cap. While the federal government has positioned this as a quick fix for current housing and healthcare challenges, it’s a high-stakes move with far-reaching consequences.
The Immigration Minister himself has called this a “blunt tool.” In fact, it’s far worse. This hasty cap announcement will exacerbate the impact of chronic underinvestment in our publicly supported post-secondary institutions. Provincial spending on post-secondary education has diminished over the last decade. Along with tuition freezes and rising operational costs, publicly funded institutions have come to rely on international student fees to meet training demands and sustain support services for Canadian students.
The Minister’s decision to decrease international student enrollments without adequate notice or consultation has pushed Canada’s post-secondary sector to a tipping point. Never has there been a more urgent need to shift our public policy attention and federal-provincial discussions toward the sustainable funding of Canada’s colleges and universities to drive long-term growth, productivity and innovation in this country.
According to Higher Education Strategy Associates, over the past thirteen years, international student fees have sustained 100 per cent of the increased operating spending by post-secondary institutions. A substantial decline in international student enrollments, particularly in Ontario, where a cap is likely to result in a 50 per cent intake cut, equates to hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars lost.
And this crisis extends beyond finances.
Declining enrollment not only impacts an institute’s financial sustainability but adversely affects the quality and accessibility of education for domestic students, particularly those in rural, remote, and Indigenous and minority language communities. In other words, in the context of chronic underfunding, international students don’t take spots from their domestic peers; they make them by contributing to program viability. Without enough international students, programs – and even entire institutions- may be unable to sustain themselves.
There will also be a domino effect, impacting local economies, businesses, and communities in many parts of the country.
A defining aspect of college and institute education is that curricula are designed with industry to meet business needs. Local businesses, particularly small-to-medium-sized businesses, have long benefited from the economic contributions of international students. Now, they, alongside key industries crucial to Canada’s future, are under threat.
According to Statistics Canada, the current labour shortage for those with a college or institute credential is 198,615 roles, a 65 per cent jump in five years. This shortage extends across various programs with significant international student enrollments, particularly in STEM fields critical for Canada’s economic growth.
In the health care sector, for instance, Statistics Canada reports that 62 per cent of international students training in Canada do so at a college or institute, covering roles such as personal support workers, nurses, and laboratory technicians. This underscores these institutions’ indispensable role in shaping Canada’s future workforce, making the case for sustained public investment even more critical.
Most immediately, we need a commonsense revisit of the cap’s rushed implementation with an end to the current processing moratorium. Over the medium term, the situation requires a long, hard look at public funding for colleges and universities in this country. Federal and provincial governments must engage in a serious dialogue that addresses underlying structural drivers to ensure the viability and vitality of our system.
Failure to do so risks the sector’s sustainability and, thus, the livelihoods of many Canadians and Canada’s economic outlook and social well-being. Colleges and institutes stand ready to partner in this mission-critical public policy conversation and are keen partners in finding solutions.
Let’s end the blunt force trauma of Minister Miller’s self-professed “blunt” tool and focus on the systemic issues that drove this hasty response.