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New rules for international students threaten revenue: College presidents

A coming federal restriction on post-graduation work permits will endanger public-private partnerships, some post-secondary school heads warn
David Orazietti, Sault College president, Sept. 28, 2023.

Some college presidents are warning that the federal government's new rules for international students will shut down agreements between public and private colleges in Ontario, cutting off a key source of revenue for colleges based outside the Toronto area.

One of them is David Orazietti, a former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister who is now the president of Sault College. 

"The federal government's absence of effective housing strategy has intersected with immigration policy, creating this challenge, and made international students a target for the federal government to look at as a way to address Canadians' frustration with high rent costs and a lack of affordable housing," he told The Trillium.

Orazietti said the feds are using the policy equivalent of a "sledgehammer," and the result will be to destabilize colleges outside of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Federal Immigration Minister Marc Miller announced a cap on the number of international students that can get visas and changed the rules concerning post-graduation work permits (PGWP) — students who begin study through public-private college partnership programs as of September will not be eligible.

According to Orazietti, that will likely mean most of those partnerships are shut down because, without the draw of a PGWP and the path to permanent residency, international students will not come.

The president of Sudbury's Cambrian College, Kristine Morrissey, also told The Trillium that if the federal government follows through with the change it will likely mean her school's partnership with a private college will be wound down as well.

Sault College has a partnership with the private triOS College, which runs campuses in Brampton and Toronto, offering the Sault College curriculum and catering to international students, with 2,800 attending.

Cambrian College's partnership is with Hanson College which hosts about 6,200 international students on campuses in North York and Brampton, and a little over 3,000 attend Cambrian's main campus in Sudbury, said Morrissey.

Both college presidents stood by their private-sector partners, saying they offer students a quality education and the support they need.

But the partnerships have become controversial as they've steadily grown. 

In most of the 15 in Ontario, the private colleges in the GTA are supporting the public colleges elsewhere: public colleges based in North Bay, TimminsSarniaLondon, Hamilton NiagaraPeterborough, Windsor, Eastern Ontario, Ottawa and Belleville have private partners in the GTA. 

Back in 2016, the then-Liberal Ontario government announced a review of the six that existed then. It found the arrangements presented too much risk to the quality of education and the reputation of the colleges and the province's post-secondary sector as a whole. It ordered them to shut down by 2018, with some compensation — but by then, the Progressive Conservative government was in power and reversed the wind-down order, bringing in a new framework with new expectations of the colleges a year later.

Orazietti said that, in his view, the province's order resulted from competitor GTA post-secondary institutions "convincing certain cabinet ministers in the Liberal government at the time that this wind-down should take place." 

The order from the federal Liberal government may now accomplish the same result.

Miller, the federal immigration minister, has likened the "bad actor" schools he's targeting to "puppy mills" and on Monday described them as private colleges offering "sham commerce degrees" in office space above massage parlours that no one actually goes to, with their students driving Ubers instead.

But federal data show that it's the not strictly private colleges, which cannot offer PGWPs, bringing in large numbers of international students, it's the public-private partnerships that can. Nearly all of the Ontario institutions with high numbers of study permits are public colleges in the GTA, or those located elsewhere with private partners there.

The arrangements have been a lifeline for colleges that had struggled to thrive, mainly for demographic reasons, according to Orazietti.

"It's important to remember that this has been done for over a decade now out of necessity — out of sheer necessity to pay the bills, to support our communities, to renew our infrastructure," he said.

Sault College was planning to build a student residence at its home campus with the revenue from the GTA campuses. That will now be "extremely difficult," and there will likely need to be cuts to student support and possibly to some programs.

"Removing the post-graduation work permits from the private-partner colleges will impact us by about a third of our $125 million budget," he said. "That is disastrous. That results in significant financial hardship for our campus here in Sault Ste. Marie."

Cambrian was one of the first colleges to use the public-private models to launch a GTA satellite campus, and it was initially because the school was having trouble recruiting international students to Sudbury but today, colleges use it to make up a gap in funding from the province.

In 2019, the Ford government ordered a 10 per cent drop in domestic tuition fees, followed by a freeze, and has kept provincial revenue flat since.

Ontario's public colleges and universities have been calling on the provincial government to follow the advice of a blue-ribbon panel it struck, including by immediately increasing funding for post-secondary education by 10 per cent and putting an end to the tuition freeze for Canadian students. 

Now, with the federal government's move to limit international student tuition, the province needs to do more, according to Orazietti.

For her part, Morrissey said she hopes the province will allocate a generous share of the international student cap to Cambrian's main campus. International students at the school are a big part of Sudbury's plan for growth, and it has the housing they need — and that applies to other home campuses of public colleges in Ontario.

"They are filling the jobs in retail, hospitality, tourism, the restaurant industry," she said. "Our grads, many of them international, are staying in the community and entering the workforce in much-needed positions. And so our communities are going to feel a significant hit, depending on how many international students were allowed to bring in."

The cap — 360,000 approvals for 2024, divvied up between provinces on the basis of population — will result in a 50 per cent decrease in permits in Ontario, which accepts by far the most international students, compared to 35 per cent overall. Current permit holders and those seeking master’s and doctoral degrees will not be included in the cap.

Orazietti also said he'd like to see the province award allocations under the cap based on the province's economic needs. For that reason, he questioned the federal government's decision to exempt all students getting master's and doctoral degrees.

"I think most Canadians would say we need more electricians and plumbers, not master of philosophy graduates in Canada these days," he said.

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Jessica Smith Cross

About the Author: Jessica Smith Cross

Reporting for Metro newspapers in five Canadian cities, as well as for CTV, the Guelph Mercury and the Turtle Island News. She made the leap to political journalism in 2016...
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