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Rob Shaw: B.C. reforms long overdue as Ottawa caps international students

Feds cutting study permits, while B.C. expected to unveil own strategy in coming weeks
Blaming international students for Canada's problems distracts attention away from finding genuine solutions.

B.C. is preparing its own crackdown on international students in shady colleges and universities, in a bid to mitigate new caps from the federal government.

Post-Secondary Minister Selina Robinson is expected to unveil the strategy in the next couple of weeks.

The framework was pitched to Ottawa in advance of Monday’s federal announcement of a 35 per cent cut nationally of undergraduate study permits for 2024, or 364,000 students.

Robinson has been working on the strategy for the better part of a year, after identifying a concerning spike in international students that started at the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the reforms have taken on renewed urgency in recent weeks, as it became clear Immigration Minister Marc Miller intended to push forward quickly with federally mandated caps for provinces on international study permits. Miller had called the situation “out of control.”

The new federal caps mean B.C. gets a total number of permits and will have to decide how to distribute them amidst public and private post-secondary institutions. The federal limit will run two years, and then be reassessed.

British Columbia and Ontario are the two provinces most affected by the new federal reforms, and cited Monday by Miller.

“In the spirit of fairness, we are also allocating the cap space by province, based on population,” said Miller. “Some provinces will see much more significant reductions.”

Robinson had sought to dampen the impact by proactively pitching the plan, in a bid to show progress provincially. But Ottawa refused to share its cap numbers in advance of Monday’s announcement.

Miller did cite “productive conversations” with the B.C. government in his announcement.

The federal move could represent a financial hit to B.C. public colleges and universities, during a time of already-stretched budgets, depending on how the province allocates the limited international study permits. International students typically pay higher tuition fees.

Premier David Eby had urged against caps, calling them a blunt tool that may do more harm than good to post-secondary institutions. Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon had warned they could hurt legitimate international students fleeing other countries, or whose families have spent their life savings to send them to a better education in British Columbia.

Both urged more consultation and funding from Ottawa in areas like housing and healthcare, to compensate for the rise in immigration. But both have also defended the permanent resident stream of immigration as a major benefit to B.C.’s economy.

British Columbia’s plan, pitched to Ottawa, would focus mainly on targeting the 280 private colleges and universities, 80 per cent of which are located in Metro Vancouver. Those are at the leading edge of a 124 per cent increase in international student post-secondary enrollment in B.C. in the past decade.

Of the 175,000 international students in B.C., 94,000 are at private post-secondary schools, or around 54 per cent. At the private institutions, international students outnumber Canadian students by more than three to one.

While some private institutions offer legitimate courses, others charge high fees for nebulous certification in things like “business” and are fuelled by overseas recruiters that make promises the institution fails to deliver.

B.C. is concerned some private institutions are taking advantage of unaware international students by offering subpar education at high cost. The government is also concerned some international students are essentially buying their way into an easier path to permanent immigration as well.

B.C.’s plan is expected to take a softer approach to the public universities, like the University of B.C. and Simon Fraser University. However, they are also increasingly relying on the high fees paid by overseas students to prop up their budgets, and B.C. intends to begin slowly curbing those institutions down on their enrollment numbers as well.

The B.C. government had hoped by showing a proactive approach, it could receive more favourable treatment on the issue. But the feds went with a population-based formula anyway.

Still, British Columbia’s reforms are long overdue, regardless of Ottawa’s new measures.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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