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International students in Canada in the age of COVID-19

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

Jodi-Ann Francis

Canada is one of the most desirable countries for international students. In fact, in 2018, Canada ranked 4th in international student enrollment globally behind competitors including the US and the UK. Additionally, Canada, as of 2020, has more than half a million international students enrolled in Canadian institutions from over 180 countries. It is no surprise, then, that international students have a significant impact on the economy; international students support approximately 160,000 jobs and contribute billions of dollars to Canada’s GDP. Considering this, international students are still facing a number of challenges as it relates to their status, especially in the wake of COVID-19.


Economic status

In response to COVID-19, the federal government passed an Emergency Aid Bill to provide financial support to Canadians. The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) provides a $2000 financial benefit for individuals and families who need it. This includes a $500 added benefit per child for those with children in the household. This was followed closely by the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) for students, which provides $1250 over four months for students who are either unemployed or whose salary is less than $1000/month and $2000/month for students with disabilities. This is a great initiative and in the long-term, provides students with the opportunity to remain afloat. One issue with this $9b funding, however, is that there is no mention of international students in the package. So, while international students were exempt from border restrictions – that is, they are allowed to return to or enter (for first-time students) Canada, it was made clear that international students are not eligible for the CESB.


Unbeknownst to many, some international students remain the breadwinner for their families “back home,” wherever home may be. In addition, international students must pay their tuition, with a minimum 100% markup known as “differential” fees. Likewise, the average international student pays rent and is responsible for every dollar incurred while living in Canada. International students, however, are only afforded just 20 hours to work during the school year, often in minimum wage/service jobs. In light of this, international students in 2018 still contributed $21.6 billion to Canada’s GDP, which effectively underscores their worth in the grand scheme of education and economic development in Canada. Specifically, international students have direct impacts on post-secondary education in Canada.


A recent CBC article discussed the effects of the pandemic on post-secondary institutions. The article painted post-secondary institutions as victims since the 50% tuition revenue gained from international students would now be at stake. The differential fee, which is an unexplained additional fee that international students pay, contributes significantly to many post-secondary institutions’ revenue and with a predicted drop in upcoming international student enrollment, many institutions are now at risk of either closing, and restructuring or downsizing faculty and staff. Although the presence of international students demonstrates positive economic impacts as well as building Canada’s population and labour force, international students’ lack of access to any kind of funding from the Canadian government, especially during COVID-19, should be examined further as a policy move. International students’ worth, unfortunately, appears to be tied solely to their capacity to contribute to the economy.

Graduation and the Post-Graduate Work Permit

Many students were scheduled to walk in their convocation ceremonies this semester, although some ceremonies have been postponed due to COVID-19. In addition, many students are now faced with expiring student permits and the once-in-a-lifetime Post Graduate Work Permit application they must now submit. The permit allows international students an opportunity to work for up to three years and gain a minimum of 1,560 hours of experience in very specific jobs in order to qualify for permanent residence. A quandary. With the economic downturn, layoffs, and limited jobs opportunities at this time, international students are now facing the risk of being least likely to obtain IRCC-specific jobs.


In Atlantic Canada, with the new Atlantic Immigration Pilot, an employer driven federal immigration program with more relaxed criteria for qualifying for Permanent Residence (PR), international students face new challenges in securing jobs and obtaining the coveted endorsement needed to apply for PR. While the federal government has relaxed some of the conditions, such as expanding the 20-hour limit for students who work in essential services, there is yet to be an overall plan to provide relief to international students who are some of the hardest hit during these times of uncertainty.


We look at workers in the service industry, for example, such as health services and those in the service and food industry, as essential workers. In many respects, these essential workers are or have been international students. Similarly, international students have also been vital to funding Canada’s education system. However, the rights and privileges afforded domestic students have not been extended to international students. As such, navigating a system that requires international students to pay double to gain the same education as domestic students is challenging, especially knowing that many of the benefits gained from international student funding will not be made available to the very people who have made significant financial contributions to the system. COVID-19, therefore, has exposed many inconsistencies within the concept of Canada’s openness, especially with regards to the rights of temporary residents such as international students.


Indeed, we are in uncertain times, however, one thing we are certain of is that Canada’s education system stands to be significantly affected by the loss of and reduction in international student enrollment to post-secondary campuses in the Fall. If international students have no way to support themselves during this pandemic, it is likely that they will be unable to continue their studies, effectively lowering the funding capacity for the institutions to which they belong. International students are key contributors to post-secondary funding, and it is imperative that they are provided with a path to recovery.


Jodi-Ann Francis, PhD(ABD), is a Senior Research Associate at the Diversity Institute with almost 15 years’ experience in education, diversity, and immigration & demographic research. For questions, comments or concerns about this article, please contact Jodi-Ann at jfranciswalker@ryerson.ca

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