In the months since the pandemic forced all postsecondary education online, students have been concerned about getting the full value for their money. While most of the attention has focused on the challenges of delivering courses online, we should not forget that classroom learning is not the only reason people attend colleges and universities — students have wide-ranging and diverse goals. As the system pushes to implement wide-scale virtual teaching and learning, it is important to consider how students’ non-academic goals are impacted by the pandemic.
For international students, particularly those who wish to settle in Canada (68% of all prospective international students in 2017), the pandemic may have long-lasting consequences. International students come to earn a postsecondary credential, for sure, but they also come to develop linguistic and cultural skills, build social networks and gain work experience so they are better prepared to find a skilled job in Canada when they finish their studies. At least one year of work in a professional, technical/trade or managerial job in Canada is required to apply for permanent residency through the Canadian Experience Class, a common pathway to permanent residency for international students.
As a result, international students seeking to develop their skills, pursue an education and gain experience in Ontario have been willing to pay much higher tuition and fees than domestic students. In the 2019-20 school year, international undergraduates paid almost five times more than their domestic counterparts.
The stakes may be even higher for students from countries with lower levels of economic development or authoritarian governments. Job opportunities in their home country can be limited, unstable and low paying; there may also be significant social/political instability or pressing issues related to climate change. India, a country that is experiencing some of these challenges, is the source of a quarter of all international students in Canada.
The prospect of enrolling in online classes this fall is leading many international students to reconsider their plans to study in Ontario during the pandemic. According to one estimate, just 20 to 25% of new international students plan to enrol in Ontario PSE institutions this September if they are online.
To increase the attractiveness of studying in Canada during the pandemic, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) recently announced that international students studying online because of COVID-19 can count the time toward their Post-Graduation Work Permit Program eligibility whether or not they are in Canada. Normally, only in-person study in Canada would count. This will ensure that international students can work temporarily in Canada after graduation for the maximum possible time. However, online studies may not provide students with the additional linguistic, cultural, and networking opportunities they would have gained from an in-person experience — and that they may need to eventually immigrate.
We need to give international students every possible opportunity to be successful in Canada during this uncertain time.
We need to give international students every possible opportunity to be successful in Canada during this uncertain time. Already, there have been numerous reports of deceptive tactics being used to lure international students to Ontario’s postsecondary sector, and pressure to increase or continue these tactics may increase during the current period of financial uncertainty.
As institutions work to accommodate pandemic-related operational challenges, there are steps they can take to support international students who are pursuing study in Canada as part of their journey to citizenship.
- Keep channels of communication open during the pandemic. Institutions should connect directly with international students and encourage them to express their unique needs, challenges and expectations.
- Ensure that international students are fully aware of the requirements to work and settle permanently in Canada. This information should be emphasized to all international students during the application process as it pertains to programs offered at each institution.
- Proactively collect and share data regarding the outcomes of past international students who have sought to work and settle in Canada. Having this information would greatly support international students in finding the best program for them.
- Provide international students with additional resources to help them improve their language and cultural skills during the pandemic. For example, set up virtual networking opportunities so international students can meet and interact with others at their institution.
International students have multiple goals for their study experience, which often include dreams of immigration for themselves and their families. It is important that institutions — and the sector at large — keep in mind the importance of the non-academic benefits and experiences these students are seeking, and respect the high financial, social and emotional costs of leaving home to study in Canada.
Jeffrey Napierala is senior researcher and Amy Kaufman is director of policy, research and system improvement at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.