Bumpy road ahead for Ontario colleges dependent on international students

By Alan S. Hale August 17, 2023

Ontario’s Colleges Minister Jill Dunlop attends a celebration for Sheridan College’s new partnership with a private institution. (Twitter/Dunlop)

It looks like a turbulent fall ahead for Ontario colleges that rely on international students to boost their bottom lines.

Northern College made headlines last week for cancelling acceptance letters for about 250 international students at its Pures College of Technology campus because, the college explained, the federal government had approved more student visas than Pures had room for. Northern College eventually got Confederation College to take the students — provided they meet the acceptance requirements.

The story made a splash among newcomers in Ontario, and Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark promised the issue was “top of mind” for Colleges and Universities Minister Jill Dunlop.

Northern College is one of more than a dozen colleges in Ontario that have partnerships with private career colleges to host satellite campuses in GTA strip malls, office parks and other locations where international students are separated from domestic students on the regular campuses.

The kerfuffle around Northern College may be a prelude to a broader scramble in the sector after the province ordered colleges to enrol no more than 7,500 international students at a time at the private satellite schools they partner with — or risk financial penalty.

The cap is an effort to at least partially reign in a 2019 decision to lift a Liberal-era moratorium on colleges’ expansion of private school partnerships, which has resulted in the number of international study permits for Ontario colleges ballooning from around 50,000 that year to more than 140,000 in 2022.

However, the new cap also gives most private colleges room to grow and provides cover to several institutions that were evading the old rules that limited the number of international students at private colleges to twice the number of domestic students on main campuses.

The province continues to allow more schools to establish private partnerships. Dunlop attended a ceremony this month celebrating Sheridan College’s new partnership with the Canadian College of Technology and Trades, which will open in Lake Erie this fall “with several hundred students from Southeast and East Asian countries, including Vietnam, Philippines, South Korea and China,” who want to study mechanics and welding.

It’s unlikely the incoming cap played a role in Northern College’s decision to revoke hundreds of acceptance letters. According to provincial college enrolment data, there were only 3,100 Northern College students at the Pures campus during the 2021-2022 school year. Overall, there were 3,378 international students enrolled at Northern College that year.

Enrolment data for the 2022-23 academic year has not yet been made public.

Northern College did not respond to a request for comment. Dunlop’s office said it is an “autonomous institution” responsible for its own admission process.

“Our office has engaged regularly with both Northern and [its private college partner] Pures College to communicate our expectation that they work together to find solutions that respect the best interests of students,” the minister’s office added, but did not provide details on what guidance Dunlop may have given colleges about how to handle the cap.

Provincial data shows only one college that use private campuses had enough international students to exceed the cap during the 2021-22 school year: Lambton College, which had 8,773 international students, accounting for 82 per cent of its student population.

However, only 6,833 of those students attended Lambton’s two private partner colleges in Toronto and Mississauga — Cestar and Queen’s College of Business, Technology, and Public Safety — which are “composed of only international students,” per Lambton’s website.

A slide from a Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada stakeholder document that proposes new criteria for colleges that can qualify for international student visas.

Feds consider regulating which schools qualify for visas

The provincial cap is not the only hurdle the colleges and their partners are facing.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada is also proposing a “modernization” of its international student visa program that will include a “trusted institutions framework,” which appears designed to crack down on the system that allows public colleges to give diplomas — and the sought after post-graduate work permits they come with — to students that attend their private partner schools.

According to a federal stakeholder consultation document from June, a copy of which was obtained by Queen’s Park Today, one of the goals of the framework is to address international students’ “vulnerability” to “questionable facilities.”

Essentially, the federal government is proposing to set its own criteria to determine which schools will be considered Designated Learning Institutions (DLIs) under the program — and therefore qualify for study permits.

“DLI would be assessed against criteria that demonstrates that they are reliable partners with regard to sustainable intake, identifying genuine students, monitoring and reporting on their compliance and providing a safe and enriching experience for their international students,” reads the document.

Until now, provinces have been in charge of choosing which schools can be DLIs, and education consultant Alex Usher from Higher Education Strategy Associates expects Ontario will not be happy about Ottawa’s incursion.

“This will be seen as infringing on a provincial right,” said Usher. “I’m not sure that it is a right, but that is how it will be fought.”

The feds’ proposed policy is clearly aimed at reining in private campus partnerships, he said, a move that is bound to run up against the PC government, which — even with the incoming international student cap — is “still full steam ahead on having more international students come through these public-private providers because they have an ideological preference for private institutions.”

It’s not clear how the province may seek to push back on new federal rules or how much effort it might invest to stop them from being implemented.

Blue ribbon panel recommendations incoming

Another uncertainty for colleges this fall comes from the Blue Ribbon Panel on Financial Sustainability, which the government appointed in February. The panel was tasked to come up with advice for the province to help keep the post-secondary sector “financially strong and focused on the best student experience possible.”

Usher believes the government is hoping the panel will provide political cover to end the tuition freeze, which was extended in March to cover the 2023-24 academic year.

The PCs’ four-year freeze and stagnant provincial per-student funding grants are major motivators for colleges to expand their international student acceptances.

A 2021 value-for-money audit from auditor general Bonnie Lysyk warned that many Ontario colleges would have run deficits in the preceding years if not for the tuition they receive from international students via satellite schools.

Usher said the blue ribbon report may end up being unwelcome if it offers a “fairly blunt” assessment of Ontario’s underfunding of post-secondary education compared to other provinces.

Panel members declined to comment on when their report will be released or what it may contain, but a source with knowledge of the post-secondary education sector told Queen’s Park Today the panel’s recommendations are expected to land on Minister Dunlop’s desk before Labour Day.