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Significant changes announced for new study permit applications

By Brendan Sheridan and Tiegan Scott

The Government of Canada recently announced further changes to the international student program that not only limits the number of new study permit applicants per year, but also increases the role of the provinces and educational institutions in the study permit application process. This announcement forms part of the Federal Government’s stated efforts to strengthen the integrity of the international student system, better protect international students from bad actors and support sustainable population growth.

Cap on new study permit applications

 The Federal Government introduced, effective immediately, an intake cap on the number of new study permit applications that will be accepted for processing on a yearly basis. The cap will be in place for two years. For 2024, the Government will accept a maximum of 606,250 study permit applications into processing. The Government anticipates that this will result in approximately 360,000 approved study permits, a 35% decrease in the number of approved study permit applications from 2023. The number of new study permits that will be processed in 2025 will be re-assessed at the end of 2024.

While the cap for 2024 is set, there are a number of foreign nationals who will not be counted as part of that number. Specifically, international students pursuing master’s and doctoral degrees, and foreign nationals studying at the elementary and secondary education levels are exempt. Additionally, current study permit holders will not be affected by this announcement.

The implementation of the cap to limit the number of new study permit holders is a marked departure from the growth that this program has seen in recent years, including a 23% increase in the number of study permit holders in Canada between 2021 and 2022.[1] Canada is not alone in its effort to curb the growth of international students; Australia and the United Kingdom have implemented similar measures due to the significant growth in the number of international students they have recently welcomed.

The Honourable Marc Miller, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said that the cap is aimed at preserving the integrity on the international student system. In addition, the announcement states that the cap is also aimed at relieving pressure on Canadian housing, health care, and social services contributed to by rapid increases in international student numbers.

While the purpose and impact of the cap has been stated by the Federal Government, the implementation is significantly less clear at this time. The Government announced that in an effort to ensure fairness, the cap will be divided among the provinces and territories based on population. It is believed that this will support the Government’s stated objectives by decreasing the international student population in those provinces that have been said to have seen the most unsustainable growth.

The provinces will be tasked with ensuring compliance with their provincial caps by issuing attestation letters to study permit applicants intending to study at educational institutions in their provinces. As of January 22, 2024, each study permit application must be accompanied by an attestation letter from a province or territory to be accepted into processing. At this time, there is little information available on how this process will work as provinces and territories have been given until March 31, 2024 to establish a process for issuing attestation letters. It is vital that the provinces and territories establish their processes as soon as possible because Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada’s intake of new study permit applications has been halted until this process for issuing attestation letters has been implemented.

The introduction of the cap has raised a number of questions at this time: how will provinces allocate their attestation letters between educational institutions? What role will educational institutions play in deciding which students are issued provincial attestation letters? Will educational institutions lose a provincial attestation letter if their international student has their study permit refused? Will the cap impact whether educational institutions and provinces concentrate on recruiting international students from countries with higher study permit application approval rates with the unintended consequence of disadvantaging students in countries with lower approval rates? None of these questions have been answered.

Work permit eligibility

 Not to be lost in the noise surrounding the introduction of the cap, the Government of Canada also announced upcoming changes to post-graduation work permit eligibility and open spousal work permit eligibility for spouses of students.

There are two upcoming changes to post-graduation work permit eligibility; namely:

  1. as of September 1, 2024, international students beginning a study program that is part of a curriculum licensing program[2] will not be eligible for postgraduation work permits upon graduation; and
  2. graduates of master’s degree programs will soon be able to apply for 3-year post-graduation work permits. The validity of post-graduation work permits has historically been based on the length of the international students’ study program so this announcement is welcome news for those pursuing advanced degrees in Canada as it provides these students with more opportunity to gain work experience in the country.

The Government of Canada also announced upcoming limitations on open spousal work permits for spouses of international students. In the coming weeks, open spousal work permits will only be available to the spouses of international students who are studying in master’s and doctoral programs. Spouses of international students studying at college or undergraduate programs will no longer be eligible for open spousal work permits.

Conclusion

This announcement is the latest, and likely, the most impactful for international students, post-secondary institutions and provinces and has raised a number of, so far, unanswered questions. However, the January 22nd announcement is only one of the series of changes that the Government of Canada has implemented over the past year affecting the international student program.


This client update is provided for general information only and does not constitute legal advice.

If you have any questions about the above, please contact a member of our Immigration or Education groups.

Click here to subscribe to Stewart McKelvey Thought Leadership.

[1] 2023 Annual Report to Parliament on Immigration
[2] A curriculum licensing programs is when students physically attend a private collage that has been licenced to administer curriculum from an associated public college.

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