It’s getting harder for international students to enter Canada — even if they have already been admitted to a school, college or university.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada rejected 33 per cent of study permit applications last year. That’s up from 25 per cent just five years ago. More than 34 per cent were turned away in the first four months of 2018.
The spike in refusals comes as the international appetite for Canadian education has increased dramatically. Canada is now the fourth most popular destination for international study in the world. More than 500,000 students have valid permits that allow them to live in this country. That means more international students live in Canada than there are residents of Halifax, Nova Scotia, or London, Ontario; the population of international students is three times larger than the population of the entire province of Prince Edward Island.
But the refusal rate for study permits has also risen and varies widely according to province of destination, level of study and the citizenship of the applicant.
About half the students bound for New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and PEI failed to obtain study permits in 2017, but only a quarter of the students bound for British Columbia were rejected.
The higher refusal rate seems to be driven by three trends: rejections of university-bound students; more applications to Canadian colleges, where the refusal rate is higher; and rejection of students from a handful of countries in Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East.
The refusal rate for college-bound students has remained fairly steady, at about 50 per cent, while the refusal rate for students headed to an undergraduate degree has been growing.
Another factor is the surge of applicants from developing nations. Nigeria has emerged as one of the top 10 markets for university and college recruitment, but even as appetite for Canadian education increased in Nigeria, so did the rejection rate from Canadian immigration officials. Last year, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada rejected 82 per cent of the study permit applications from Nigeria, up from 55 per cent five years ago.
Global Affairs Canada counts international students as part of the export economy – a big part. The most recent study commissioned by Global Affairs estimates that international students spent $15.5 billion in Canada in 2016. And many universities count on international students to fill seats as the number of Canadian students drops in some regions.
Spokespeople for Universities Canada and for the Canadian Bureau of International Education declined to comment on the issues raised by this series, referring queries to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
Officials with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship declined a request for an interview about the study permit refusal trend, but communications advisor Shannon Ker provided this statement via email:
“We can tell you that officers assess study permit applications, like any other type of application, on a case-by-case basis, based on the facts presented by the applicant.
“Officers treat all applications in the same manner, though external factors, such as changes in socio-economic conditions in the country of origin, can have an impact on the assessment of an application. There have been no significant policy or processing changes that would affect the approval rate of study permits.
“The statistics recently provided to you for 2017 show that the refusal rate expressed by country can change greatly from month to month, as refusals are based on the specifics provided in each application processed in any given month.”
Officers have wide latitude in evaluating study permits. Some of the common reasons for an application to be rejected are that the officer does not believe that the applicant will return to their home country after finishing their studies or the applicant does not have enough money to support themselves in Canada while studying. Applications may also be rejected if the student has a criminal record, is a security threat, has a medical condition that poses a danger to the public or has a history of immigration violations in any other country.
Victor Satzewich is a sociology professor at McMaster University who has studied how immigration officers make decisions. He said the rising refusal rate may be a side effect of new rules that make it easier for an international student to become a permanent resident after finishing a Canadian degree or diploma. If officers believe a study permit applicant is motivated primarily by a desire to stay in Canada after graduation, not by the desire for a better education, they are likely to refuse the permit, he said.
“Education is increasingly a pathway to permanent residency,” said Satzewich. “So that might be partly responsible for the overall rate rising.”
The information in this article is based on data provided by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. Some of the data was published on the government of Canada Open Data Portal. Some of it was provided to Polestar by the communications department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and some of it was released through an access-to-information request filed by Earl Blaney, a regulated immigration consultant. If you would like a complimentary copy of the raw data, please send a request to [email protected].