September 24th, 2008

Sophia J.Lowe

Canada’s immigration system has been criticized for not meeting the rapidly changing needs of the labour market. In response, immigration policy is shifting away from the human capital model of immigration to a system more responsive to labour markets.

We are seeing increasing use of Temporary Foreign Worker Programs and Provincial Nominee Programs that directly match migrants with employers. Now, Bill C-50 (passed in June) will soon allow the immigration minister to prioritize certain applicants in the Federal Skilled Workers Program in response to labour shortages.

Recent changes for international students allow for more flexible employment privileges. The Off-Campus Work Program allows international students to work during studies and scheduled breaks. Changes to the Post-Graduation Work Permit Program in April allow international graduates to obtain open work permits for three years with no restrictions on type of employment and no requirement for a job offer. The off-campus program and improvements to the post-graduate work program are designed to make Canada more attractive to international students.

International students are also a main target for the recently launched Canadian Experience Class (CEC). This new route to permanent residency begins accepting applications this fall to try to retain certain temporary workers and international students who are already in the labour market and meeting employer needs.

Alan Simmons, associate professor of sociology at York University, has noted that by attracting students from abroad and training them to Canadian standards “there is no resultant problem of accreditation and the recognition, or otherwise, of foreign qualifications” and settlement needs (and costs) are lessened. He further notes that recent immigration changes that help attract and retain international students generate “designer immigrants,” who are highly skilled, hold Canadian credentials, and are familiar with Canadian society.

The CEC aims to welcome between 10,000 and 12,000 people as permanent residents who, according to Immigration Minister Diane Finley, “have demonstrated that they can succeed.” Those selected under the CEC will be included in Federal Skilled Workers Program numbers, which means that other FSWP applicants will have to wait longer.

To qualify for the CEC, international student graduates need to hold a post-secondary diploma or degree that required at least two years to complete, pass a language test, and have one year of recent (within two years before applying) full-time employment in Canada in management, professional, and skilled and technical jobs. Work under the Off-Campus Work Program does not count, even though this program was developed to help international students finance their education and gain the Canadian experience necessary for immigration. Thus, they must finish school, obtain a work permit and work for a year before they can apply for the CEC.

Canada actively recruits temporary workers for the many occupations under pressure. Yet some of these occupations don’t count towards the previous employment requirements. International students and temporary workers employed in them will not qualify to stay.

The tourism sector illustrates this policy disconnect. International graduates from a two-year program such as Fleming College’s travel and tourism program often find summer work as tour guides or in tourism sales. These positions, while in their field, don’t qualify for the CEC, despite high demand (and temporary worker recruitment) for these skills in Canada’s tourism industry.

The longitudinal National Graduate Survey found that finding any work may be a problem for international student graduates, students’ carry increasing debts after graduation, and that attaining full-time work is difficult for many. According to Statistics Canada, international students pay, on average, three times more undergraduate tuition than their Canadian classmates. For international students, debts may be a greater burden, and many need to find any work to survive and pay off debts. Numerous publications have outlined the employment barriers faced by immigrants and a Canadian Bureau for International Education study concluded last year that, despite recent migration policy changes, two-thirds of international students don’t intend to stay in Canada as they don’t believe they have strong employment prospects here.

These findings suggest that, by themselves, the changes for international students will not meet stated policy goals. Barriers that impede the success of all immigrants, such as international credential recognition, must be addressed and employers must be included in discussions about hiring international students and immigrants.

If, as Minister Finley states, “Our ability to retain international graduates with Canadian qualifications, work experience and familiarity with Canadian society, will help increase our competitiveness and benefit Canada as a whole,” why not allow international student graduates who intend to remain permanently in Canada apply directly after graduation for permanent residency with prioritized processing, rather than through the CEC?

All countries are competing to attract international students, and other countries are more aggressively attracting and retaining international students, and the benefits are clear. Australia, New Zealand, France and Sweden use a combination of free or subsidized tuition for international students and rapid routes for permanent immigration directly after graduation. In Australia this is paying off as international students’ contributions to the economy reached $9.8 billion in 2006.

If we succeed in attracting more international students who want to stay permanently, the job of serving their immigration and settlement needs will likely shift onto universities and colleges, which, for the most part, do not have the capacity to provide settlement support for immigrants. Here on study visas and then perhaps work visas, international students do not qualify for many of the settlement services and other benefits provided to those with permanent resident status or other work visas. For example, those under the revised Post-Graduation Work Program in Ontario will no longer be covered under the Ontario Health Insurance Plan.

If increasing numbers of international students remain in Canada, we will need to address such service gaps. In Australia, where 52 per cent of skilled immigrants are directly drawn from the international student pool, the struggles with a growing international education industry are becoming clearer as individuals and institutions look for the fastest pathways to permanent residency-often compromising academic entry and standards, and immigration routes.

If Canada is serious about attracting and keeping more skilled immigrants, we need a more integrated approach. This means addressing the obstacles to employment faced by all our skilled immigrants. For international students, it means aligning the CEC with labour market needs, not skill level classifications. It means allowing international students to apply for permanent resident status directly after graduation, without long and uncertain delays.

Sophia J. Lowe is a research and policy analyst at the World Education Service.slowe@wes.org

Reference: Embassy