[OPINION] Limited intake of international students: Is Canada knee-capping its future?

Lou Janssen Dangzalan

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[OPINION] Limited intake of international students: Is Canada knee-capping its future?
Canada will only be issuing 360,000 permits for international students in 2024. Filipino applicants will be greatly affected.

Due to the growing pressures of the cost-of-living crisis and the housing shortage that are gripping Canada, the Trudeau government on January 22 decided to impose a two-year cap on international students. This entails reducing the number of issued study permits in 2023 by 35% in 2024.

In real numbers, this means that Canada will only be issuing 360,000 study permits this year, excluding extensions and study permits for dependents of work permit holders. For context, there are approximately 900,000 international students in Canada today. So these changes have left applicants, immigration, and education agents in the Philippines in a state of panic.

The 360,000 permits will be distributed among Canada’s provinces and territories in proportion to population size. The local authorities will have the unsavory task of deciding which educational institutions will be prioritized. In addition, starting January 22, 2024, applicants must now submit an attestation from the province or territory with their study permit application. Without it, an application will not be considered. 

The problem with this is, except for Quebec, there are no provincial and territorial mechanisms in place for issuing attestation letters. The federal government gave them until the end of March to put their system in place. In effect, what we have is a temporary pause in new study permit applications. It is a pause but in name.

Another important change is that spouses and common-law partners of international students will no longer be eligible for an open work permit, unless they are pursuing a masters, a doctorate, or a post-graduate program. 

How do these changes affect applicants from the Philippines?

According to government disclosures through Canada’s Access to Information Act, the majority of students coming from the Philippines are pursuing studies in Canada’s colleges and not in universities. There is a high likelihood that universities will be prioritized over colleges when it comes to the distribution of slots.

An immediate impact on Filipinos comes to mind. Depending on how the provinces distribute their allotments, the changes will profoundly affect Filipino applicants as they may not be able to secure the required provincial attestation since most of them are destined for colleges and not for universities. 

This pressure will be felt by applicants especially among those who are destined for the provinces of British Columbia and Ontario, two provinces that host the most international students.

In terms of eligibility for an open work permit for spouses or common-law partners, the changes will have an impact on the applicants as a lot of international students rely on their partners to work full-time in order to help support themselves during their stay in Canada. In theory they should not be reliant on this, but reality says otherwise.

The net effect of the above is that discerning applicants from the Philippines will very likely have second thoughts about studying in Canada.

These days, it seems that almost everyone knows someone studying in Canada, or someone who is dreaming of moving to Canada by studying. Pursuing studies in Canada has become an important, if not the primary, platform for Filipinos to take that first step towards obtaining permanent residence. 

What is Canada’s international student program?

Canada boasts one of the largest international student programs in the world. It is home to some of the world’s top universities that excel in research and in producing some of the brightest minds and specialists. In 2023, there were approximately 900,000 international students in Canada, studying from kindergarten up to the doctorate level.

The Canadian government routinely promotes its educational institutions to foreign nationals abroad through events, such as the EduCanada Fair. Some of these events regularly occur in the Philippines, the most recent one being held at the SMX Convention Center in October 2023.

According to studies, the international student program contributes approximately $22 billion CAD ($16.5 billion USD) to the Canadian economy. As such, international students have an undeniable economic footprint.

Who are the applicants?

A grand majority of the current international students are from India. Prior to that, this position was occupied by students from China. Due to the pandemic, Chinese numbers dropped as they were overtaken by Indian nationals.

In 2023, diplomatic tensions rose between India and Canada due to the murder of an Indian citizen on Canadian soil. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rose at the House of Commons to make allegations that they have strong evidence that India was behind the murder. In addition, the minimum funds required to apply for a study permit was raised by over 100% in the second half of 2023. This reportedly led to a drop of applications from Indian nationals.

The Philippines presents an interesting case. As applications from China and India wane, Filipino applications grew by 112% in 2022. Applications from Hong Kong, Nigeria, and Colombia also grew.

In the long-term, the unbridled exponential growth of study permit holders (from 225,000 in 2010, to 900,000 in 2023) is unsustainable and would cause harm to Canada’s immigration system. We were already seeing this in what had become a race in terms of human capital factors (age, education, work experience, language, and ties to Canada) among those who hope to become permanent residents. It is an inescapable fact that a good portion of those 900,000 international students wish to become permanent residents of Canada.

The math simply does not add up. Canada’s immigration levels plan calls for approximately 480,000 new permanent residents per year. Only half of that is allocated for economic immigration. The rest are for family reunification and for humanitarian and refugee commitments.

This unsustainable race is unfortunately perpetuated by unauthorized agents outside Canada (on the ground in the Philippines, for example) who market Canada by way of the “student pathway,” and offering empty promises of permanent residence by paying to play. This is a nuanced subject that calls for its own analysis, but suffice it to say that there is enough blame to go around.

Why is this program important?

While Canada sees the $22-billion contribution from international students as an important component, the true value of the international student program lies in its potential to contribute to population growth because the country suffers from a low birth rate. Canada currently has a population of 40 million, with that mark having been breached only in 2023. In 2010, Canada only had a population of 34 million. It heavily supplements its population growth through immigration.

International students are some of the prime candidates for permanent immigration to Canada. In broad strokes, the immigration system is points-based. It provides an advantage to those who have high human capital factors.

Studying in Canada became an unofficial stepping stone to secure permanent residence. Migration scholars call this phenomenon the “two-step migration.” From a purely monetary perspective, the dark side is that the international student program is seen as a pay-to-play system for permanent immigration, to the detriment of those who wish to genuinely study in Canada.

The Canadian government claims that these changes are designed to preserve the integrity of the program. There is no question that something had to be done about the unsustainable growth in numbers. The question then is: what will these changes ultimately look like when the program instructions are released? How do they affect Filipinos who are looking to study in Canada?

Conclusions and takeaways

For too long, there have been way too many people lured in by false promises of permanent residence in Canada, delivered mostly by unscrupulous actors who act irresponsibly. 

Prospective applicants are now scratching their heads on the most recent changes to Canada’s international student program. They are now wondering if studying in Canada is still worth pursuing. This is exactly the purpose of the policy changes – that it would ultimately control the unbridled growth in this sector, to rein it in and impose order.

If you are a prospective student, my advice to you is to consider programs that would not be affected by these changes. The grand majority of people who consult with us already possess bachelor’s degrees. Most of them prefer pursuing a one- or two-year post-secondary certificate. Why not consider a professional master’s degree? And, for heaven’s sake, avoid non-public colleges like the plague! 

Do your research and consult with authorized representatives. Seek counsel from licensed immigration lawyers in Canada and not from a Tik-Tok-based immigration agency. If you are concerned about costs, trust me when I say that it is more expensive to clean up a mess created by a witch-doctor than paying an experienced lawyer to give you legal advice. 

We will likely see a decline in international student deployment in the short term from the Philippines, but as people adjust, the hope is that this levels off to a more sustainable number of applicants. The key takeaway from all of this is that there were big changes, and more are coming. One thing is sure: the international student program is at a turning point and there is no going back. –

Lou Janssen Dangzalan (@ljansdan on X) is a Filipino-Canadian lawyer who practices immigration law out of his backpack. His practice centers on helping temporary immigrants in Canada secure permanent residence. He loves to listen to audiobooks while wandering aimlessly in search of the best ramen shops from Asia to North America. His immigration firm can be reached at

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