BlogImmigration Trials and Tribulations for International Students

14 September 2022

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Canada’s international student program has long been a cornerstone of our immigration strategy to address Canada’s long-term labour shortages. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it much more difficult for recent graduates to make the transition from being temporary residents to becoming Canadian permanent residents, and many of them feel that they are being left behind in a rapidly changing immigration environment.

Since the 2000s, our government has made a concerted effort to attract international students to complete their post-secondary studies in Canada. Compared to other Western countries like the United States and Australia, Canada has welcomed far more international students in the last 20 years because they are viewed as excellent candidates to become permanent residents. Recent graduates are valued because they have been educated in Canada, are proficient in one or both of Canada’s two official languages, and because they are generally younger and will be able to participate in the labour market for a longer period.

Recent reports also confirm that international students want to become Canadian permanent residents after they graduate. According to a June 2021 Statistics Canada report, three in ten (30%) international students who entered Canada in the 2000s later became permanent residents within 10 years of obtaining their first study permits. The outcomes are even stronger if you only look at the data for students who were coming to Canada for the first time to complete graduate level studies, increasing to as high as 60% in the case of doctoral students.

Historically, international graduates have been able to transition from their temporary status as students to permanent resident status in large part due to Canada’s post-graduation work permit (PGWP) program, which allows students who have completed eligible post-secondary studies in Canada to obtain one-time work permits that are valid for up to three years. Using PGWPs, international graduates are able to earn valuable skilled work experience that help them qualify for Canadian permanent residents as Canadian Experience Class (CEC) workers.  To qualify for permanent residence as a member of the CEC, recent graduates need to demonstrate that they have earned at least the equivalent of one year of full-time Canadian work experience (30+ hours per week or 1560 hours per year) in skilled occupations.

Unfortunately, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed the landscape for recent graduates such that many of them are finding it difficult to transition to permanent resident status like before. There are at least two reasons for these recent difficulties.

Firstly, many recent graduates struggled to keep their employment or to maintain full-time hours during the pandemic to qualify as CEC workers.  As recent graduates many of them worked in entry-level positions that were likely to be disproportionately affected by these changes in the labour market. In other words, it became difficult to obtain the work experience needed to qualify for permanent residence.

As a result, IRCC announced a special policy allowing PGWP holders to apply for 18-month extensions to keep working to earn Canadian work experience towards qualifying for permanent residency. This policy was first implemented in January 2021 and was recently implemented again in August 2022 with additional measures to assist holders of expired PGWPs to return to work as soon as possible.

Secondly, it is now much more difficult to qualify for permanent residence as a member of the CEC because IRCC temporarily shut the program down from September 2021 until early July 2022. This decision temporarily closed off one of the most reliable pathways that former graduates used to qualify for permanent residence. The 10-month CEC shutdown also created a significant build-up of permanent residency candidates such that recent graduates are now having to compete with more seasoned workers, including senior managers and executives who are far more likely to obtain permanent residency in the current immigration environment based on their stronger resumes and job offers.

In summary, in the current immigration environment international students who have just recently graduated or will soon graduate will find it challenging to obtain permanent residency in Canada unlike their predecessors. While extending the time that PGWP holders can work in Canada will help alleviate this problem, IRCC’s extension policy represents a short-term fix to a much bigger problem. Moving forward, IRCC will need to create new policies or amend existing ones to assist international students who want to remain in Canada as permanent residents. This may require, for example, the creation of new pathways to permanent residency that target recent graduates, which we have seen as recently as May 2021 in last year’s Temporary Residence to Permanent Residence pathway, or increasing the emphasis on the value that we place on permanent resident candidates who have obtained their education in Canada. 

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