Canada: Changing Employment and Visa Regulations to Improve the Recruitment of International Students


Citizenship and Immigration Minister Diane Finley announced changes to the Post-Graduation Work Permit Program (PGWP) on April 21, 2008 that are designed to help Canada compete more effectively in the recruitment and settlement of international students, a demographic that contributes significantly to the Canadian economy. And not only do international students stimulate the national economy when enrolled, but when graduated they represent a significant pool of skilled labour from which employers can draw. By easing visa-issuing and employment regulations for this group, Canada can avoid some of the major barriers currently faced by foreign-trained, skilled immigrants currently living in the country.

One of the biggest hurdles faced by skilled immigrants seeking employment in Canada is the issue of credential recognition. It is not simply the lack of recognition for foreign credentials that hinders the job prospects of this group, but the discounting and devaluing of their worth which leaves thousands of immigrants working jobs for which they are significantly over-trained, and which in turn leaves gaps in the labour market.1 [2]

In fact, recent immigrants are more than twice as likely to have a university degree than native-born Canadians; however, they are more than twice as likely to be unemployed. Despite the large pool of highly skilled immigrants, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business recently reported an all time high of 60 percent in the number of companies expressing concern with a lack of qualified talent,2 [3] and yet only 10 percent of Ontario businesses state that immigrants are a solution to labour shortages.3 [4]

While recent immigration changes, including those to the PGWP, are aimed at alleviating these labour-market shortages, there remains a clear need to engage with employers on issues related to the hiring of immigrants. In addition, the issue of credential recognition for skilled immigrants already in Canada needs to be addressed. The PGWP, along with other recent tweaks to student/labour-related immigration rules, are designed to benefit those immigrants with Canadian academic credentials. However, they do not address the issues of credential and qualification recognition for those skilled immigrants already in Canada, yet trained abroad.

Global Competition

Canada continues to face stiff competition from other countries with strong education-exporting sectors. Mid-volume destinations such as Australia and New Zealand, with comparatively well-priced and well-developed education systems, have revised and amended immigration requirements and procedures in recent years to better attract and integrate international students.

In 2005-6, Australian overseas enrolments accounted for approximately 11 percent of the global international student market, compared with Canada’s 2 percent share. The United States continues to dominate the market with a 22 percent share; however, the relative proportion of international students to the overall student population is lower in the United States than in Australia and Canada, and many other international study destinations.

While there are many factors contributing to Australia’s success in the international student market, one of the most significant is its position as a global leader in providing residency and employment privileges to international students. Recent changes to Australian immigration policies allow international students to file joint work/study applications, apply for permanent resident status while studying, and to access longer temporary work permits. These longer-term perspectives have all proved tremendously successful in motivating international students to choose Australia as a study destination.4 [5],5 [6]

Other education-exporting nations are taking note, and immigration policies have become an important tool for governments looking to increase the attractiveness of their institutions of higher education to internationally mobile students. The recent changes to the PGWP and other study/work programs show that Canada is no exception to this trend.

The New Post-Graduate Work Permit

The changes to the PGWP mean that international students are now able to obtain a three-year open work permit, with no restrictions on the type of employment and no requirement for a job offer.6 [7] Previously, to be eligible for the PGWP, international students would need to have a job offer in their field of study within 90 days of graduation. If granted, the permit was only valid for one year – or possibly two years if the job was outside Canada’s three largest cities (Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal). The criteria of the previous PGWP were heavily critiqued by international students because they were facing a mountain of red tape in attempting to stay and work in Canada.

While the new PGWP is clearly a step in the right direction, there are some concerning details on a practical level. In Canada, each province and territory has a health insurance plan that grants coverage to citizens and most of those who reside permanently in the jurisdiction. In Ontario, this is called the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP). One of the concerns with the new PGWP in Ontario7 [8] is that in order for someone on a work permit to be eligible for coverage under the OHIP, they need to hold “a valid work permit or employment authorization which names a Canadian employer situated in Ontario … prospective occupation … valid for at least six months”.8 [9] The previous PGWP, which required a specific job-offer meant that those working under the program were covered by OHIP. Since the PGWP is now an open permit, those graduates with a PGWP in Ontario will no longer be eligible for OHIP. Even if they attain employment they will not qualify because the permit is open.

Under the previous guidelines, the task of obtaining a PGWP was complicated by the stipulation that applicants needed to have a job in their field within 90 days of graduation; no easy task. According to the National Graduate Survey, the transition from school to work remains “in progress two years after graduation,” and in 2000, college graduates had an unemployment rate of 3.3 percent compared with university graduates at 5.4 percent.9 [10] For international students, unfamiliar with the vagaries of the Canadian job market, and facing more discrimination and barriers to employment than many Canadian graduates, finding work in their field has proven difficult, making the PGWP hard to obtain. Employer awareness and comfort with hiring international student graduates – and in a timely manner – was a major issue with the previous PGWP.

Even with the improvements to the PGWP, it is unclear whether, without a good amount of education and assistance, employers will be any more comfortable in hiring international student graduates and helping to facilitate their settlement.

Still, the process of obtaining a PGWP will be easier, as international students do not need a job offer to obtain the permit – and once they obtain employment, it does not need to be in their field and they can stay on the permit for three years. The changes to the PGWP are just one of many recent changes to immigration and labour laws that are designed to attract international students.

Other International Student Immigration Initiatives

Off-Campus Work Program

Initiatives such as the Off-Campus Work Program (OCWP), launched in 2006, are helping to make Canada a more appealing study destination for international students. Under the OCWP, students are now authorized to work up to 20 hours per week during regular academic semesters, and full-time during scheduled breaks.11 [11] This gives international students experience in the Canadian job market while also helping in financing their education.12 [12] Since the full-time tuition fees at the undergraduate level are on average three times more expensive for international students than for their Canadian peers, one can assume that their debts will be greater,13 [13] and that access to gainful employment during studies is a welcome opportunity.

Canadian Experience Class

Another major impending change is the introduction of the Canadian Experience Class (CEC). To be implemented later this summer, the CEC will give certain international students with Canadian experience a new and quicker route to permanent residency. International students will be eligible to apply for the CEC after completing a post-secondary diploma or degree program of at least two years in duration. The credential must be granted by a Canadian public post-secondary institution or a private, post-secondary institution authorized by the Canadian government to award degrees. They must also have completed one year of recent (within two years preceding the application for CEC) full-time employment in Canada at the National Occupational Classification (NOC) skill level 0, A or B (management, professional and skilled and technical jobs).14 [14] The NOC system is a nationally accepted standardized framework for organizing and categorizing different occupations by skill level, which is generally based on education level.

While the CEC provides an easier route to permanent resident status for many international students, the criteria might disqualify some of the best and most needed candidates. Firstly, off-campus work under the OCWP does not count as “Canadian experience” for the proposed CEC, and secondly, the NOC skill-level requirements will eliminate many potential candidates who hold jobs at the C level.15 [15] While partly intended to support the recruitment and retention of international student graduates, the CEC, may in fact act as a further barrier to retaining the very workers Canada is attempting to recruit.

Meeting Labour Market Needs

Occupations identified as under pressure in British Columbia and Alberta include Tourism and Travel Guides (NOC 6441), Food Counter Attendants, Kitchen Helpers and Related Occupations (NOC 6641) as well as Nurse Aides, Orderlies and Assistants In Support Of Health Services (NOC 3413, 3414). For these jobs, employers are allowed to recruit temporary foreign workers under an expedited process. These industries are all critical to Canadian society and the economy. Yet, since these jobs are all classified at the NOC C level, if an international student graduate holds a year’s experience in one of these occupations under the PGWP, they would not be eligible under the CEC.

A disconnect therefore exists between the objectives of the OCWP and the PGWP – to recruit and retain international students – and the regulations of the proposed CEC, which may make it harder for skilled immigrants in certain fields to meet eligibility requirements. This policy disconnect runs deeper as Citizenship and Immigration Canada continues to recruit temporary foreign workers for occupations under pressure, yet international students and temporary workers who are employed in these occupations are not eligible for permanent residency status through the proposed CEC.

Shifting Immigration Priorities

International students educated within Canada are a highly desired segment of the larger immigrant population. As Immigration Minister Diane Finley recently stated, “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.”16 [16] 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.”17 [17] Also, settlement needs (and costs) are lessened since international students have already established familiarity and social networks within society. In effect, Canada is generating “designer immigrants”18 [18] through programs like the PGWP and other recent immigration changes that help attract and retain international students.

There are increasing numbers of international students in the world today. In 2004, the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) estimated that there were 2.7 million international students worldwide and that there had been a 41 percent increase in their numbers in five years.19 [19] The number of international students continues to rise, as does the global competition to attract, recruit and retain them. A major factor contributing to the decision-making process of internationally mobile students when deciding where to study is the residency and employment opportunities available to them.

Through the recent immigration changes outlined above, Canada has made significant steps toward improving its ability to recruit and retain from this growing global pool of international students. The PGWP will make it easier for those international students who wish to remain in Canada after graduation, giving them more time and flexibility in terms of employment options. Further, the OCWP allows international students to better support themselves in Canada while engaging in Canadian society. Lastly, the proposed CEC will allow many international student graduates to use some of their Canadian experience to apply for permanent resident status.

However, there remains a need to revisit the CEC requirements so that Canada’s immigration policies aimed at international students actually provide them with pathways to permanent residency status. At the same time, the investment in international students as a type of ‘designer immigrant’ without fully acknowledging and addressing the broader needs of immigrants and migration in Canada will be insufficient in meeting overall policy goals. In order for any immigration program or policy to function adequately, barriers that impede all immigrants from success in society, such as international credential recognition, must be addressed and employers must be brought to the forefront of discussions and engagement concerning the hiring of international students and immigrants.

1. [20] Alboim, N., Finnie, R. & M. Ronald. 2005. The Discounting of Immigrants Skills in Canada: Evidence and Policy Recommendations. IRPP Choices, Vol. 11, no.2, February. www.irpp.org/choices/archive/vol11no2.pdf [21]

2. [22] Canadian Federation of Independent Business. http://www.cfib.ca/en/default.asp?l=E [23]

3. [24] Canadian Labour and Business Centre. http://www.clbc.ca/ [25]

4. [26] Verbik, L & Lasanowski, V. 2007. The Observatory on borderless higher education. International Student Mobility: Patterns and Trends. http://www.eua.be/fileadmin/user_upload/files/newsletter/International_Student_

5. [27] World Education News and Reviews (WENR), International Student Mobility: Patterns and Trends, http://www.wes.org/ewenr/07oct/feature.htm [28]

6. [29] Certain provisions apply. Students graduate from a full-time program of at least two years. Students graduating from a program of study that is less than two years but at least eight months are eligible for a work permit equal to the length of their studies. Students graduating from programs shorter than eight months are not eligible.

7. [30] Only a concern under the OHIP; not all provinces and territories.

8. [31] Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP): Questions and Answers. http://www.health.gov.on.ca/english/public/program/ohip/ohipfaq_dt.html [32]

9. [33] Allen, M., Harris, S., & G. Butlin. Statistics Canada Research Paper. Finding their way: a profile of young Canadian graduates. http://dsp-psd.pwgsc.gc.ca/Collection/Statcan/81-595-MIE/81-595-MIE2003003.pdf [34]

11. [35] CIC. 2007. Studying in Canada: Work permits for students—Working off Campus. http://www.cic.gc.ca/ENGLISH/study/work-offcampus.asp [36]

12. [37] World Education News and Reviews (WENR), Profiling International Students in Canada within the Global Context, http://www.wes.org/ewenr/07oct/practical.htm [38]

13. [39] Statistics Canada. 2005. University Tuition Fees. The Daily. http://www.statcan.ca/Daily/English/071018/d071018b.htm [40]

14. [41] Examples of the NOC 0, A and B in the Health Care Sector are as follows: NOC 0 are managerial positions (such as Managers in Public Health), NOC A occupations usually require a university education (such as Physicians, Dentists, Veterinarians, Optometrists, Registered Nurses, etc) and NOC B occupations usually require college education or apprenticeship training (such as Medical Technologists and Technicians). See http://www5.hrsdc.gc.ca/NOC-CNP/app/index.aspx?lc=E [42] for more on the NOC system.

15. [43] Examples of the NOC C levels jobs in the Health Care Sector are as follows: Dental Assistants, Nurse Aides, Orderlies and Patient Service Associates, Other Assisting Occupations in Support of Health Services (such as surgical assistants, blood donor clinic assistant). See http://www5.hrsdc.gc.ca/NOC-CNP/app/index.aspx?lc=E [42] for more on the NOC system.

16. [44] CIC News Release. Government of Canada introduces changes to work permits for international students, making Canada more attractive for skilled individuals. http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/department/media/releases/2008/2008-04-21.asp [45]

17. [46] Simmons. 1999. As cited by Skeldon, R. 2005. Globalization, Skilled Migration and Poverty Alleviation: Brain Drains in Context. p. 17. http://www.migrationdrc.org/publications/working_papers/WP-T15.pdf [47]

18. [48] ibid, p. 17

19. [49] Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development 2006, Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators 2006, Paris.