In Canada, a Bid to Retain Top Talent From Abroad

Changes in immigration policies seek to attract and retain more foreign students, who are increasingly a hot commodity the world over.
August 22, 2008

In the increasingly intense competition for international students, American college officials often focus on the United Kingdom and Australia. Less noticed is Canada, nearby and to the north, which has instituted a series of recent changes to its immigration policies that could improve its ability to attract and retain foreign students.

Last week, the government announced a proposed new immigration category, the Canadian Experience Class, which would offer a new pathway through which foreign graduates of Canada’s universities could establish permanent residency without returning to their home nations. The announcement follows an expansion in April of the Post-Graduation Work Permit Program, extending its duration from one year to three, allowing graduates to seek work outside their field of study, and removing the requirement that eligible students would need to have a job offer in hand.

The new proposed immigration class falls within the larger context of changes to Canada's immigration system ushered in by controversial amendments included in legislation known as C-50, passed in June. Criticized by the Canadian Bar Association and others for granting the immigration minister inappropriately broad authority, the changes allow potential immigrants whose skills match those deemed as needed in the Canadian economy to move to the front of the (long) line. Danielle Norris, a spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, said there’s currently a backlog of 600,000 applicants in the skilled worker category.

“Basically, right now, if you’re a student in Canada, let’s say you graduated and had a three-year work permit. The only way you could stay here permanently is if you were nominated by your province,” Norris explained. Yet, she pointed out that prior to the April extensions to the Post-Graduation Work Permit Program, foreign students had little time to get to know provincial government authorities before their ability to work in Canada expired.

“There was no reason for them to stay here or come here to study in the first place. They were going to go to the countries that would offer them permanent residency after the completion of their studies.”

Speaking of the recent changes, Norris expressed a need "to keep the talent here in this country."

In a 2007 study on trends in enrollment, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada reported that the country's international student population size has, historically speaking, been an oscillating thing. Foreign student enrollment fell from more than 30,000 in 1990 to 25,600 in 1996, but since then has risen rapidly – to about 70,000 full-time students and 13,000 part-time students in 2006.

“In our view, these are significant reforms and will go quite a ways to placing Canada on more equal footing with competitor countries in terms of positioning us as a destination of choice for international students,” said Pari Johnston, director of international relations at the association. “Everyone’s continuing to try to assure that they’re an attractive destination.”

Among other recent changes in Canada's (and the United States') competitor countries: In April, Australia streamlined its process so that student visa recipients are automatically granted permission to work up to 20 hours a week when college is in session without having to apply separately. And in a move not specific to students, the United Kingdom in February introduced a new-points-based immigration system billed as privileging skilled migrants. In a statement at the time, the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, said, “The introduction of our Australian-style points system will ensure that only those with skills the country needs can come.”

“Canada’s being a lot more strategic and focused on global competitiveness than we are,” said Rebecca Peters, director and counsel for legislative affairs for the American Council on International Personnel. On post-graduation employment issues, earlier this year the United States did extend the optional practical training period from 12 to 29 months for foreign science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates employed at companies enrolled in the Department of Homeland Security’s E-Verify program. Yet, “When you look across the scope of what’s going on in Congress and the agencies, we’re not thinking about this strategically. We’re tying it to a program that DHS is trying to mandate on all employers for employment verification. That’s how we’re thinking about this?” Peters said.

“It’s not entirely obvious what the best way to do this is," Debra W. Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, said relative to the issue of retaining top foreign student talent post-graduation. “What I do know is that other nations around the world who are our competitors are simply making the decision to attract talent by increasing the likelihood that people can believe they will be employed in that country by the end of the completion of the degree. Our system is currently set up to convey precisely the opposite message. You have to promise to return home in order to get a visa.”

Linda Seatts, director of the Office of International Students and Scholars at Wayne State University, located a mere 20-minute drive from the border, said she’d be watching what happens in Canada. “We’ll be looking at it; we’ll be monitoring it. However we still have premier academic programs here at Wayne State, so even with all those different enticements, students are still coming here to get an education from a Research I institution,” she said. “Just a general rule is that the strength of the academic program, the reputation of the academic program, is the number one factor, to come here, to study elsewhere.”

Besides, Seatts added, when students do transfer out of Wayne State, they usually aren’t Canada-bound.

“They do transfer to warmer climates. They go to Houston or South Carolina.”


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