International students come to Canada for the quality of the education we offer and to learn in what they believe to be a safe, welcoming place that values diversity. Many students are also looking for pre-graduation work experience to help them succeed as permanent residents; this is one of the drivers of international students’ interest in co-operative education programs. What these students don’t know is that, despite the encouraging rhetoric of the government of Canada around diversity and immigration, federal policies can make it very difficult for them to secure work. And without work experience, international graduates face significant disadvantages when it comes to applying for permanent residency, but also in terms of their career trajectories and future earnings.
Statistics Canada recently reported that international students earned less in the five years after graduation than students with Canadian citizenship. One of the main causes is a comparative lack of work experience: of the students surveyed, “about 44 per cent of international students had no Canadian work experience before graduation, compared with two per cent of students with Canadian citizenship.” Work experience was a more important factor in future earnings than a student’s years of education or their academic discipline.
Meanwhile, Canadian universities — and the Canadian economy more generally — are increasingly dependent on the recruitment of international students. With provincial grants to universities in decline and the number of domestic student applicants stagnant, recruitment of international students (who pay, on average, more than five times the tuition of Canadian students) is a focus of most, if not all, university administrations.
The Government of Canada has repeatedly recognized the economic value of international students: in 2018, international students contributed $21.6 billion to Canada’s GDP, more than Canada’s lumber or auto parts exports. International students have been described as the “ideal” immigrants: young, Canadian-trained, self-financed, multilingual: an easy solution to labour force and population decline. Canada’s International Education Strategy focuses largely on the economic benefits of international student recruitment and immigration; little is said about how these students contribute in less tangible ways to enrich our institutions and our communities. While a discussion of the problematic notion of an “ideal” immigrant is beyond the scope of this article, it is clear that international students bring tremendous benefits to the Canadian economy and society through their diverse cultures and backgrounds.
Over the past decade, and likely in recognition of the economic value of this population, Canadian immigration policy has become more accommodating of international students. Yet policies related to employment and diversity fail to adequately address the disadvantages and challenges these students face. Since 2020, various federal government entities have issued statements calling for a “culture that fosters inclusiveness” in order to build “… a diverse, equitable and inclusive Public Service.”
Meanwhile, federally-funded student employment programs (such as the Student Work Placement Program, and Canada Summer Jobs) explicitly exclude international students, with the rationale that the “temporary nature of an international student’s time in Canada does not allow for a long-term connection to the labour market.” This is a circular argument that works counter to the objective of encouraging international students to remain in Canada. Furthermore, the Federal Public Service Employment Act prioritizes Canadian citizens above international students for student jobs, and in practice this means that very few international students are employed by federal departments and agencies. In some parts of the country these federally-funded positions make up the vast majority of work-term opportunities, leaving international co-op students with few options.
Canadian universities actively recruit international students with promises of a high-quality education and future employability; for the most part we deliver. But we need to take a more active role in advocating for the interests of these students if we want to recruit and retain them, both as students and potential Canadian citizens. We must move beyond the idea of international students as a resource to be exploited, push for their inclusion in federally-funded student employment programs, and actively object to the misalignment of federal policies around diversity, employment and immigration as they relate to international students. If we don’t, these students will be disadvantaged for years to come, and we will all be the poorer for it.