Integrity of immigration system at risk as international student numbers balloon, minister says

Immigration Minister Marc Miller says the concern around the skyrocketing number of international students entering Canada is not just about housing, but Canadians’ confidence in the “integrity” of the immigration system itself.

Canada is on track to host around 900,000 international students this year, Miller said in an interview that aired Saturday on CBC’s The House. That’s more than at any point in Canada’s history and roughly triple the number of students who entered the country a decade ago.

That rapidly increasing number of international students gained increased attention this week when the country’s new housing minister, Sean Fraser, floated the idea of a possible cap on the number of students Canada brings in.

Fraser framed a cap on international students as “one of the options that we ought to consider” during a cabinet retreat earlier this week in Prince Edward Island.

Miller, who took over from Fraser at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, told guest host Evan Dyer that the rising number of students was a concern for housing, though he says it is important not to overstate that challenge.

The House15:40Government floats cap on international students to tackle housing crisis

Featured VideoGuest host Evan Dyer speaks to international students and experts about the government’s suggestion that a surge in international students is in part to blame for Canada’s housing crunch, then discusses so-called bad actors in Canada’s higher education system with Immigration Minister Marc Miller.

“It is an ecosystem in Canada that is very lucrative and it’s come with some perverse effects: some fraud in the system, some people taking advantage of what is seen as a backdoor entry into Canada, but also pressure in a number of areas — one of those is housing,” he said.

But Miller shied away from committing to the idea of a hard cap on the number of students entering Canada.

“Just putting a hard cap, which got a lot of public play over the last few days, is not the only solution to this,” he said.

“Core to this is actually trying to figure out what the problem is we’re trying to solve for. It isn’t entirely housing, it’s more appropriately the integrity of the system that has mushroomed, ballooned in the past couple of years.”

Miller’s 900,000 figure represents the total number of student visas in Canada, a number that has increased because Canada has welcomed more international students in recent years.

There are currently more than 807,000 international students who have study permits in Canada across all levels of education. That’s up from about 300,000 in 2013.

Miller said there were a number of “illegitimate actors” who were trying to exploit the system, which was eventually having a negative effect on people trying to come to Canada for legitimate reasons. Miller referred to one high-profile instance last month of an international student found sleeping under a bridge.

He said he would not get involved with “naming and shaming,” but said his focus was on some private colleges. Work would need to be done to tighten up the system, he said, to make sure institutions actually had space and suitable housing for people who are being admitted. Miller also said closer collaboration with provinces was key to solving the problem.

Cap opposed by major universities

In a statement to The House, the National Association of Career Colleges said “regulated career colleges provide efficient, high-quality, industry-driven training for domestic and international students to produce the skilled workers Canada most desperately needs.” That includes workers in the construction trades that build housing, they said.

Philip Landon, interim president and CEO at Universities Canada, also pushed back on the idea of a cap, seeking to position major universities as part of the solution to the problem.

“I think we can say that the housing situation is a crisis for Canadians broadly,” Landon said in a separate interview with The House. “I do not think that the blaming newcomers or international students … is the right way to go.”

WATCH | The potential cap on international students:

Canada considers limiting international students over housing crunch

Featured VideoWith Canada facing an acute shortage of affordable housing, the federal government is considering putting a limit on the number of international students it allows in each year.

Speaking to The House, a number of international students in Ottawa pushed back on the idea that people like them are making housing unaffordable. In fact, said Rishi Patel, a student from Zambia, international students often have a more difficult time finding housing than domestic students as they often lack credentials.

“I just came to Canada. I don’t have any credit checks yet. I don’t have any employment references,” he said.

Mike Moffatt, an assistant professor at the Ivey Business School who specializes in housing policy, agreed with that sentiment when he spoke in P.E.I. earlier in the week.

“This is a systemic failure, I would say, of both the federal and provincial government and as well that the higher education sector in which I work to ensure that there’s enough housing for both domestic and international students.”

“Domestic and international students are the biggest victims of this, not the cause of it,” he said.

Housing has become a top political issue federally, with the Tory opposition hammering the government as Canadians struggle with the cost of living.

“We as Conservatives will make sure that international students have homes, health care and when they want it, jobs so that we can get back to a system that supports our universities, attracts the world’s brightest people, helps the demographics of our country but does not leave people living in squalor,” Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said.

Talking with Dyer, Miller said the focus of his department was on ensuring the system was working properly for those trying to come to Canada.

“What we don’t want to see is hopes dashed based on a false promise,” Miller said.