Quebec is pushing away international students, just when labour market needs them most

Tuition hike one in series of policy decisions to preserve French language that could indirectly affect immigration

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Quebec’s latest efforts to preserve the French language won’t do anything to help allay a labour shortage that is holding the provincial economy back, critics of the moves say.

The province announced last month that it would hike university tuition to at least $20,000 a year for international students looking to study in Quebec. It will also take the first $20,000 in tuition paid by each of those students and redistribute it to the French-speaking university system, meaning the primarily English-speaking universities that attract foreign students would have to hike fees well beyond that threshold. Out-of-province students, meanwhile, would see tuition double from around $9,000 to roughly $17,000 per year at all of the province’s universities.

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Pascale Déry, the province’s minister of higher education, said the decision, which has sparked a firestorm of opposition, was justified because international and out-of-province students don’t stay in Quebec and work French-speaking jobs.

But some argue that’s not entirely true. Of Quebec’s 50,000 post-secondary study permit holders, 44 per cent work during their studies, according to a report from think tank the Quebec Institute.

At the same time, Quebec has been dealing with a serious labour shortage. There are currently more than 200,000 job vacancies in the province, according to Statistics Canada.

Business leaders say foreign workers can help close that gap.

A help wanted sign in Montreal.
A help wanted sign in Montreal. Photo by Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Temporary foreign workers like international students are a “safety valve,” a way to relieve pressure on a labour market fit to burst, said Michel Leblanc, the president of the Montreal Chamber of Commerce.

More and more international students are choosing to become temporary workers, taking up roles during and after their studies in Canada. Between 2000 and 2019, the number of employed international students countrywide increased from 18 to 50 per cent.

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“Temporary foreign workers and international students have become an integral part of the labour force,” reads the government of Canada website.

So integral, in fact, that the federal government wants them to work as many hours as they can.

Last year, Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada waived the 20-hour-per-week work restriction for international students with off-campus work authorizations, at least through the end of 2023.

Temporary foreign workers and international students have become an integral part of the labour force

Government of Canada website

“This temporary change reflects the important role international students can play in addressing our labour shortage, while continuing to pursue their studies,” the department said in a press release.

By hiking tuition fees, Quebec risks scaring off some of its nearly 50,000 post-secondary study permit holders.

If the Quebec government takes $20,000 off the top from each international student, universities will have to compensate by increasing international student rates, which could be “extremely unaffordable,” said Meti Basiri, chief executive of Apply Board, a company that helps international students with their applications to study in Canada.

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“If the government wants to take $20,000 away from the institutions, then I really don’t know how institutions are going to (come up with) a price,” he said.

The tuition hike is only the latest in a series of policy decisions intended to preserve the French language that could indirectly affect immigration to the province.

Earlier this year the Quebec government said it was looking into new French proficiency rules for temporary workers, a decision that was heavily criticized by business leaders.

The province’s immigration system is already complex enough, said François Vincent, vice-president for Quebec at the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses. Adding new barriers to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program will only encourage people to look to other provinces where they might stand a better and quicker chance of getting permanent residency, he said.

Since 2016, the Montreal Chamber of Commerce has argued that immigration to Quebec should be raised from 50,000 to 60,000 people a year.

The CFIB, too, has estimated that Quebec has an annual immigrant worker shortage, pegging the figure at 18,000 people a year.

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Premier François Legault, however, instead chose to maintain the 50,000 threshold, stating that letting more immigrants into the province would be “suicidal” to the French language.

Premier Francois Legault has said letting more immigrants into the province would be suicidal to the French language.
Premier Francois Legault has said letting more immigrants into the province would be suicidal to the French language. Photo by John Mahoney/Montreal Gazette

Raising international tuition could have an impact on immigration, too, because many of Quebec’s immigrants start out as international students. Between 2016 to 2021, 202,740 immigrants to Quebec had “pre-admission experience,” which means they studied or worked in Quebec before applying for permanent residency, according to Statistics Canada.

Because they are already well-established in the country and have a network, immigrants with pre-admission experience tend to integrate better.

They also make more money. Immigrants with pre-admission experience make $14,700 more on average than those who come directly from abroad, without Canadian experience, according to a report by the Quebec Institute.

“We see that they integrate faster into the workforce than someone with no (Canadian) experience,” said Emna Braham, director general of the think tank. “One of the things we’re noticed in recent years is that these Canadian international graduates become the candidates of choice.”

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In the wake of the tuition hikes, Quebec’s anglophone universities, including McGill, Concordia and Bishop’s, which together host the majority of the province’s international students, may now struggle to attract the best and brightest.

That could ultimately reduce the size and quality of the applicant pool for Quebec employers.

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