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The Students’ Union responds with advocacy to new federal policies on international student permits and work hours

By Kimberly Taylor, February 13 2024—

The federal government recently announced policy changes that pertain specifically to international students. One is reinstituting a cap on international student permits for 2024 that will reduce the numbers by 35 per cent. According to a government news release, it will be a temporary pause to allow housing to catch up to demand.

“These temporary measures will be in place for two years, and the number of new study permit applications that will be accepted in 2025 will be reassessed at the end of this year,” read a statement from the news release. 

This reduction in permits will not affect current students but may affect undergraduate students who want to apply for graduate programs. In an interview with the Gauntlet, Students’ Union (SU) Vice-President External Mateusz Salmassi spoke about the narrative tying the housing crisis to international students.

“International student enrollment in Canada has increased quite a bit over the last few years and the increased attention on the housing crisis that Canada is facing has led a lot of decision-makers, and also figures in the media, to link increased immigration to the housing crisis and international students have often gotten caught in the middle in that narrative.”

The second federal change is a return to the pre-pandemic work hours cap for international students. Salmassi explained that the work cap was lifted during the pandemic due to student advocacy and labour shortages and that this change was set to expire in December 2023.

“Prior to the pandemic international students had a 20 hours a week work limit for off-campus work hours and that put an extraordinary amount of strain on international students who are just trying to make ends meet,” said Salmassi. 

One of the reasons for reinstating the work cap is concerns about international students being exploited for their labour. However, Salmassi asserts that work caps can have unintended consequences for international students.

“The SU and other SU’s across the country have been highlighting how having a weekly work hour cap, especially at 20 hours a week actually increases the likelihood of exploitation because international students need to pay their bills regardless, and they’re going to find whatever work will accommodate that. So sometimes that means work under the table for cash,” said Salmassi. 

He also highlighted that some students are in difficult circumstances due to changes in their home country outside their control.

“We don’t ask domestic students whether they have the capacity and wherewithal to work a full-time job and study. Different people have different capacities,” said Salmassi. “There are also international students whose home country’s currencies have collapsed. So through no fault of their own, they have begun their studies in Canada, and their lifeline in terms of their currency back home, that savings, is gone. So for those international students, the ability to work is a lifeline.” 

In response to these changes, the SU has responded with media pressure and direct lobbying advocacy.

“We have responded with media pressure on the federal government by criticizing them for making such an announcement on international student cap claiming that it’s in response to the housing crisis without actually announcing any increased investments in providing more student housing,” said Salmassi. 

Since the SU’s efforts, the federal government announced a plan to address the student housing crisis where post-secondaries apply for loan support to develop student housing. 

“We’re also ramping up the pressure on the provincial government to restore funding to the University of Calgary to remove the incentive to treat international students as cash cows.”

Salmassi also pointed out that while there are concerns about the exploitation of international students and the housing crisis, the provincial government has stripped away funding from education in general.

“The Alberta government has gutted well over 100 million dollars from the University of Calgary as well as obliterated infrastructure funding so that both international and domestic students are paying historic tuition increases to foot the bill for crumbling buildings and an overall reduced quality of education. Universities and colleges have resorted to increasing the enrollment of international students to make up for that loss in budget.”

More information about SU advocacy can be found on their website.

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