Study: International students face unique disadvantage when trying to become permanent residents in Canada

Vimal Sivakumar
Published: January 9, 2023

A recent study called From Student to Immigrant? Multi-step Pathways to Permanent Residence suggests that too many Canadian international students face multi-step, indirect pathways to Canadian permanent residence (PR).

The Conference Board of Canada is a non-profit research organization that focuses on analyzing economic trends, organizational performance and issues related to public policy.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) needs to work to improve international student pathways to PR in Canada.

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Accordingly, says the Conference Board, “Canada needs purpose-built immigration pathways for international students [that ensures] faster and more predictable immigration journeys.”

Let’s now dive into the key takeaways from their research study.

What is the problem?

Completing studies alone will rarely enable international students to qualify for PR in Canada.

In fact, among international students in the 2010-2019 cohort who received PR by December 2020, only twelve percent did so without needing to obtain a work permit after completing either one level (nine percent) or two-plus levels (three percent) of study. Much of the outstanding 88% had to rely on a combination of their studies and either one (60%) or two-plus (< 20%) post-education work permits to obtain PR in this country.

Even still, fewer of the students who are obtaining work permits after completing their studies are eventually receiving PR in Canada. In 2010, 80% of college certificate recipients obtained a subsequent work permit (as did 70% of master’s recipients). However, just over 60% of those college certificate holders (and just under 60% of master’s recipients) were granted PR that year. A similar reality was true in 2016, where less than 20% of college certificate holders received PR even though over 80% had a subsequent work permit (those numbers were roughly 30% and 70%, respectively, for master’s degree holders in the same year).

Understanding the reality behind the problem

International students tend to need post-graduate work experience as they attempt to become PRs in Canada. Accordingly, they typically need to obtain a work permit prior to applying for permanent residence.

Now, while some immigration programs did advantage applicants who obtained a Canadian degree, many international students who had to turn to economic immigration programs “also had to show connections beyond study in Canada, such as [those] to a [certain] province or … employer.”

Among the other programs that international students could explore when seeking PR, Canada’s Provincial Nominee Programs (PNPs) were the most popular, as they accounted for 34% of all international student-transition to PR during this period. Research revealed, however, that international students remained at a disadvantage within the context of PNPs because provinces tended “to nominate people with in-demand skills or provincial connections that could lead to long-term retention” while only allocating a limited number of nomination slots specifically to students.

Another issue established through the Conference Board’s research is that international students without university degrees were at a clear disadvantage with respect to becoming PRs, despite an unwavering amount of desire/intent.

According to the research, non-university-educated international students were largely ineligible for immigration unless they combined their education with either work experience tied to an in-demand profession or had strong familial or provincial ties within Canada.

To illustrate this, the Conference Board cites Statistics Canada research conducted on the 2010-2014 international student cohort. This research revealed that Post-Graduation Work Permit (PGWP) recipients in this cohort were disproportionately successful at obtaining PR compared to recipients of other work permits but because PGWP attainment varied by level of study, this reality proved to disadvantage international students at certain levels of study.

Additionally, “Immigration data suggests a particularly large gap between intent and opportunity among students at the college/certificate level, the level with the most significant increase in international student enrolment since 2010” and the students who proved more likely to plan to stay in Canada beyond their education.

In fact, among the 2010-2016 international student cohort, this is how students with different degrees succeeded in transitioning to Canadian PR (by percentage).

  • Master’s degree: just under 50%
  • College/Certificate: Just above 40%
  • Bachelor’s Degree: Between 15% and 20%
  • Trade: Between 10% and 15%
  • Vocational/Language: Under 15%

Again, as similarly asserted throughout the entirety of the Conference Board’s research, the above takeaways highlight that education itself is rarely enough to qualify international students for Canadian PR and they are largely all but forced to obtain subsequent temporary permits of some kind in their quest to truly establish themselves in this country.

Wrapping up the research

Overall, having to navigate a multi-permit path to PR in this country increases international students’ vulnerability to exploitative employment and immigration-related stress because such a reality makes it difficult for prospective or current international students to assess their likelihood of getting PR.

Accordingly, the Conference Board’s research ultimately revealed a concerning problem regarding international student immigration: Canada “lacks a purpose-built federal economic immigration program for international students and has few at the provincial level.” The country’s provincial and territorial governments, along with IRCC, need to rectify this quickly.

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