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How COVID-19 impacted international students and economic growth

Briana Pacetti serves as the VP of internal affairs for the Association de droit de l’immigration et des réfugiés

In 2019, Canada’s birth rate hit a record low of 1.47 births per woman, causing our working-age population to fall. This trend may lead to major labor shortages and fewer consumers in the future. In March 2020, the pandemic began, also negatively impacting economic growth. For example, travel restrictions were put in place and this led to a decrease in immigration levels. It’s important to remember that Canada has always relied on immigration to help grow our population and stimulate our economy. As Joe Volpe, former federal Minister of Immigration and Citizenship, mentioned during our Association’s first event:

We want foreign students to stay in Canada, they came here to get an education that can contribute immensely to our economy.

Joe Volpe, former Minister of Immigration and Citizenship.

Unfortunately, some foreign students may not have felt like this was the case at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic when restrictions first came into place. In the following text, I will shed light on some of the difficulties foreign students have faced as a result of the pandemic, and its general impacts on our economy. In my opinion, these kinds of problems arise because reality evolves faster than the law. It is easier and faster for Covid-19 to spread, than it is to find ways to fix it or to adopt policies as a remedy. Most importantly, it will be reassuring to see that our government is actively coming up with new ways to offset these negative effects.

In September 2020, a wave of foreign graduate students called on federal and provincial governments to make Post-graduation Work Permits (“PGWP”) renewable. Why, you might ask? In light of the pandemic, unemployment rates have risen. This makes it increasingly difficult for international graduate students to complete the number of working hours required to apply for permanent residency (“PR”) before their PGWP expires. If their permit expires before completing PR requirements, they risk being deported or undocumented in Canada. 

In other words, Canada risks deporting well-educated individuals that can, without a doubt, make a difference in our labor force and help our economy. Or worse… deport students that came to Canada in search of a better life. 

A graduate student from the University of Ottawa shares some of his experiences with the labor market at the beginning of the pandemic:

Finding an internship was difficult, interviews weren’t taken seriously and job cancellations were more frequent

Younes Talouka, BSc financial mathematics and economics graduate, University of Ottawa

However, Younes is now working and remains hopeful that he may one day acquire his PR. He must accumulate 2 years of work experience in order to obtain his PR and his PGWP is currently only valid for 3 years. He was also eager to start graduate school, but quickly realized that his plan might have to wait until he receives his PR. 

There’s no doubt that a lot of foreign students may have steered away from graduate schools due to higher tuition fees for international students. This may help our labor force in the short-term, because graduate students would be more likely to make their way directly into the workforce, however:

Do high tuition fees discourage a lot of foreign students from pursuing a graduate degree? 

And if PR was more easily accessible for graduate students, would this encourage more students to obtain their PR and pursue a graduate degree?

If more students pursued a graduate degree, would this lead to an increase in knowledge and contribution to our labor force?

Would someone with a graduate degree contribute more to the workforce long term than someone that goes directly to work after their undergrad?

There are a lot of variables to consider when making changes and adopting policies that could best suit everybody’s needs. Fortunately, our federal government adopted a new measure on January 13th, 2021, that will surely encourage more foreign students to remain and work in Canada. Specifically, international students who were running low on time with PGWP could now apply for an 18 month “open work permit”. The Canadian government estimates that more than 50,000 students can benefit from this new policy. Among other things, it will enable graduate students to continue accumulating work experience, and in turn, be eligible to apply for permanent residency. This also helps our post-COVID economic recovery as more international graduates will be able to apply their skills to the field of their choice. Of course, more work still needs to be done, but I believe this is a step in the right direction.

Moreover, in March 2020, travel restrictions were put into place in order to protect the health and safety of Canadian citizens. Despite the protection it offered for individuals living in Canada, they also caused hardships for others. International students were not exempt from the restrictions. A foreign student from the University of Ottawa, shares her experience with us:

It’s been almost a year since I saw my family. It’s not easy to go that long without seeing your family, especially because seeing your friends is also much more difficult due to covid-19 restrictions. Spending time with family and friends is so important for your mental health.

I also can’t return to China because travel restrictions won’t allow me to come back to Canada to pursue my studies. Also, if I were to choose to stay in China, I would have to take classes until 3 a.m. due to the differences in time change.

Jingwen, 3rd year student, BA in Communications, University of Ottawa

Fortunately, good news was announced on October 20th, 2020. The government of Canada modified the travel restrictions, allowing international students that had left Canada to return in order to finish their studies. This is conditional upon returning to an educational institution with an immediate response plan to Covid-19 approved by their province or territory. I am proud to inform you that the university of Ottawa was part of that list. This reassured a number of international students that if they were to go visit their families in another country, they would be welcomed back to Canada to pursue their studies. 

It was refreshing to hear from a first-year civil law student about how relieved he was to be exempt from the travel restrictions. In December, he was able to return to Benin to see his family for the first time in 7 months: 

J’étais tellement content de retourner au Bénin pour voir ma famille que même si j’ai dû partir juste avant les examens finaux, c’était la belle vie quand je suis arrivé. Heureusement, je connaissais beaucoup de personnes au Québec alors je ne me sentais pas seul l’été passé. Je n’imagine pas comment ça a pu être difficile pour ceux qui sont arrivés au Canada lors de la session d’hiver 2020 et ne connaissaient pas grand monde.

Rushdan Salami, 1st year student, Droit civil (LL.L), University of Ottawa

Aside from the above-mentioned short-term measures put into place, Canada is also thinking long-term. On October 30th, 2020, the most ambitious immigration plan in Canadian history was announced. Canada is aiming to welcome over 1.2 million immigrants between 2021 and 2023. Approximately 60% will be welcomed under economic class programs and the rest under the following categories: family, refugee and, humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Therefore, not only will an influx of immigrants help those who come to Canada in search of a better life, it will also help offset Canada’s aging population, low birth rates and stimulate economic growth.

As Marco Mendicino has already mentioned: “Our message to international students and graduates is simple: we don’t just want you to study here, we want you to stay here.”

10 réponses sur « How COVID-19 impacted international students and economic growth »

Great article. Very interesting and informative. Thank you for shedding light on a topic that I am sure many people (like me) did not fully understand.

Covid 19 has changed the way society and businesses function. The smaller force’s pension contribution will not be able to meet future pension liabilities therefore immigration must increase.

Great article ! Very insightful. I agree completely about the effects of COVID. Hopefully it won’t leave too many long term effects.

Very insightful and well written. Great job connecting all the dots. You’ve painted a very accurate picture of the relationship between economic growth and our international students. Thanks!

This is fantastic !! It required a lot of research! I hope you’re planning to be a journalist as you are highly eloquent Briana! Bravo

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