The Trudeau government is receiving criticism for taking in too many Syrian refugees many who, it is argued, will be hard pressed to find jobs in Canada. An initial target of 25,000 was quickly reached in February and the latest immigration levels call for close to 40,000 more displaced persons, mostly from Syria, to be admitted in 2016. A much simpler discussion ought to be how to welcome and permanently retain foreign students. Not only do their fees help subsidize institutions of higher learning and broaden classroom debate, they can also add to the human capital of its host country. Most go home after graduating with valuable contacts which make them more likely in later life to conduct business with the country where they studied. Those who are permitted to remain and become part of our labour market, use what they learned to fill skill gaps and earn a good living in many professions and skilled trades’ occupations.
A locally educated foreign graduate is likely to be well-qualified, fluent in the local language and at ease with its customs. Countries where English is the spoken language, benefit the most from the added human capital created by foreign gradates. Welcoming foreign students is a policy that has low cost in the short term and brings significant rewards in the long term.
Canada ranks fourth as a global destination for international students after the United States, Britain and Australia. After natural resources, education is now Australia’s biggest export. In recent years, the country has become an attractive destination for foreign students thanks to a weak Australian dollar, relaxed visa rules and easier access to permanent residence.
In 2014 Canada set a goal of doubling from about 200,000, the number of foreign students admitted each year, by 2022. In an effort to reach this goal, student visa applications were streamlined and international students were given the right to stay and work for up to three years after graduating. Those who wanted to make Canada their home had a good chance of being granted permanent residence with only one year of work experience.
But in January 2015 the former Conservative government introduced its express entry immigration system affecting economic skills workers and in the process, it had the consequence of freezing out foreign student graduates, with Canadian work experience, from qualifying under the new rules.
Under express entry, immigration applications are prioritized on the basis of a point system. But it does not award enough points for Canadian education and Canadian work experience. Individuals with foreign education credentials that are “equivalent” to Canadian credentials, score the same number of points as those with Canadian degrees or diplomas. The problem with this approach is that express entry does not recognize that Canadian credentials are more valued by Canadian employers than “equivalent” foreign credentials.
Statistics confirm that that by 2030, Canada will be entirely dependent on immigration for population growth. Canadian employers, more than ever, rely on the influx of foreign workers in many industries to develop a knowledge-based economy and to maintain their international competitive edge. Immigration is essential in most OECD countries, but especially in Canada, in part to offset demographic developments, including low fertility rates, an aging population, a growing elderly dependency ratio, a shrinking labour force and high out-migration rates.
The Liberal government recently proposed amendments to citizenship rules, decreasing the time it would take a foreign student to become a Canadian citizen. This is a step in the right direction. But it must prioritize immigration amendments to its express entry system and exempt Canadian employers who have employed foreign graduates with sufficient training in Canada, from having to advertise the position. Concurrently, revisions are needed to give foreign graduates working in their fields in Canada, extra points to qualify.
The current federal immigration system needs fixing. Unless parallel changes are quickly made to provide foreign students a pathway to permanent residence, Canada’s efforts to increase its stature as a popular international student destination will be harmed. More importantly, Canadian businesses will lose out on a valuable source of immigrants, with strong working ties to Canada. Transitioning foreign students into the Canadian labour market needs to become a priority for the Trudeau government.
Colin R. Singer is immigration counsel for www.immigration.ca and managing partner of Global Recruiters of Montreal.
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