Universities in Nova Scotia say they are scrambling to deal with a possible shortfall of international students because a strike by foreign service officers is delaying some visa applications.

The federal government and the union representing diplomats and immigration officers abroad — the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers — have been locked in a contract negotiation battle for months. As part of escalating job action measures, diplomats at key visa application centres abroad have scaled back some of their services, including processing visas required for international students studying at Canadian universities and colleges.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada officials said processing times are within a two-month standard, but university administrators say some students have already decided to go elsewhere.

Asa Kachan, the registrar for Dalhousie University in Halifax, said at least 200 international students are affected by the backlog in visa processing and that has put the university in limbo as they wait to see who shows up for class in September.

Some students are enrolled in courses, but might not make it for the first day of class. The university said if a student paid a residence deposit, their room is waiting.

Kachan said Dalhousie University is also trying to ensure classes will be offered this winter for students who have to defer.

"It's challenging now because some of the students are in transit so they haven't told us and we'll know when they arrive," said Kachan.

"In other cases they're worried, but it might still work out."

Money on the line

International students pay more in tuition than Canadian students. If those 200 students don't show up for class, it will translate into a multimillion-dollar revenue loss for the Halifax university.

"That's a loss to us, not just for the first year but if the student continued for four years," said Kachan.

"Those are students who are awaiting visas, who may be arriving late, who might have to defer admission to January, who might have to start their English language training a bit later."

Saint Mary's University — which touts on its website that it has the highest percentage of international students of any university in the province — said most students in summer language programs did not get their visas on time.

"In our degree programs, we did lose a number of students, particularly ones coming into professional graduate programs. I don't know if those students will come in the future," said Paul Dixon, the associate vice-president and registrar at Saint Mary's University.

"We'd be very concerned if they showed up at the end of September and tried to join a class because they're going to be so far behind. They're going to be making other adjustments to settling in the city. It's a recipe for failure. They're not going to do well in their classes. We've advised students if they anticipate arriving late we'll defer their admission until January."

Dixon said the bigger worry is how the delays will jeopardize Canadian universities' reputations.

The number of international students attending Maritime universities has more than doubled in the last ten years, but the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand compete for the same students.

"They're much better at processing visas than we are. Students are going to go to the country where the process is the smoothest and they feel the most welcome," said Dixon.

Both administrations said they'll know more about their bottom line at the end of September.