Study permit delays impacting thousands of international students coming to Waterloo region

Thousands of international students hoping to have been in Waterloo region for the start of the fall semester are still back in their home countries, waiting to hear about the status of their Canadian study permits.

Delays, uncertainty cause students to look elsewhere, says Conestoga VP

Students study in a nearly empty Condor Cafe at Conestoga College, in this file photo. The college said about 1,000 international students are awaiting the approval of their study permits to come to Canada to attend the school. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Thousands of international students hoping to have been in Waterloo region for the start of the fall semester are still back in their home countries waiting to hear about the status of their Canadian study permits. 

Backlogs at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has affected international students coming to study at Conestoga College, the University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph.

Gary Hallam, vice president of international education at Conestoga College, said the delay has forced 1,000 international students to defer their studies until the January semester, mainly impacting lab-based programs that require students to be on site, like engineering, nursing and IT.

"It's a big set back for them," he told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo, adding the college was anticipating there would be some delay, "but not to this level."

Conestoga College has the second-largest population of international students among colleges in Ontario with many arriving from countries like India.

The IRCC announced on Aug. 25 it would extend the period for distance learning, allowing students to study from their home country and put that time toward their post-graduate work permit.

More than 1,500 students at the college benefited from that extension, Hallam said.

"That only helped a handful of students, but at least it helped some. That announcement came in two weeks before classes," he said. 

According to IRCC, as of Aug. 18, the number of study permit applications to be processed for students coming to Canada is 163,600, adding 64 per cent of those applications are currently within its service standard of 60 days. 

Hallam said the IRCC has processed more Visa applications for the college now, between 500 to 800 more than ever before, but demand is still high.

"We were hoping for a few thousand more to get going for these students, but there's been a lot of last minute changes for mainly the students, but also for the operations here at the college," he said.

The backlog is hurting Canada's image as a destination for international students to come study. Students and agents are now considering other countries like Australia or the UK because their processing time is much faster, Hallam said.

The University of Guelph says 'several dozen' international students have also been impacted by study permit delays. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Supporting students where possible

The college and local universities say they're doing what they can to support their international students as a result of these delays by allowing late arrivals during the first weeks of the semester and accommodating options for remote study.

"We are still trying to gauge numbers, but it looks like several dozen of our international students are still waiting for their study permits," Stuart McCook, vice-president international at the University of Guelph, said in a statement to CBC News.

"The university is working with students awaiting their study permits to help resolve the issue."

Wilfrid Laurier University says the school is working to ensure students impacted by delays have access to courses.

"For most programs, we have been able to offer students online, remote or hyflex courses (delivery of a course in-person with simultaneous online video sessions) for the fall term so they can continue with their studies despite not being on campus," a spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the University of Waterloo said the school is actively communicating with international students who have been impacted by the delays and has an administrative team responding their questions to ensure students have the information they need.

The university also wrote Canada's Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada "to express our desire to work with government and other institutions on collaborative solutions."

Hallam said the school has accommodated some virtual class schedules at the college to start early morning so that students overseas can attend their classes at night and take part in group work.

"We try and record the sessions as well, so students have lots of flexibility," he said.

Hallam adds they are anticipating more permit delays for the January semester start, but IRCC's extension for distance learning stretched until August 2023 and allows students to complete up to 50 per cent of their program remotely. 

"We know we can plan now and tell the students, 'Don't panic if you don't get your Visa for January or May in 2023, you can start your semester out of country,'" he said. 

"That's really positive and they've given us that certainty."

With files from Hala Ghonaim, Talia Ricci

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