Despite federal promise, international students still unable to work off-campus

TORONTO (CUP) — To ease international students’ financial burdens, Immigration Canada announced in May 2005 they would be allowed to work off-campus.

Four months later, classes have begun, and international students are still waiting for the federal government to follow through on its promise.

After test-piloting the off-campus work projects in Manitoba, New Brunswick and Quebec, Minister of Immigration, Joe Volpe, announced on April 18, 2005 that the project would become permanent and apply to students in every province.

“We have been listening to our stakeholders and are certain that these initiatives will help increase the global competitiveness of Canada by attracting and retaining more international students to our schools,” said Volpe, at the time.

Instead of working with each college and university directly, Immigration Canada is currently in consultations with each province to establish agreements that will allow international students in the provinces to work off-campus.

“There is no implementation process yet,” said Ben Yang, the director of the International Student Centre, which provides services to University of Toronto’s 6,100 international students.

Along with student representatives, Yang has held meetings with provincial government representatives at Queen’s Park about the issue. “There is now another layer of bureaucracy at the province to work through.” Still, Yang expects the agreement between Immigration Canada and the provincial government will be hammered out in time for international students to get off-campus jobs by summer 2006.

Yang was also careful to note that the off-campus work permits will come with many strings attached. Applicants must be full-time students, have completed one semester of study, and are capped to 20 hours per week of work during the school year. The permits cost $150, and are only valid for one year – meaning they will have to be renewed annually, adding $600 to the cost of getting a degree in Canada for international students.

More than 130,000 international students come to Canada each year to study at colleges and universities and over 6,100 are at the U of T, but despite the obvious potential language and cultural barriers, many international students identify financial issues as their biggest obstacle.

Unsubsidized by the government, international students pay two or three times the tuition fees of domestic students, and generally aren’t eligible for the same kinds of financial aid.

“No income during the year can make it difficult,” said Yang, who, like most international students, was excited when Volpe’s announcements came.

“Canada is almost playing a catch up game right now to attract international students – many other jurisdictions like Australia and New New Zealand have more relaxed policies where international students are currently able to work off-campus,” said Yang.

Another much vaunted promise made by Joe Volpe in April was the extension of the coveted post-grad work visa. Previously, international students were allowed to work in Canada for one year after graduation, but Volpe’s reforms have extended this period to two years. There is a catch – students must not have studied or be working in Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver, if they want to stay for two years.

While domestic students are currently protected by a tuition fee freeze, international students at U of T faced a 20 per cent fee hike when they came back to class this fall. “I finished my last credits this summer to avoid paying the extra fees if I waited till September,” said Abril Novoa, an international student who recently graduated with a specialist degree in Political Science and a staff member at the International Student Centre at U of T.

Novoa is still trying to find a job – and she has until November 30th to do so, or else she must return to her home country of Mexico. Even if she lands a job outside of these three cities, where many immigrants head in Canada, she will only get a one year work permit because she pursued her undergraduate studies in Toronto.

Though frustrated with the policy, Ben Yang says the federal government has implemented it because their objective “is not just to regionalize immigration, but to regionalize international study – essentially to provide incentives for international students to study in smaller centres.”

“For the most part, international students are not likely to go to the smaller cities to study,” said Novoa. “One of the most important parts of studying abroad is the perceived reputation of the city and the university. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but there aren’t many people in Mexico who know where North Bay is. Also, I understand cities like Toronto have so many immigrants and they do not have the means to service this large and growing group. What is ironic is that if Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal are not equipped to handle large numbers of immigrants, I cannot imagine what types of services are available elsewhere.”

Still, Novoa is worried about getting any job offers at all – a prerequisite for her one-year work permit. “It’s very difficult to get this work permit because the job you get has to be in your specific field of study.

Finding a job specifically involving political science is difficult.” Indeed, students graduating from general BA programs like History or English or very specialized programs like Aboriginal Studies or Cinema Studies may have difficulty finding jobs in their field of study.

Only a few days into his new job as U of T’s 15th president, David Naylor stopped by the International Student Centre on Oct. 4 to tell international students the administration was committed to helping their cause.

“Having international students come to U of T brings so much to us – we are proud you are here,” Naylor told an audience of a few dozen students. “If working off-campus is an opportunity you want to take in Canadian society, that should be your right. I will undertake to all of you that I will push this goal…I am behind you.”

Naylor chatted with students for about half an hour, and was faced with some difficult questions, including about the steep fees international students face. He told the crowd, “I know it’s tough, but there is a logic and a fairness to it.”

Not all were convinced. “International education has gone through a paradigm shift,” says Ben Yang. “The old paradigm was educating international students as a social service Canada provided to the world, and now this education is more of a business – a commodity to be bought and sold.”


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