International students are the focus of front-page news in Canada this week with the launch of the long-anticipated new immigration scheme, the “Canadian Experience Class.”
Intended to fast-track foreign students and skilled workers currently in Canada from temporary migrant to permanent resident status (and potentially to Canadian citizens), this new program continues a series of recent changes implemented by Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) seeking to enhance Canada’s economic competitiveness through the attraction and retention of highly educated migrants. Details of the program are outlined here in the Canada Gazette.
Like the existing immigration points-based system, this new program evaluates applicants on a range of criteria. However unlike the traditional economic class route, this stream makes work or study experience in Canada a key factor in gaining admission. Now international students, along with workers in select skilled occupations and professions that have studied or worked for two years in Canada, may apply to become landed immigrants from within the country, no longer needing to leave to join the (backlogged) overseas queues after their studies.
As quoted in the Globe and Mail (Aug 13, 2008: a1), a CIC spokeswoman explained the change is part of revamping Canada’s immigration approach to compete with “rival destinations such as Australia and the United Kingdom.” This framing is significant for several reasons.
First, CIC’s language acknowledges a shift in immigration policy logic from one based on broad nation building to one based on keeping pace with other countries competing to gain advantage in their ability to attract migrants for the knowledge economy. As political scientist Ayelet Shachar (2006) has argued, the policy framework of many immigrant-receiving countries is no longer driven primarily to meet domestic needs, but to keep up with the offer on hand from other countries also trying to become the next “IQ magnet” in the ever-spiralling global race for ‘talent’. The rationale is that if international students can become permanent residents immediately after their studies, then this may have the desired effect of increasing the likelihood that many will remain post-graduation and contribute to the Canadian economy, as well as making Canada a more appealing educational destination for young migrants at the outset.
Second, from a national perspective, international student mobility has historically served a multifaceted role as both an element of international political relations (think of programs such as the Fulbright and Commonwealth Scholarships), and as an increasingly lucrative industry.
In recent years, however, many governments have also begun to place greater emphasis on the innovation and labour market potential inherent in mobile students and researchers. Canada’s new scheme – along with the recent announcement that post-graduation work permits for students would be extended to a three-year duration – indicate the heightened interest placed by the Canadian government on the potential longer-term economic contributions that foreign students can make.
So what to make of these developments?
On one hand, they certainly fit with contemporary theories in economic development planning that emphasize the importance of developing a diverse, educated and skilled labour force as a necessary context for sustained economic vitality, and the ability for universities to feed into this process at a local scale. International graduates can make particularly valued contributions to such strategies through their different academic and cultural traditions as well as transnational research and social networks. Advocates of international students will likely also laud this new initiative for enabling those already in Canada who have established ties and made intellectual, economic, and social contributions to remain with greater security, if they so choose.
On the other hand, however, there are several concerns and potential consequences worth considering.
First, this new class does not address – and may further exacerbate – existing problems of excessively long waiting lists for overseas immigration applicants.
Second, and even more disquieting, this new ‘class’ promotes unequal access to the protection and rights attributed to Canadian permanent residents by excluding lower-skilled labourers who also make important contributions to the Canadian economy and society and who comprise the majority of temporary permit holders. It is important to ask whether Canada wants to advance a system with differential paths to citizenship based largely on the fluctuating economic valuation of certain types of knowledge.
Lastly, it also seems probable that this new fast-track scheme will become an admissions strategy for young migrants able to afford the expense of studying as an international student in Canada. While the financial picture for international students is complex, varying from high tuition fees for most undergraduate studies to receiving scholarships for funded graduate students, the financial accessibility to this potential route to citizenship complicates the already unclear picture wherein international students are desired for their future ambassadorial roles, for their financial contributions to individual institutions, and/or for their potential economic input as desired young researchers and future ‘knowledge workers’.
Time will tell if these various objectives can succeed in co-mingling or if tensions and contradictions in the diverse strategies involving the spheres of higher education, research, immigration, and economic development will emerge.
Shachar, A. 2006. The race for talent: Highly skilled migrants and competitive immigration regimes. New York University Law Review, 8(April): 148-206.