MONTREAL — Quebec university administrators, professors and students are rejecting an idea by the federal housing minister that Canada could cap the number of international study permits it issues as a way to ease the country's housing shortage.
They say that limiting the number of international students will do little to address the housing crunch and would instead hurt university research and deprive Quebec of skilled immigrants.
Daniel Jutras, the rector of Université de Montréal, says Canada's housing crisis is not the result of the rise in international students coming to the country.
"The (housing) problem is real, the problem is serious, but it's a problem that's been developing over the past two decades as a result of structural issues that I think are not related directly to the influx of international students," Jutras said.
On Monday, federal Housing Minister Sean Fraser suggested that capping the explosive growth in the number of international students recruited to Canada in recent years was an option to reduce demand for housing. More than 540,000 new international study permits were issued by the federal government in 2022, up 24 per cent from 2021.
Quebec Premier François Legault and other ministers swiftly rejected that idea, reminding Ottawa that education is a provincial jurisdiction.
Around 6,000 of U de M's roughly 42,000 students are international, Jutras said, adding that he doesn't think that number is enough to impact the city's housing market.
"Cutting down on the number of international students is just not a good idea given the significance of their presence in Canada and the contributions that they make," he said. The education that foreign students get in Canada sets them up for success in the country, he added.
Over the past decade, the number of international students in Quebec has doubled. As of December 2022, there were 58,675 international students at Quebec universities — an increase of 10,000 from the year before, when they accounted for 14 per cent of the total student body. Another 19,460 international students study at public junior colleges and private career colleges.
Víctor Muñiz-Fraticelli, a law and political science professor at McGill University, said the rise in foreign students could have a greater effect on the housing market of small university towns as opposed to large cities.
"It's completely absurd to blame international students in a city like Toronto, or Vancouver, or Montreal when they represent a tiny percentage of the population and have a completely different housing market than long-term residents," he said in a recent interview.
Muñiz-Fraticelli said the housing shortage is primarily an urban policy problem. Canada isn't building enough housing, and municipal regulations to encourage the creation of social housing aren't having the desired effect, he said.
Limiting the number of international students "would cause a tremendous amount of damage to one of the great advantages that Canada has in the world, which is its excellent educational system and its excellent research and teaching facilities," he added.
Catherine Bibeau-Lorrain, president of the Union étudiante du Québec, a 91,000-member group composed of 10 student unions, says Canada should be encouraging qualified immigrants — like those who graduate from the province's universities — to help with labour shortages.
Quebec residents pay the lowest tuition rates in Canada — around $4,000 to $5,000 a year, including mandatory fees for undergraduates. But international students pay significantly more: at U of M, they pay nearly $30,000 a year. Other Quebec universities charge slightly less, while some, such as McGill University, charge significantly more — up to nearly $70,000 a year in certain undergraduate programs.
But Jutras said it's "misguided" to suggest that universities like his are recruiting international students to balance the books, adding that two-thirds of the international students who study at U de M come from France and Belgium and pay the lower Quebec rates as a result of agreements between their governments and the province.
"We bring them here because we think they bring significant value to our programs and bring significant value to the research that's going on here," he said, adding that many international students are doing postgraduate or post-doctoral degrees.
Pier-André Bouchard St-Amant, a public finance professor at Quebec's school of public administration — École nationale d'administration publique — said English-language universities have more international students than their French-language counterparts and as a result, are less reliant on government funding.
Around 24 per cent of Concordia University students are international, while at McGill, it's over 30 per cent.
McGill doesn't break down revenues from foreign students in its annual statements. But despite having a smaller student body than U de M, McGill generated twice as much revenue in tuition in 2022 than U de M did.
Bouchard St-Amant said a cap on foreign student enrolment could put pressure on university finances, but he thinks raising tuition for Quebec residents to make up any gaps would be politically unpalatable in Quebec.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 24, 2023.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press