Post-secondary institutions in Edmonton won’t know until the last minute whether international students expected to start in September will be delayed because of a strike by foreign service officers handing out visas for students, temporary foreign workers and visitors to Canada.
Visa staff at 15 of the world’s busiest consulates walked off the job this week, following in the footsteps of their Canadian colleagues whose strike began in June after the federal government’s 2012 budget decision to close or consolidate citizenship and immigration offices in Canadian cities and around the world.
At the height of the tourist season, and just as students are planning their fall semesters, would-be visitors and international students could face delays in getting visas. Temporary foreign workers wishing to come to Canada may also see delays.
“Certainly with our masters in information security, we’ve very concerned because of the high proportion of international students in the program,” said Karen McDonald, dean of graduate studies and program development at Concordia University College. Of the 40 students accepted into the program each semester, 95 per cent are from international destinations, with many this year coming from India, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Cameroon. Immigration processing centres in Beijing, New Delhi, Mexico City and London have all been disrupted by striking workers.
“We’ll do everything we can for students who have gotten stuck in this problem,” McDonald said. There are two groups she’s concerned about. The 25 to 30 students who received initial acceptance letters in April or May, but from whom she has heard nothing further. And the 10 to 15 who paid deposits and received supporting letters from Concordia they need to apply for student visas. Those letters were sent out in June and July.
“We won’t probably hear about that until September, about whether they’ve been successful to get visas or not,” she said. If a full class doesn’t show up, Concordia may allow some students to start in January instead and offer smaller classes for the ones who arrive. Each international student pays $30,000 in tuition each year compared to about $15,000 for local students.
“Financially, though, it does harm Concordia somewhat if these students can’t come. It adds up.”
McDonald said the current focus is getting students to Edmonton.
“I hope it gets finished soon because I know the person that it gives the most angst to is probably the student coming in, because they’re looking at a change for their future and the learning and the money that they’ve invested in making this journey to study in Canada.”
John Corlett, provost at Grant MacEwan University, said he doesn’t think international students are likely to renege on their MacEwan acceptance because few have other study options.
“There’s no doubt the timing is difficult for students because of the uncertainty that creeps in,” Corlett said. MacEwan expects 300 to 400 students to arrive from other countries for September studies, many from New Delhi, Beijing and Shanghai. The institution has already taken five to 10 calls from students concerned about potential delays, but expects more mid-August with the time crunch.
Corlett said while it’s fairly common for students to show up slightly late, MacEwan will have to determine a cut-off date for students to still enrol in fall classes to make sure they can catch up.
Doug Weir, executive director of student programs and services in University of Alberta’s international department, said the U of A is encouraging international students to continue with the application process. One student who called with worries a few weeks ago received her visa this week.
“It’s that uncertainty that’s making it difficult for students right now,” Weir said. The U of A has almost 6,000 international students, divided almost equally between undergraduate and graduate populations.
“Students are concerned and the unfortunate thing is, there is no clarity of information for how concerned they should be,” Weir said. “There’s been no updates posted as to what new processing times might be given this labour action.”
If students don’t arrive on time, some graduate programs might be left scrambling, since many international students are assigned to be teaching assistants as well. Some reassignments might have to take place at the last minute, Weir said.
“It’s too early to know what will be the outcome,” he said. “It’s kind of a holding pattern.”
AUGUST 1, 2013