Ontario’s Conestoga College defends international student growth amid Canada reforms 

Conestoga College President John Tibbits asserted that the college’s strategic growth plan aligns with the pressing need to counterbalance demographic challenges, particularly declining birth rates and an aging workforce.

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Kitchener-based Conestoga College, renowned for its substantial international student enrollment, is taking a bold stance against recent reforms in Canada’s education landscape. With a surge in approved study permits, the college is confronting what it calls Canada’s “baby deficit” and emphasizing its pivotal role in mitigating regional labor shortages.

In a report titled “The Conestoga Effect,” released on February 13, the institution outlined its recent expansion trajectory and the imperative to address the region’s demand for skilled professionals.Conestoga College President John Tibbits asserted that the college’s strategic growth plan aligns with the pressing need to counterbalance demographic challenges, particularly declining birth rates and an aging workforce.

“The college is responding to these shortages both emphatically and strategically,” Conestoga’s President said. “The college has expanded its enrollment and attracted the level of international students necessary to compensate for the ‘baby deficit’ that will be the hallmark of the next several decades.”

High int’l student enrollment

The report’s unveiling coincided with recent policy changes imposed by Immigration Minister Marc Miller, including a two-year cap on new study permits. This move aims to regulate Canada’s burgeoning international student program, which has drawn scrutiny for potential exploitation as a pathway to employment and permanent residency.

Conestoga’s ascent in international student enrollment, evidenced by a 137 percent increase in approved study permits over the past three years, has sparked debate and criticism. 

However, Tibbits refuted allegations likening the college’s operations to “puppy mills,” stressing its status as a reputable educational institution with genuine demand.

“We are the most popular college in Canada. Now, why would that be? Are they all fools? If we were a disaster, the applications would dry up,” Tibbits said.

Emphasizing Conestoga’s role as a preferred destination for international students, the report underscores the alignment of academic programs with industries facing acute labor shortages. The institution’s commitment to workforce development reflects in initiatives such as a bridging program for internationally trained nurses.

The report, authored by University of Waterloo economics professor Larry Smith, indicates that international students at Conestoga are primarily enrolled in programs aligned with industries experiencing significant labor shortages. 

Employment, community impact

In 2022, approximately 35 percent of international students pursued business-related programs, while around 36 percent opted for workforce development programs. Additionally, nine percent were in IT programs, and three percent were enrolled in health and life sciences. Enrollment in a new bridging program for internationally trained nurses increased from 180 in 2022 to over 300 in the subsequent year.

The report also highlights Conestoga College’s high approval rate of postgraduate work permit applications, reaching 99 percent for Conestoga graduates. It notes that both domestic and international graduates from Conestoga exhibit similar employment rates, averaging around 85 percent.

Beyond academic appeal, Conestoga’s graduates contribute significantly to the local and national economies, with a notable 99 percent approval rate for postgraduate work permits. The economic impact extends to over $12.3 billion in spending by international students in Ontario, sustaining approximately 118,206 jobs and fostering entrepreneurial activities within the community.

Int’l student welfare and reforms

Tibbits affirmed Conestoga’s long-standing advocacy for the international student program, citing substantial investments in infrastructure and student support services. Despite acknowledging the need for policy adjustments, he cautioned against conflating responsible institutions with those engaging in opportunistic practices, urging community support for Conestoga’s mission.

Addressing prevalent misconceptions surrounding international student welfare, Tibbits denounced narratives of destitution and emphasized the college’s commitment to holistic student support. He urged community solidarity, highlighting Conestoga’s symbiotic relationship with regional prosperity and the imperative of collaborative engagement amidst policy shifts.

While acknowledging the necessity for reforms, Tibbits lamented the perceived haste in implementing policy changes, advocating for a more measured approach to safeguard the interests of educational institutions and students alike.

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