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International students in Canada & US face new study visa system

Both Canada and the US have introduced important changes in the process international students need to undergo for attaining a study visa/permit. The changes relate to students who require prerequisite or specific
preparatory studies such as language courses, before being eligible to commence the academic programme they have been admitted to abroad.

Oversees students looking to study at a Canadian institution and entering the country to pursue ‘conditional admissions’ or preparatory courses, previously had to apply for a single study visa - that covered the entire duration of their studies. Students could thus rely on a long term study visa that encompassed the total time frame for planned studies (plus an additional 90 days), enabling a seamless transition from preparatory studies to the full degree programme at their Designated Learning Institution (DLI).  This July the Canadian government has decided that authorities will now issue a study permit/visa only for the duration of the ‘first programme of study’ - namely the prerequisite studies. Once a student can demonstrate that requirements for being admitted to their full academic programme have been successfully achieved, an application for a new or second visa needs to be completed, covering the actual period of their full degree programmes.

This change comes as a response to concerns raised over issuing students a long term visa, without proof that conditional studies had been successfully completed, and those failing to comply continuing to hold a valid visa permitting them to work. The new regulation also serves to reduce issues with compliance reporting. Previously a student indicated on the single visa application the education institution in which he/she would peruse her full degree studies, which would lead to the university having to report on students that were factually not yet enrolled there.

These procedural changes in visa applications faced by the Canadian education community, to a large degree, reflect recently introduced changes for their American peers. The US government’s Student and Exchange Visitor Programme (SEVP) has this July published its final policy guidance on conditional admissions, affecting students wishing to pursue academic or vocational studies. In the making since 2014, the awaited policy changes are now official. What do the changes mean for students and universities? Under the new policy, an education institution may no longer issue in advance the qualifying document (or I-20) required to attain a study visa, until students have completed all requirements for admission to the programme. Universities which equip their students ‘in house’ with prerequisite skills need to issue a separate I-20 for these studies and a further I -20 for the degree studies. For those universities using third parties to provide for example language courses, the partner schools must now deliver their own I-20 relating to the period of the preparatory studies. In any scenario universities will now provide a status report to the SEVP to help track if students have successfully transitioned to full studies.   

In the wake of these changes, questions remain as to impacts at the institutional level and at that of internationalisation strategies. Consideration needs to be paid to issues as introducing additional administrative burdens that are not matched with increased institutional capacities, extra costs, and effects on a seamless and timely transition to full degree programmes. Factors that might affect international students in their choice of study destination could include having to cross administrative barriers and a perceived risk of facing a bridging period, where glitches in the system could leave students in limbo by delaying entry into their degree study.

Government of Canada – press release
US Government Department of Homeland Security (SEVP) – press release