The Urgent Need to Create Leave Provisions for Undergraduate International Students

Since January of this year, IRCC has now provided instructions that allow for authorized leave periods of up to 150-days contingent on school approval. The problem now is that institutions have not kept up nor been held to account for not putting in policies that accord with these changes.

I believe they need a ‘call in’ so let me tell you why it is so pertinent right now to institute these changes.

The Current Policy

I have reproduced IRCC’s current policy on “Leave from Studies” below:

D. Leave from studies

Students may be required or may wish to take leave from their studies while in Canada. For the purpose of assessing if a student is actively pursuing their studies, any leave taken from a program of studies in Canada should not exceed 150 days from the date the leave commenced and must be authorized by their DLI.

A student on leave who begins or resumes their studies within 150 days from the date the leave commenced (that is, the date the leave was granted by the institution) is considered to be actively pursuing studies during their leave. If a student does not resume their studies within 150 days, they should do either of the following:

If they do not change their status or leave Canada, they are considered non-compliant with their study permit conditions.

In cases where a student has taken multiple periods of leave in Canada during their program of study, the officer should consider the student’s reasons for the various periods of leave. If the multiple periods of leave do not appear to support the expectation that the student is making reasonable progress toward the completion of their course or program of study in the time allotted by the course or program of study, the officer may determine that the study permit holder has not fulfilled the condition to actively pursue their course or program of study.

Examples of reasons for leave include but are not limited to the following:

  • medical illness or injury
  • pregnancy
  • family emergency
  • death or serious illness of a family member
  • change in program of study within the same institution, outside a regularly scheduled break
  • dismissals or suspensions (dependent on degree of severity)
  • postponed program start date (see Deferred enrollment for more information)

As you can tell these policies are short, broad, and open to the interpretation that was meant to be filled by school-specific policies.

Regarding just the instructions, I have recently tweeted some concern about a few important contexts that the instructions could do a much better job of breaking down to allow international students to recognize specific scenarios that they are facing:

However, in the piece I want to tackle the second part of this – that the schools need to authorize the leaves and they are behind on implementing the accommodation that IRCC has provided.

Current School Policies are Problematic – Particularly Considering Immigration Processes

Unfortunately, many institutions have not yet kept up. Their policies currently are either non-existent or restrictive in ways that are not defensible. Many discriminate based on perceived ‘levels’ of education – offering authorized leaves for graduate students in select programs but not undergraduate students. Many of these leave policies do not address mental health issues, the consequences of sexual assault, and other areas where options/knowledge is necessarily needed.

The challenge is that IRCC’s own instructions for students who are not actively pursuing studies and not authorized for leave, they should be changing their status to visitor within a reasonable time of no longer being enrolled or actively-pursuing studies. If the 150-days do not apply, international students really are swimming into uncertainty. Furthermore, their switching to visitor engages an application in which (as I alluded in another recent blog) creates a lot of uncertainty around self-disclosure and possible consequences.

Granting a school authorized 150-day leave has an added benefit of giving the student a gap before they have to make a disclosure. Perhaps in those 5 months, any illness or mental health challenges they are dealing with can have some plan or remedy that can fit within Canada’s medical inadmissibility regime particularly around excessive demand. Perhaps, in some cases switching to another status or even departure from Canada may be the interest of the students but a 150 days creates necessary space for those decisions to be made.

Another major problem, as a recent presentation to a set of institutions revealed is that while any of them claim to have leave provisions a disproportionate number of institutions don’t make those policies publicly accessible or transparent. This is problematic too when Officers are reviewing documentation from applicants which may (or may not) include these policies and are then unable to make informed decisions on granting extensions and post-graduate work permits. In my colleague Lily Le and I’s random survey last summer of 19 post-secondary institutions [all DLIs, all from the same organization, including both reputable universities and colleges] only 2 had any mention of leave with only one with unique information that was not a link to IRCC’s website.

Rise in Compliance Challenges on the Horizon

We know right now there is a major challenge because the number of international students attending #DLIs is not commensurate with the number of student being selected for Express Entry.

Per my colleague Dave Sage, highlighting the 2018 Express Entry End of Year Report:

“Only 29% of all ITAs issued to people in the EE pool were to those who claimed additional points (this means having completed studies in Canada, for one).”

In a recent IRCC talk, Dave Sage highlighted IRCC provided a figure of 1 out of 4, suggesting it is about 25-29%.

Given those percentage challenges, one way to address this bottleneck may be to refuse more students in the middle of their studies or sort out those students who do not have reasonable prospects of completing their studies. I suspect and predict, particularly with exit controls coming in and with more policies now in place, a corresponding increase in enforcement.

I suspect international students to increasingly run into challenges at the border, facing removal orders, and subject to compliance where educational institutions report them or when the information on forms, such as visitor records and student extension forms, triggers them.

Writing Public Policies to Respond

I have heard from a lot of institutions that the challenge comes from bringing together academic staff, international student staff, and administration.

The fear is that writing these types of policies may expose the University to further administrative challenges, start creating situations where students seek leave in overly excessive numbers, and also create possible disputes.

From my perspective, the bigger risk is not in tackling the avoidable challenges students will face but staying silent to them. I do believe students will begin choosing institutions based on the safety nets they can provide and that this is a positive, not negative thing, given the treacherous waters international students often have to navigate. I believe universities and colleges will lose business and open themselves up to risk of challenges to their practices (including perhaps legal) that will cost much more in the long-run then providing clear and transparent accommodation.

Schools that do not already have a team of RCIC, RISIA,  outside counsel, and international students who provide lived experience input should form these teams and start drafting leave provisions immediately.

IRCC Needs to Better Coordinate with Provinces

One of the concerns we have heard is that IRCC has dropped some of these new policies without enough time for Provinces to advise their ministries and also for Schools to consult. Changes such as undergraduate leave take time and take consultations that require balancing financial incentives to do so, the number of stakeholders that this involves, and also to determined whether this is indeed in the school’s best interest.

This will not take months for some schools.

I would suggest in the interim IRCC does provide either an H&C exception for those students who are not covered or authorized by universities/colleges OR instead involving the Province on an assessment for students who are excluded due to institutional rules.

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