Last week the Canadian government announced that it will temporarily lift the 20-hour work limit cap for international students starting in November 2022 until December 2023. I, along with many other student advocates initially saw this as good news, but the more I thought about it, the more wonder about the negative implications such a move will have in the long-term. I also couldn’t help but be frustrated with how many are not talking about the bigger issue at hand – why students should need to work more than 20 hours a week.
I recently finished the College Student Alliance’s College Cost of Living survey. The findings reveal how most international students (in Ontario) rely on their hourly wages to pay their way through college. In an open response section of the survey, many international students indicated that they were stressed because of the limited number of hours they could work. These students need money, badly, and cannot even legally work to earn it. In addition, the 20-hour maximum is not a guarantee, as many employers like to schedule employees with a mix of 4- or 8-hour shifts, meaning international students face uncertainty about being able to work a full 20-hour week.
With all of this in mind, it is easy conclude that work limit cap being lifted is a “win” for international students. While I agree that students should have a choice on how much to work, I can also see such a move having unintended consequences. A main reason for the 20-hour work limit existed in the first place was to ensure that international students’ primary focus is their studies.
Now, I will mention that international students may already be prioritizing work over their studies. In the previously cited survey, a scarcity mindset to be a common theme amongst financially strained survey respondents. When students are lacking a scare resource (i.e., money) they will focus on finding ways to gather more of it (i.e., working more), de-valuing other their responsibilities in the process. Unfortunately, lifting the work limit is formally inviting and enabling students to shift their focus away from their studies to work.
There is reason to believe that this is exactly the government’s intention as they cite labour shortages, not international students’ wellbeing, as being the main motivation for such a move. The government also cites that international students will be able to earn valuable Canadian work experience, but that is somewhat laughable. The sector with the highest rates of labour shortages and one that is most accessible for international students is the low paying hospitality industry, which seldom contributes to students' permanent residency requirements.
Lifting the cap may also be in direct conflict with the government’s long-term goals. In their International Education Strategy, the Canadian government outlined the need for international students to help fill emerging gaps in the skilled labour force. Putting focus on short-term unskilled labour over developing skills and knowledge in the classroom could have long-term ramifications by de-valuing international students’ potential to contribute to Canada’s long-term skilled workforce.
What the most egregious thing is that there is little talk about the underlying issue - Canada is too expensive for international students. These students are facing the same rising cost of living as everyone else but are paying exuberant tuition costs on top of that. Unfortunately, despite what the odd Mercedes driving Asian student many suggest, many international students, especially in college, do not come from wealthy backgrounds. Instead, many of them and their families take on huge levels of debt with the hope that they will have a better life in Canada. A better life shouldn’t mean needing to work more than 20 hours to survive while balancing school and maybe even a social life.
All of this begs the question: Can we and should we expect international students to be able to be our economy’s saviour in both the short term and long term? And if the answer is yes, then perhaps the government should be allocating some tax-dollars to provide these students with better living and studying conditions. When students need to work more than 20-hours a week, it is not an opportunity to help fill labour shortages, it is a cry for help.
That is just my opinion. What is yours?