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The coronavirus ground nearly all business in Canada to a temporary halt. Now it’s also threatening one of the nation’s main drivers of long-term growth: foreign students.

While Canadian universities are still admitting international students for the fall, there’s growing unease among applicants over the halt in travel and visa processing.

Asfar Lathif recently accepted an offer from the University of British Columbia master’s program in genome science. But the 21-year-old, who lives in Chennai, India, is worried about getting all his approvals in time since it’s been difficult to gather the necessary documents amid government shutdowns.

“It’s a problem. With the Covid-19 situation, I’m finding it difficult to get through the study permit process," Lathif said. “I am hoping lockdown is over before July."

There were more than 642,000 foreign students in Canada at the end of last year, helping power the biggest increase in immigration in more than a century. Encouraged by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s open-door policies, the flood of newcomers has won praise as a form of “human stimulus." Any reduction could worsen the economic blow from the pandemic.

The government, which had been planning to increase immigration levels until the virus hit, has stopped issuing student visas while shutdown restrictions remain in effect. That means any foreign student accepted into a Canadian education program will have to remain in their home country until further notice.

A date for resuming visa service will depend on how the pandemic develops. But even once the government begins processing them again, it’s possible a cohort of students will choose to take a semester off or a gap year.

“It’s not just going to be a function of regulatory barriers but also a willingness of people to cross borders," Andrew Agopsowicz, an economist at Royal Bank of Canada, said by phone. “I would not be surprised to see declines in international enrollment in the fall if this continues."

The 2019 foreign student tally marked a 13% increase from the prior year and a 95% jump since 2014. Overall, the country took in a net 488,000 people from abroad last year, driving the fastest population growth in three decades.

Many Canadian universities say it’s too early to tell whether enrollment figures will drop, with final numbers not due until classes start in September. McGill University in Montreal is among those that have pushed deadlines for students to confirm admission back to June 1, while others like the University of Toronto and UBC have kept their May 1 cutoffs.

Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland has been fielding calls and emails from foreign students about whether they’ll be able to get their study permits, travel to Canada and attend in-person courses. “It’s those questions that we don’t necessarily have hard and fast answers to because they are so dependent on the public health situation," said Sonja Knutson, director of Memorial’s internationalization office.

Lathif said he is considering delaying his arrival at the Vancouver school until January if the situation doesn’t improve. Students like him are crucial to Canada’s higher educational institutions as they pay higher fees. They make up more than a fifth of the post-secondary student body and bring in close to C$6 billion ($4.3 billion) in tuition annually, according to a Royal Bank of Canada report.

They’re also seen as a natural pipeline into the Canadian labor force. International students contribute C$21 billion annually to the nation’s economy, according to government data. India was the top country of origin for students, with a total of 139,740 study permits issued last year. China, South Korea and France rounded out the top four.

The issue is being discussed at the highest levels of government in both Canada and India. Trudeau spoke with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday about the pandemic and the agenda included Indian students already in Canada and those hoping to arrive this year, according to New Delhi’s envoy in Ottawa.

High Commissioner Ajay Bisaria has been in touch with federal authorities, the provinces and universities regarding the study permit concerns of incoming students. “In terms of intention, Canada continues to be very welcoming," he said in an interview Wednesday.

Trudeau has announced a series of measures aimed at helping post-secondary students who face declining employment opportunities this summer. A monthly stipend is available and students can also get paid for volunteer work, but those programs apply only to citizens and permanent residents. Limits on the number of hours international students can work while classes are in session, however, have been lifted.

Schools are stepping in to fill the gaps. The University of Toronto has provided over C$2.3 million in emergency bursaries to more than 2,000 students and is working on offering micro grants over the summer that would allow them to get paid for doing Covid-19 related work. Other universities are offering virtual job fairs and online career-planning discussions for students.

“One of the priorities of the university is to keep them engaged as best we can," said Joseph Wong, U of T’s vice-provost of international student experience. “Our skilled labor market is dependent on international talent having been educated here. So for the Canadian economy, it’s critical."

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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