International students facing visa delays because of Canadian immigration backlogs are unsure if they'll make it in time for the fall semester as Ottawa works out whether it can prioritize applications for September.
Students, universities, immigration consultants and even the High Commission of India have raised concerns about delayed visas putting many students' studies at risk.
Federal data shows that as of the end of July, 34 per cent of pending international student visa applications were taking longer to process than government standards dictate.
"I have seen a huge delay right now," said Humera Khan, a Montreal-based international student recruiter who is CEO of Logic Academic Services.
Khan said she's never seen so many students waiting for visas only weeks before school is set to start.
If the government doesn't process their visas in time, those students will likely have to defer their studies for up to a year, she said. "It is a lot of uncertainty, there is a lot of emotion involved."
Some have already paid tuition, adding significant financial stress to the difficult task of moving to a new country and starting school, she said.
Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said the department started trying about a month ago to figure out whether it could prioritize students whose studies were due to start in September.
"Trying to figure out whether it's going to potentially jeopardize the efficiency of the overall effort is something that we're still figuring out," Fraser said in an interview Wednesday.
"We are trying to get as many people here for their start date as possible."
Visa delays leaving #InternationalStudents in limbo for fall semester. #CDNPoli #StudentVisas
Fraser said the Immigration Department is processing more study permits than ever before, and the delays are being driven by the huge increase in demand.
So far this year Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has processed more than 360,000 study visas, a 17 per cent increase over the same period in 2021.
The High Commission of India in Ottawa said in a statement it was talking to Canadian universities about what can be done to accommodate the large number of Indian international students who are still waiting for visas.
The high commission said universities have also approached the immigration ministry with their concerns.
Some institutions will provide a remote option for students unable to reach Canada at the start of the term because they have not yet received a visa.
The high commission has asked the government to fast-track visas for Indian students
NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan said there doesn't appear to by any rhyme or reason when it comes to why some applications have been processed on time and others haven't.
She has heard from students who are feeling incredibly stressed about whether they're going to be moving across the world to study in Canada in a few weeks.
"September is just around the corner as the school year is gonna start, and they don't know what's going on with their application," Kwan said in an interview.
The fact that so many students are likely to find out at the last moment shows the department doesn't recognize the real-life experiences people are going through, she said. "They have to find living quarters, for example, get housing in place, get familiar with how to get to and from school."
Everything from course selection to orientation is jeopardized, she added, and the delays cause uncertainty for institutions as well.
A recent report by the House of Commons immigration committee shows processing times for student visas have grown substantially since on the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Government standards dictate the application should take only about two months to process, but between December 2020 and November 2021 the average wait time was 82 days.
Fraser said he's not concerned about tarnishing Canada's reputation as a destination of choice for international students because Canada is having its best year ever in terms of accepting a record number of students.
"But the individual stories that you hear are the ones that stick with people. People remember how they're made to feel when they don't get their permission to come to Canada in time to start their program," he acknowledged.
The government is working with schools to develop contingencies for people who don't get the paperwork on time, including online classes, he said.
"We don't want to lose out on talent. We want to make it easier to come to Canada and we want to satisfy this demand that we're seeing, which this year is far beyond what we've seen before."
Fraser said he expects processing times for international student visas to return to government standards by the end of the year.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 25, 2022.