The smell of South Asian spices wafts from the "Blends and Curries" food counter.

Conversations in Hindi and Gujurati flood the bustling hallways, which quickly get packed as students pour in and out of classes.

Cliques of Indian youth, who appear to make up a majority of the student population, take full advantage of common areas to study, lounge around or wait for class to begin.

Everywhere you look at the main campus of Conestoga College, there's ample proof of an explosion of international students.

The school has become a poster child for aggressive international student recruitment.

Its efforts have brought in a flood of new money — a stark contrast to the financial pressures students themselves face — but also raised questions within the institution about the sustainability of that growth, and the motivations behind it.

And as the federal government seeks to stem international student flows with a two-year cap on study permits, even the immigration minister has singled the college out.

The southwestern Ontario college had 37,000 study permits approved and extended in 2023 — the most in Canada — which marks a 31-per-cent increase from the previous year.

Its student population has more than doubled in four years to about 45,000, and international students now vastly outnumber domestic ones. The main campus in Kitchener, Ont., alone is now home to more than 20,000 students.

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Faculty and students seem to agree things have gone too far.

"No organization can grow at that pace, and do it right, that quickly," said Leopold Koff, a union leader representing faculty, counsellors and librarians at Conestoga.

Faculty members have turned into nomads with no fixed desks, a change the union says was prompted by the college's desire to build more classrooms to accommodate a larger student population. The college says the change reflects a post-pandemic hybrid working model.

At the student union office, more than a hundred students come in and out within an hour to grab a free snack — one of many programs Conestoga Students Inc. offers to help a growing number of food-insecure students.

Instructors are complaining that many students lack fundamental skills, which in turn makes their jobs more difficult, said Koff.

"They don't have the basic three Rs: reading, writing, arithmetic," he said.

Making matters worse, Koff said students have been too busy working to focus on their studies. He singled out Ottawa's decision during the pandemic to temporarily allow international students to work more than 20 hours a week.

"That is opening up a huge catastrophe for the students," he said. "They will take advantage of that. ... They need the money."

Vikki Poirier, another union leader who represents support staff, conceded the college has hired more people to keep up with the school's growth.

But she said new hires need time to get up to speed, and in the meantime, staff are facing massive workloads as they process more students.

Both union leaders said they have raised concerns with the school's administration — but they don't feel heard.

"Our perception of administration of the college these days ... is that it's a river of money. And if you get in the way of that river of money, you're going to be plowed over," Koff said.

Conestoga's finances have been generously padded by international student tuition fees, which can sometimes be three times more than those for Canadian students.

Financial statements show the public college had a $106-million surplus for the 2022-23 year. That's up from just $2.5 million in 2014-2015.

Conestoga declined a request to interview its administration.

In a statement, the college defended its recruitment levels.

"Colleges and universities across the country have been welcoming international students as part of their financial viability strategy given the flatlining of public funding in recent years," the statement said.

"Students who come to Conestoga from other countries have enabled us to reinvest our surplus in new buildings and in-demand programs, both of which drive economic growth. Domestic and international students now enjoy best-in-class facilities funded by the surplus."

Conestoga also touted the contribution its students make to the regional economy and the role they play in filling labour shortages. It also defended its admissions standards, noting its requirements are "similar to, or higher, than other colleges."

The individual stories of international students at Conestoga suggest many of them are experiencing hardship, at the same time as the college amasses a fortune.

While some students are lucky enough that their parents can afford to pay for their tuition and living expenses, others must take out loans and rely on employment to pay their bills.

Bijith Powathu and Fredin Benny both took out educational loans in India to pay for their first-year tuition.

Now, they're working full-time jobs at a factory and warehouse, respectively, to pay for their second-year fees.

The young men said balancing work and school means sleep often goes to the wayside.

When Powathu is scheduled for a night shift at his factory job in Mount Forest, Ont., he drives 85 kilometres directly to class in the morning.

"Straight from work I have to come here to manage. Sometimes sleepless nights," Powathu said.

Many Indian students describe how challenging it is to find work back home, where youth unemployment is sky-high. According to the Centre for Indian Economy, the unemployment rate for youth aged 20 to 24 in India was 44 per cent between October and December 2023.

But jobs are becoming harder to find for young people in Canada, too.

Nelson Chukwuma, president of Conestoga Students Inc. said that's top of mind for students right now.

"Our students are having a hard time finding jobs," he said.

Some Conestoga scholars attribute the scarcity to the increase of students in the region.

"A couple years ago, the condition was different. But now it is entirely changed. Mainly the job market," Powathu said, describing the plight of his unemployed peers.

"So based on that, they just want to go back (home)."

Several students with anxious faces described handing out resumes on a consistent basis since arriving to Canada last September, with no success. They said there's significant guilt in relying on their parents for support.

Chukwuma used to be an international student himself, and he has watched the campus change over time — and that change has been dramatic over the past five years amid unprecedented growth.

"We don't think it's sustainable," he said.

Although his organization has financially benefited from the higher enrolments, Chukwuma said it is constantly playing catch-up when it comes to meeting students' needs.

"I think the college needs to definitely re-evaluate their strategy because (of) the flack that we've gotten, not just from the professors (and) staff, but also just from the community," Chukwuma said.

He noted that local governments didn't have the housing and transit infrastructure to accommodate the influx.

Conestoga said it invested in eight new properties last year to address housing needs.

Many at the college also lay blame at the feet of long-term provincial underfunding coupled with few federal limits on the international student population.

For decades, a cost-of-living financial requirement tied to student permits sat at $10,000 — an amount that significantly underestimates the amount students spend on basic housing and food.

As part of a broader effort to rein in the number of temporary residents in Canada — a political liability for the Liberal government because of its impact on housing affordability — Immigration Minister Marc Miller has more than doubled the amount to $20,635.

Miller also announced that work permits for international students' spouses would only be available for those in master's or doctoral programs.

And in January, Miller announced that Canada would impose a two-year cap on study permits, reducing the number of new study visas by 35 per cent.

At Conestoga, this will mean a massive reduction. The Ontario government has allocated the public college just 15,000 permits out of its national share — less than half of what was approved the previous year.

While many international students have applauded the changes, the shifting goalposts are also causing anger.

One 29-year-old Nigerian student said the spousal work visa change means his wife and two daughters can't join him in Canada as he expected.

"I'm so angry," said the student, who did not want to be named because of concerns he could face repercussions.

"You brought me here and told me I can bring them. Now I'm here and you're telling me I can't bring them."

Another federal rule change could have a significant impact on those who are working full time.

Miller announced on Monday that the temporary waiver to the limit on work hours would expire as scheduled on Tuesday. In the fall, the federal government plans to implement a new cap of 24 hours a week.

"To be clear, the purpose of the international student program is to study and not to work," Miller said.

The immigration minister said the new cap reflects the fact that the overwhelming majority of international students work more than 20 hours a week. At the same time, it keeps students from prioritizing work over school, he said.

"We know from studies as well that when you start working in and around 30-hour levels, there is a material impact on the quality of your studies," Miller said.

For international students such as Powathu and Benny, it's going to mean working about 16 hours less every week — a significant financial impact.

Prior to the announcement, Powathu and Benny both said a return to 20 hours would be untenable.

Asked if they'd survive, both said: "No."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 30, 2024.

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