Students Beware: Studying is Your Job While in Canada

By Victor Ing in Vancouver, BC

The number of international students that have come to Canada to complete post-secondary education has increased significantly in recent years. Unfortunately, while many international students are successfully obtaining student visas to Canada, many of them are not successfully achieving their long-term goals of becoming Canadian permanent residents.

The case of Jobandeep Singh Sandhu, the international student from India who faces deportation for working too many hours while studying in Canada on his study permit, is a sobering reminder that there are many rules governing what students can and cannot do in Canada.

The Sandhu case has drawn national attention in part because it clearly highlights that there is a disconnect between our expectations of international students and the realities they face when living in Canada. The lesson for all students is to remember that the golden rule while in Canada is that studying is your primary “job”, not work.

The conditions of studying in Canada

International students pursuing post-secondary education in Canada hold study permits that require them to “actively” pursue their program of study. Actively pursuing studies does not mean that students need to be the best in their class, but it does mean that they should be regularly attending classes and putting in the effort to complete their studies. Accordingly, the expectation of every international student in Canada is that they will make studying their primary job.

The expectation that students should primarily be focused on studying is directly reflected in the immigration laws that govern their lives in Canada. For example, students are only allowed to work part-time up to 20 hours per week during regular school terms. Part-time work is intended to enrich students’ experience in Canada by gaining exposure to the Canadian labour market. The income they earn is intended to supplement rather than fully finance their studies. Students are required to demonstrate that they, or their families, are able to afford their Canadian education and must demonstrate their financial strength when they make a student visa application. Equally important to note is that time spent working in Canada while being a full-time student does not directly help a student later to qualify for permanent residence.

Expectations vs reality

Having said that students need to focus on studying, the everyday reality of international students doesn’t always match our expectations. The Sandhu case shows us that many students are struggling to not just pay for their tuition but to cover the cost of living in Canada, which can be substantial. In some cases, an illness or injury suffered by a student or a family emergency can arise unexpectedly to hinder a student’s ability to continue their studies. Whether because they become unable to attend classes or because they’re no longer able to afford to study. In such situations, students must ensure that they’re not violating the condition that they remain actively engaged in their studies in Canada.

If a student is in Canada and can no longer fulfill their primary purpose of studying, then they should consider taking an official leave from school. Leaves of absence can be granted for up to 150 days without affecting a student’s status in Canada.

However, if a leave of absence lasts beyond the 150 days, the student is expected to either leave Canada or to change his or her immigration status to visitor status. Obtaining and documenting leaves of absence is especially important for international students who’re eligible to apply for post-graduation work permits (PGWP) when they finish their program of study. That’s because international students need to have maintained full-time student status while in Canada in order to apply for a PGWP, but exceptions can be made for students who took an approved leave of absence.

A national conversation on international students

Canada’s immigration rules governing international students are based on the expectation that students in Canada must focus primarily on their studies. Implicit in this expectation is the notion that students would be distracted from studying if they were able to work full-time hours. Yet many Canadians can probably relate to somebody studying full-time while working full-time hours to support themselves or their families.

These expectations and assumptions in the context of Canada’s international student program are now being challenged. These expectations have been put under the national spotlight for  all to judge whether they’re fair or logical. It will be interesting to see whether any positive changes will develop from the debate initiated by the Sandhu case.

What recent immigration history shows is that rule changes to the international student program have been slow and incremental. Until such time as new rules develop, international students in Canada should ensure they understand and comply with the conditions on their study permits to actively pursue their studies and only work within the limits set by law.


This article was written by Victor Ing and originally published by Asian Pacific Post. Ing is a lawyer with Sas & Ing Immigration Law Centre in Vancouver.