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International students’ lived experiences in Canada (ISX)

Marshia Akbar

Co-applicants: Anna Triandafyllidou and Jill Hanley (external link) , McGill University and Sherpa Research Institute on Migration, Health and Social Services 


The number of international students tripled in the last decade, from 285,890 in 2011 to 622,000 in 2021. Despite increasing admission levels and policy emphasis on their retention, their rate of transition to permanent residency has been low. Only about one-fifth (19%) of international students who entered Canada with a study permit between 1990 and 2014 obtained permanent status within ten years of receiving their study permits. This indicates that many students live and work with temporary status for a lengthy period of time. Moreover, their migration transition is often intertwined with their school to work transition. Although their temporary migration is regulated by policy, the time dimension (both quantitative and lived/experiential time) of their temporariness is ambiguous and probably changes during their studies and post-graduate employment experience. While undergraduate, masters and PhD students follow the same regulatory process of transition from temporary to permanent status, their study length, institution type, study field, gender, employment experience and life course stages shape their experiences differently.

This study – International students’ lived experiences in Canada (ISX) – brings the three stages of international students’ transition: study permit stage, postgraduate work permit stage and permanent residency stage into one analytical framework and relates their individual experiences to the macro-level institutional contexts within which they study, work and encounter challenges.

The research will contribute to the conceptual understanding of the temporary status and transitions experienced by international students by considering not only migration transitions but also life transitions in terms of studies, employment, and personal and family circumstances, and how these processes are shaped by gender and intersectional identities.

The short-term objectives of this study are:

  1. To develop a conceptual framework to analyze temporariness, focusing on lived experiences of international students and institutional factors, such as migration policies, the role of academic institutions and labour market barriers.
  2. To theorize the role of gender and other intersectional identities and life stages in shaping international students’ transition from study to work and temporary to permanent status.

The long-term objectives of this study are:

  1. To advance theory supporting a life course approach to understanding migrant agency and decision making and the role of such agency in the context of the three-step student migration.
  2. To apply the conceptual framework for analyzing the experiential and perceptual understanding of temporary status and transitioning to inform the implications of migration policies and practices.

In the backdrop of the pandemic, which has revealed and intensified international students’ precarious residency and employment conditions, this project will produce much needed data and evidence-based analysis to build a theoretical and conceptual framework of the temporariness and transition of international students to facilitate innovative policy thinking.

  • What are the opportunities and challenges experienced by international students and graduates in their transitions (from study to work and temporary to permanent status) in Canada?
  • How do the lived experiences of temporary status and transitions reflect and/or challenge the institutional and policy framework of transition and integration?

Canada’s immigration policy recognizes international students as a vital source of highly skilled workers and ideal candidates for this two-step system. The path from temporary to permanent residence and social and economic integration should be reasonably easy for international students with a Canadian education, work experience, and proficiency in at least one official language. Instead, data and information show that they experience low transition rates, underemployment, and lower median income after graduation compared to their Canadian-born counterparts and a significant gap exists between policy assumptions and actual experiences. This gap has grown during the ongoing pandemic, revealing their vulnerable and precarious migration status and employment conditions.

To better understand international students’ transition and integration challenges, we must acknowledge that most go through, not two, but three steps in the immigration process, from study permit to postgraduate work permit, and then to permanent residency. This lengthy process involves not just migration transitions but also life transitions from school to work, and often changes in family status, which has important gender and intersectional dimensions. The project examines this three-stage migration and integration process of international students analyzing gender and intersectional identities, life-course events and institutional policies. The study contributes to theorizing concepts of time, life course and transition in migration, looking at interactions between migration status, specific life phases, employment and social and institutional factors (such as migration policies, roles of educational institutions and labour market barriers).

We will collect primary data through an online survey and 120 interviews with three groups that represent the three stages of the temporary migration and transition process:

  1. Study permit holders (international students in universities and colleges who may work on- and/or off-campus depending on the conditions of their permit)
  2. Postgraduate work permit holders (international graduates under the International Mobility Program (IMP) who can live and work in Canada up to three years after graduation)
  3. Permanent residents (former international students and postgraduate work permit holders who obtained permanent residency).

In addition to the survey and interviews with these three groups, we will also conduct 10 expert interviews and produce 12 digital stories to visualize the experiential journey of current and former international students. Using mixed methods, the T&T project will better comprehend the conceptual and experiential views of international students’ temporariness and transition.

The data collection and data analysis for this project have been concluded. The study's findings have been disseminated at three Canadian conferences and two international conferences. Furthermore, a book proposal stemming from this study is currently in progress, and numerous publications have already been released based on the comprehensive literature review and interviews conducted as part of this project.

The publications to date include:

Policy briefs

Journal articles

Research Reports

Blog articles

May 2024

Social Science and Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). Insight Development Grant (June 2022- May 2024).

 International students, transition, employment, integration