2024

The Power List: Marc Miller

Our top education changemaker is reining in a runaway international-student market—and making sure a Canadian degree is still worth something
BY ALEX CYR Photography by RéMI THIéRAULT
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April 1, 2024

When Marc Miller became minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship last July, Canada’s international-student population was nearly one million strong—and up by 200,000 from only a year prior. On paper, those numbers might frame Canada as a global incubator of young minds, poised to reap the economic benefits of a supercharged education pipeline. But Miller realized they were telling a different story: Canada’s ostensibly successful international-student program had become a cash cow for underfunded universities and colleges and a booming private-college industry, as well as a back door for people seeking permanent residency. It was also a golden opportunity for unscrupulous international-education consultants luring students to Canada to make a quick buck. 

Equally troubling: the influx of newcomers was further straining our already stressed housing markets and health-care systems. The math on international students across Canada—especially in Ontario and British Columbia—was no longer adding up. Sham colleges popping up in strip malls were dishing out dubious degrees to newcomers in exchange for entrance into the country. Universities starving for funds were welcoming more international students than they could support, leaving many to rely on charities and food banks. In college and university towns nationwide, students were being forced into low-budget apartments and working customer service just to afford to live in a new country. “You couldn’t build institutions fast enough to provide a quality education for so many students,” said Miller. “We had to say enough is enough.”

Miller believes that a Canadian degree should be worth something. An anglo Montrealer who befriended schoolmate Justin Trudeau in Grade 7, Miller has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science from the Université de Montréal and degrees in common law and civil law from McGill. He served four years as an infantry soldier, practised law, moonlights as a hockey goalie and even delivered a speech in Mohawk to the House of Commons—just to prove the point that busy adults can learn new languages. 

He is also the type of scholar who has a regard for life beyond the classroom. That makes him wary of the pressure that an overstuffed education pipeline can place on communities. To protect the quality of education that Canada provides, reduce negative impacts on Canadian society and ensure that the international students who come here have a good experience, he figures, we must stop taking in more students than we can properly absorb. 

1. Marc Miller_feature_Rémi Thériault

In just his second month at his post, Miller began tightening the gates to Canadian higher education. He incrementally unveiled a sweeping framework meant to regain control of the admissions system and hold institutions to a higher standard of support for international students. He implemented an annual intake cap of 360,000 new international-study permits, to last at least two years. That’s a 35 per cent reduction from the 550,000 permits issued in 2023. Miller also raised the proof-of-solvency requirement—which international students must show as evidence they can afford life in Canada—from $10,000 to $20,635. The measures, he said, are part of a multi-pronged approach to ensure a better student experience.

Altogether, the moves disrupt the booming international-education industry, which  supports more than 200,000 jobs and contributes more than $22 billion to the Canadian economy. Academic leaders have warned that Miller’s cap could make some institutions bleed enough to force layoffs and program closures. Especially vulnerable are private colleges that depend on international students, which have proliferated in Ontario and B.C. in the past few years. Some public institutions face a reckoning as well, especially those that have expanded quickly due to international-student enrolment. Take, for example, Cape Breton University, where the student population has increased from 3,000 to nearly 9,000 in the past five years, almost entirely due to international students. Even our largest universities, many facing provincial budget cutbacks, have come to depend on international tuition. At the University of Toronto, nearly one-third of full-time enrolment is from international students, double the figure of only 10 years ago. 

But financial desperation is no excuse for luring students with the promise of a good quality of life, only to have them cram by the dozen into one-bedroom apartments. “We will be leaving some important short-term gains on the table,” Miller has said, “because we want to avoid the long-term pain that nobody has gamed out.” 


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This story appears in the May issue of Maclean’s. You can buy the issue here or subscribe to the magazine here.