Canada’s Post-Graduate Work Permit (“PGWP”) program allows international students who have completed certain Canadian post-secondary programs to obtain work permits after graduating. The work permits are open, meaning that the graduates can work for any employer(s) in any Canadian province(s). It is a fantastic program that enhances the competitiveness of Canadian post-secondary institutions internationally, and is normally an essential transitory step for international graduates looking to eventually obtain Canadian permanent residency.
However, every year there are many international students who mistakenly think that they will be eligible to participate in the program after graduating only to discover midway through their studies that they cannot. It is accordingly very important that all international students in Canada understand how the PGWP program works.
Basis in Law
Section 205 of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations provides the government with the authority to create programs to issue work permits to foreign nationals when it is satisfied that public policy objectives relating to the competiveness of Canada’s economy or academic institutions are met. The PGWP is one of these programs, and detailed information about it can be found on the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (“IRCC“) website here.
As the Federal Court has noted in numerous decisions (such as Osahar v. Canada), immigration officers can determine these requirements to be binding.
Eligibility and Validity
Outside of Quebec, in order for an international graduate to obtain a PGWP after graduating, an international student must:
- have a valid study permit when applying for their PGWP;
- have continuously studied full time in Canada, except for the final academic session, where part-time studies are permitted;
- have completed and passed a program of study that is at least eight months in duration at either a public post-secondary institution, a private post-secondary institution that operates under the same rules and regulations as public institutions, or at a Canadian private institution if the student was enrolled in a program of study which led to a degree; and
- apply for the work permit within 90 days of receiving written confirmation from their educational institution that they have met the requirements for completing their program of study.
A PGWP’s duration will be equal to the length of the educational program that the international graduate completed, up to a maximum of three years. Any completed program that is longer than two-years will result in a three-year work permit. In other words, a two-year diploma and a four-year degree will both result in a three-year work permit.
It is important to note that it is the length of the program of study that is important, and not the actual time that it takes an international student to complete their program. For example, if a student enrolls in a program of study that is normally eight months in duration, but completes it in six months, then the student will be able to obtain an eight-month work permit after graduating. Conversely, an international student who takes two years to complete a one-year program will only receive a one-year PGWP.
There are complicated rules and scenarios for students transferring from one program to another, or completing multiple programs, that are beyond the scope of this article. However, a particularly common one is that students who obtain a one-year degree or diploma from an eligible institution in Canada after having obtained, with the prior two-years, another diploma or degree from an eligible institution in Canada, may be issued a work permit for up to three years. For example, if a student obtained a one-year diploma from the University of British Columbia in 2013, and then in 2015 obtained a MBA from the University of Toronto, then he would be able to obtain a three-year PGWP.
Graduates may submit their applications online, or, in certain cases at a Canadian port of entry or at overseas visa offices. Students who have completed their program of study and who apply for their PGWPs are permitted to work in Canada while IRCC processes their applications, provided that they were indeed full-time students enrolled in eligible programs while they were studying, and that they did not exceed their authorized off-campus work periods while they were students.
Finally, unlike with international students, the spouses or common-law partners of PGWP holders are not automatically entitled to open work permits. They will only be eligible if the PGWP holder obtains skilled employment, and can demonstrate this to IRCC by presenting an offer of employment as well as a copy of one or more pay slips.
Students who complete a program of study granted by a non-Canadian institution located in Canada are ineligible to obtain work permits under the PGWP program. However, students completing a program of study that has, as part of the program, an overseas component, such as an exchange, will be eligible as long as they earn a Canadian educational credential.
There are two further restrictions, or potential restrictions, to obtaining PGWPs that are currently the subject of litigation that potential international students and graduates should understand.
The first is that students participating in distancing learning programs, either abroad or in Canada, are ineligible to obtain PGWPs. In 2015, this restriction generated considerable media attention, as IRCC refused the PGWP applications of an entire graduating class at a private post-secondary institution after IRCC determined that the institution’s program constituted online learning. Some of these graduates have sought intervention from the Federal Court of Canada, and one of the questions before the court is whether there is a percentage of online courses threshold that must be met before IRCC can declare a program ineligible. Until either IRCC or the Federal Court provides clarification on this matter, international students who wish to participate in the PGWP program should understand the possible negative consequences of enrolling in any online courses.
Second, recent graduates applying for PGWPs must ensure that they complete their PGWP applications promptly and properly. With most work permits applications, if IRCC either refuses or bounces an application for incompleteness, then an applicant can typically apply for restoration of status within 90 days. It is not clear, however, whether restoration is possible in the case of the PGWP because of the IRCC’s requirement that a recent graduate’s study permit be valid when they apply for their PGWP, although several Federal Court decisions seem to imply that it really is up to the officer.
Indeed, the PGWP has a surprisingly high refusal rate. During the first six months of 2016, the PGWP refusal rate exceeded 20% in every month except May, and in both June and March was 40% or more.