Is Conestoga College’s massive growth impacting UW students?


As Waterloo’s housing market continues to see red, concern around Conestoga College’s rapid growth of international students continues to circulate. 

Since 2014, the colleges’ international student growth is up 1,579 per cent, compared to UW and Wilfrid Laurier University, who have experienced a 62 per cent and 66 per cent growth respectively. Conestoga welcomed close to 30,000 new international students in 2022 alone, which now makes up the majority of their student base. The college’s annual report for 2022-23 reported 42,000 full-time students enrolled across their eight campuses, meaning international students now account for around 70 per cent of the student body.

Conestoga has quadrupled its full-time students since 2012. Back then, nearly nine out of 10 of them were Canadian. This has made it one of the fastest-growing colleges in Ontario.

The college only offers 900 residential units, so students are naturally forced to find off-campus housing solutions. And strangely enough, the 900 rooms themselves are often unoccupied. An international student from Nigeria in his first year of studies at Conestoga College (who wished to remain anonymous) described his brief residence experience as “an overpriced prisoner bed.” Other reasons include the fact that many of the overseas students are generally older with prior degrees and are not looking to live in a dorm room. It is also not unusual for some of them to have families, hence the need for a larger space.

As of the fall term, the city of Waterloo published a report that the city is short around 5,000 beds for university and college students. It’s estimated that Waterloo has 39,865 beds in supply for up to 44,595 students in demand. The Nigerian international student we spoke to began his search for off-campus housing last month and said, “I never thought affordability would become secondary. Just finding a place to stay was the difficult part.” 

“In my experience, it’s been two extremes,” said Spencer Chen, fourth-year UW student. “I’ve paid very little before and had to deal with a cramped room with no light switch, but on the other hand, I’ve paid absurd prices to live with strangers in a poorly managed building. I want to find a middle ground.” 

Chen has played both sides of the rental game, as he subleased his room when he was away for a co-op term. “My experience with receiving payments had always been complicated,” he shrugged. He explained how he struggled with receiving rent on time and once even lost his tenant mid-way into the term. 

As the city’s vacancy rates continue to cruise at record lows, Kitchener-Waterloo ranked as the 13th most expensive place to rent in Canada as of January 2024, at an average of $2,359 for a two-bed unit. Purpose-built rental apartments across the nation experienced the fastest growth in 2023, posting a 12.8 per cent increase.

“I’ve been hearing about five-bedroom units being taken up by 8-10 people,” said James Craig, a realtor and member of the Waterloo Region Association of Realtors (WRAR), who works closely with student rentals. “As housing prices rise, food security also becomes a growing issue. The two matters go hand in hand.”

The affordability issue isn’t limited to housing; the Food Bank of Waterloo Region recorded a 220 per cent increase in food assistance for students compared to last year. While the food bank does not distinguish between international and domestic students, anecdotal evidence has pointed to a rise in international students requiring assistance. The WUSA food bank usage has also increased by 300 per cent this year. 

International students are required to show the government a minimum bank balance before arriving, but according to Cambridge Today, have reportedly been getting loans to meet the requirement, then quickly paying them off before coming to Canada. The result is a large group of international students working multiple jobs to afford tuition and living — a very difficult task to do on minimum wage, hence the increased need of the food bank. 

In just a decade, the international student presence at Conestoga College rose from 10 per cent to 70 per cent — a statistic that has UW students on online forums criticizing the college. It’s no secret that international tuition is significantly more expensive. Conestoga brought in an additional $109 million in tuition fees since the previous fiscal year, while UW experienced a $10 million increase.

On Jan. 22, the federal government announced a plan to limit the number of international student permits authorized in Canada throughout 2024, as immigration minister Marc Miller called the 2023 volume “disconcerting.” A two-year cap will be imposed, slashing the number of student visas issued by 35 per cent with aims to target institutional “bad actors.” Universities across the country have responded negatively, claiming that the move could be damaging to not only schools’ financial situations, but also Canada’s image as a study destination.

“Buses have definitely become more crowded over the years,” said Rashid Haque, a fourth-year student at UW. “Especially around the Conestoga area… I think it’s great that our community continues to become more diverse, but the institutions that welcome this many students should be held accountable when it comes to a lack of infrastructure.”  

There is some hope for the housing supply as more units are built. “There is a healthy pipeline of projects on the way,” assured Craig. “As hope rises for lower interest rates, we can expect more inventory in the market.” 


With files from Humreet Sandhu.