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This paper connects the growing interest in immigrant settlement outside of gateway cities, and the noted shift in international student policies from ‘red card to red carpet’, by exploring what role the higher education sector plays in the attraction and retention of immigrants to second tier cities (STCs). Using the case of Kitchener-Waterloo in Ontario, the qualitative research offers four findings. Firstly, higher education institutions act as the very locus of change in STCs in terms of introducing greater ethnic and cultural diversity; secondly, they act as important attractors and retainers of talent in their own right and in terms of the linkages and connections they create in the local economy; thirdly, international students and immigrants perceive the university as providing a socio-spatial buffer against wider discriminatory behaviours; and lastly, the ‘red card to red carpet’ policy shift that is underway will only intensify the role higher educational institutions play in international migration.