Many international students in Canada find themselves in a precarious situation. Pandemic-driven tuition hikes will damage efforts to attract them.

The federal government has rolled out a $9-billion aid package for Canadian students affected by the pandemic. But not only have many international students been left out of the program because of its eligibility criteria; some are being asked to pay even higher tuition fees.

Several Canadian universities are hiking tuition fees for international students who are enrolled for the summer 2020 session and the 2020-21 academic year. The increases range from 3 percent to 15 percent, depending on the program. While domestic fees are frozen for another year in Ontario, international students are left to cover some of the deficit resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before the pandemic, many international students were already struggling financially. These unexpected tuition hikes will force some international students to either take on extra jobs, in order to survive during their studies in Canada, or drop out of their programs altogether. For the benefit of these students — and of Canadian society — the increases should be reconsidered.

International students are funding Canadian universities

The reliance on international students to partly fund Canadian universities is not new. Research suggested already in 2015 a link between the doubling of the foreign student populations in Canada between 2000 and 2011, skyrocketing international tuition fees and “ongoing budget cuts to public universities.”

Between 2014 and 2018, enrolment of international students in Canadian universities has increased by 68 percent. In 2017, international students were paying fees nearly four times as high as those charged to domestic students, prompting the Canadian Federation of Students to state that international students were being used as “cash cows” — merely a source of revenues.

Successive Canadian governments have worked to attract international students in order to fill programs in universities across the country. Canada’s 2019 International Education Strategy points to the positive impact of international students, such as the development of cross-cultural competencies and their contribution to the country’s economic success.

As the country is facing significant labour shortages, the strategy emphasizes that international students can “help Canada meet current and emerging labour-market challenges.” It also highlights that this group “contributed an estimated $21.6 billion to Canada’s GDP” in 2018 and supported almost 170,000 jobs for Canadians in 2016.

This policy has not gone unchallenged. Kyra Garson, a Thompson Rivers University professor, commenting on the previous (2016) government strategy, writes that the “framing of international education as an industry generating revenues to prop up underfunded institutions is troubling.”

Struggling to make ends meet

While Canada counts on international students to support its educational institutions, those students find it difficult to support themselves. A country-wide survey of international students in 2018 found that while “the vast majority of international students are satisfied with their educational experience in Canada,” 79 percent had trouble covering their costs of accommodation. Many also reported difficulty in finding work, despite two-thirds of respondents indicating that working while studying in Canada was essential or very important. Among the reasons they cited were cultural differences, “employer discrimination against international work experience,” eligibility to work and challenges with establishing a network.

Problems relating to housing and tuition costs affected international students’ physical and mental health, according to a study from 2016 from a western Canadian university. Students reported having to choose between earning an income and studying, and others were affected by currency fluctuations in their country of origin.

International students are subject to visa restrictions that prohibit them from working more than 20 hours a week during school sessions. One student who exceeded the limit in order to afford staying in school, Jobandeep Sandhu, was arrested and received a deportation order. High tuition fees combined with these additional burdens specific to international students make this group especially vulnerable to instability, as the COVID-19-related crisis has shown.

A survey among international students in New Brunswick in May showed that COVID-19 is threatening their food and housing security, and 95 percent are ineligible for CERB or other assistance. In addition, some international students who relied on summer jobs to save up and pay tuition fees for the next academic year saw their scheduled job interviews cancelled amid the pandemic. The federal government has responded by lifting restrictions on the number of hours international students can work on a student visa if they take jobs in essential services. However, this measure is problematic for those who cannot find these jobs.

Alina Przybyl, an international student at George Brown College, found that she was ineligible for government assistance in April because she had no social insurance number while waiting for her student permit to be renewed

Because she lost her job, Aryiana Gomez, an international student at Memorial University, has managed to survive during the pandemic due to a rent arrangement with her landlord, the food bank and a $100 gift card she received from her university.

Kay Matthew, an international student at NBCC Moncton and single mother of two, did not earn enough last year to qualify for CERB.

Ian Tian, a postgraduate student at the University of Toronto, had been counting on a summer job that might no longer be available. He would have been forced to choose between rent and food had it not been for the food bank.

Beatrice Chiang, president of the Dalhousie International Students’ Association, notices that the majority of students accessing the university’s food bank seem to be international students. The situation is similar at the University of Guelph.

Some international students do not have a financial and social support system in place in Canada, so they carry an even heavier burden than their Canadian counterparts. Others have seen their support dwindle as their parents’ income is affected in their home countries, or they are unable to receive transfers due to bank closures.

While some international students may come from wealthy families, others have made significant sacrifices to pursue higher education in Canada. Some students, including the authors of this article, had to learn English or French and had taken international tests to meet admission criteria in Canadian universities. Other students had saved up to obtain the Canadian student visa and relied on loans to be able to afford postsecondary education and living expenses in this country.

Recently, the government announced that it is working with universities and colleges to find ways to support international students. However, it is unclear what this support will look like.

A call for reconsideration and compassion

International students have contributed billions of dollars yearly to the Canadian economy. They have also brought a diversity of cultures and world views to many national institutions, contributing greatly to enhancing these institutions’ reputations in international rankings.

As is the case with other vulnerable groups, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing challenges for international students. These are unlikely to disappear once things get back to normal. The COVID-19 crisis presents us with an opportunity to reflect on the experiences of international students in Canada, and to reconsider what it means to welcome newcomers to the country.

It is important for policy-makers and university administrators to understand how tuition hikes will perpetuate international students’ precarious status in Canada, which will damage this country’s incredible effort to attract international students. We urgently call for a thorough reconsideration of tuition hikes for international students in order to alleviate the specific socio-economic challenges they are facing.

This article is part of the The Coronavirus Pandemic: Canada’s Response special feature.

Photo: People walk past the University of Toronto campus during the COVID-19 pandemic on June 10, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette