The fight for affordability and equality for international students

The spread of COVID-19 and the accompanying fallout has left many anxious about their economic situation. While governments around the world have been quick to address the rise in unemployment and the loss of regular weekly wages workers depend on, many are still feeling the pinch caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Students are in a particularly tough spot. With in-class learning cut short, universities have moved to an online delivery method that varies between schools. Residence buildings have also been closed, forcing students out before the end of the winter semester. Due to these abrupt changes, many are hoping for at least a partial refund for tuition and other fees paid.

The situation is compounded by the Ontario government’s decision to reduce funding for students through OSAP before the start of this school year. Many received grants and loans that included some money for ancillary fees, textbooks and even other expenses like transportation, food and housing. Now, the amount has been largely reduced for most students. 

This is ultimately making the current crisis harder for many students, as many of them are out of work and, without OSAP to rely on.

“We need to make education affordable and it’s just unconscionable that we’re saddling this generation with this much debt,” said Chris Glover, NDP MPP and Critic for Colleges and Universities. “College or university is absolutely essential now for most jobs and yet students are going to take on debt, low- and middle-income students are ending up taking on debt that’s going to take them decades to pay back.”

The Government of Ontario did not respond to my request for comment on how they plan to address tuition affordability.

More specifically however, when looking at students and the high fees and tuition rates they have to pay, you can’t ignore the vast inequality in treatment and cost of education for domestic and international students. In 2020, tuition for a full time domestic student at Brock University is just under $6,100, for an international student, it is nearly $28,000. 

“The international tuition cost is significantly higher than domestic tuition,” said Lok Yiu (Renka) Cheng, a fifth-year Child and Youth Studies/Concurrent Education P/H student at Brock University. “I think that indicates that Canada sees education as more of a privilege than a right.” 

According to the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA), tuition rates for international students in Ontario have been exempt from provincial regulations on tuition caps since 1996. Because of this, international students regularly see large increases in their tuition rates from year to year, making financial planning extremely difficult for them and making affordability a common point of contention. 

Since 2015, tuition rates for domestic students at Brock University have actually gone down, from $6,652 in 2015 to $6,089.40 in 2020. Tuition rates for international students however, increased from $21,501.95 in 2015, to $27,885.60 in 2020. This amounts to nearly a 30 per cent increase for international students in five years.

Some international students have had to change their school schedules, either by not taking as many courses at a time or by staying in classes they would rather drop due to the high cost, a barrier faced by far fewer domestic students.

“There’s a common misconception that all international students are rich,” said Cheng, “but some of our parents work really hard for us to get an education in Canada since we are only allowed to work 20 hours off campus per week.”

On a student visa, international students are only allowed to work 20 hours a week while in school, according to the Government of Canada website. While they are allowed to work more hours during official breaks in the semester, like reading weeks for example, they cannot work outside of the school year.

In 2017, international student Jobandeep Singh Sandhu was arrested while working as a long haul trucker in Montreal. In 2019 he was deported after it was deemed that he had been working more than 20 hours a week while in Canada on a student visa, according to reporting by the CBC. He was quoted as saying that he was deported for “working too hard” while in school.

In a 2017 survey, OUSA found that 55 per cent of international students struggled to afford their tuition each semester, directly contradicting the notion that international students are especially wealthy.

“I have some friends who are international students in Germany and they do not have to pay additional fees to study there,” said Cheng.

Germany is one of several countries, including France, Norway, Denmark and many others, who do not charge tuition fees. Germany is a rare case however, in that they also have free tuition for international students.

Germany has free tuition for all students due to the fact that they see higher education as, “a public good, a way to train specialists that then benefit the public,” according to Brigitte Göbbels-Dreyling, deputy secretary general for the German Rectors’ Conference. 

This is in contrast to how it is discussed in Canada and elsewhere in the western world, as we tend to focus on how it will give us a competitive edge over others in the job market, as opposed to seeing higher education as something of value for our society as a whole.

According to a research paper published by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, people who attend university are less likely to commit a crime, more likely to vote, live longer and happier lives and are generally more healthy. They also note that higher rates of university participation increase social cohesion, mobility and capital, as well as political stability, all of which support the argument for making college and university tuition free.

However, many aren’t arguing for free tuition, including international students themselves. They simply want greater fairness for international students and consistency from year to year.

“While I’m not suggesting that international students should not pay for tuition, I definitely think it should not be so high. There could be more scholarships and bursaries offered or they could decrease the cost,” said Cheng.

There are many interest groups that concern themselves either fully or at least in part with lowering tuition rates across the board, including specifically for international students. While approaches and demands vary between the groups advocating for change on this front, they all see their vastly unequal tuition rate as being unfair and ultimately, in need of change.

In a 2017 policy paper, OUSA argued that international students, “should have the same predictability in their annual tuition costs as domestic students.” It continues, “financial aid options should be available for all willing and qualified international students hoping to study in an Ontario undergraduate degree program. Unfortunately, very few financial assistance options are available to international undergraduate students in Ontario.”

At Brock, the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) has been a major advocate for international students and tuition affordability.

“The GSA is in support of providing an immediate cap on the rate at which international student tuition can increase year over year,” said Christopher Yendt, the President of Brock’s GSA. “While the discrepancy between domestic and international tuition continues to be a significant issue, we would note that the GSA’s advocacy efforts have been successful in the past.” 

Brock’s GSA have successfully pushed for limiting international student tuition increases to 5 per cent per year and waiving tuition for international PhD students.

“While this is certainly not our long term goal, we recognize that these are important first steps and restrictions to see implemented,” said Yendt. “Our advocacy efforts are ongoing … Our organization continues to push for tuition parity between students, and through our provincial and federal associations, an elimination of all tuition fees, domestic and international over a ten year timeframe.”

While an elimination of all tuition fees in ten years may seem optimistic and perhaps a bit far-fetched, the successes of the advocacy work of organizations like OUSA and Brock’s GSA are, as they have said, important first steps in reaching greater fairness for all students, domestic and international.

Some have also called for granting international students permanent residency, which would allow them to work more hours freely and would allow them to pay domestic tuition fees, ending the international vs. domestic fee structure as permanent residences are included as those who pay the highly regulated domestic fees.

Many universities argue that they need to continue to raise international tuition rates however, in order to combat budget shortfalls due to lagging provincial and federal funding, which is undeniable.

According to a report released by the Canadian Union for Public Employees (CUPE) in 2018, Canadian governments used to provide more than 80 per cent of the revenue of colleges and universities. But since the 1990’s, the proportion of funding provided by the government has dropped to only 50 per cent, which has shifted the burden onto students, largely, international students.

These funding shortfalls have forced the universities to embrace a private sector, business-oriented mindset, as opposed to being institutions meant for higher education. This has meant the hiring of more administrators and strategic planners and less money and energy spent actually focusing on teaching, research and education, according to the CUPE report.

Brock University’s 2018-2019 Annual Report discusses the ‘higher-than-planned international student recruitment’ and how that resulted in international tuition being ‘higher than budget by $3 million’ which contributed to the universities budget surplus.

For international student tuition rates to be changed, it will have to be done by the top down. If the government does not offer to pick up the shortfall that this will undoubtedly cause for universities, then they will likely never reduce the tuition voluntarily. Government funding ultimately will have to be restored to 1990s proportions in order to see tuition parity between domestic and international students become a reality.

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