Mary Asekome knows all too well the issues facing international students who come to Canada with dreams typical of young people striking out in life.
From Nigeria, she enrolled at York University to study communications, and has since graduated, but not without some struggle.
“For me, when I started, my parents were well-to-do, but then there was a recession in Nigeria at some point, so that made it increasingly difficult for me to pay for my accommodation and tuition, and go to classes with the texts and materials I needed.”
Financial hurdles, accompanied by the shock of immersion in a foreign culture and climate, difficulties using a second language, loneliness, and the expectations of family members who may have sacrificed significantly to enable their children’s education half-way around the world are all common challenges faced by international students.
Asekome overcame hers, applied for a post-graduate work permit, and landed a position serving on the national executive of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). Not quite at a happy ending, she works and waits in a kind of limbo — similar to so many other recent graduates like her across the country — hoping to be chosen from a pool of applicants for permanent residency in Canada.
There are many reasons foreign students come to Canada, including lower tuition compared to countries that provide similar educational quality, such as the UK, Australia and the US. Additionally, recent political trends in the US have shone a spotlight on Canada as a safe, welcoming country that values human rights and global citizenship.
It’s the possibility of not just studying in Canada, but staying, that may be the biggest lure. The pool in which Asekome finds herself is a significant draw for foreign students, as Canada’s immigration laws allow them to study, work, and if they choose, tread a pathway to building a life here. In fact, a 2018 survey by the Canadian Bureau for International Education indicates some 60 per cent of international students intend to try just that.
Canada is counting on it, with successive federal governments encouraging the influx of youth from abroad. Statistics Canada reports that between 2006-07 and 2016-17, international student enrolment in post-secondary institutions more than doubled (134%), from 105,300 to 245,900. And according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, the number of study permits at the post-secondary level grew a further 41 per cent between 2016 and 2018.
Canada’s International Education Strategy places international education squarely as an essential pillar of Canada’s long-term competitiveness. “Canadians who study abroad gain exposure to new cultures and ideas, stimulating innovation and developing important cross-cultural competencies. Students from abroad who study in Canada bring those same benefits to our shores. If they choose to immigrate to Canada, they contribute to Canada’s economic success.”
While few might argue against such aspirational statements, the reality on the ground for international students is not perfect.
As the CFS’s Campaign for Fairness for International Students bluntly observes, “In every single province across Canada, it is a condoned practice to charge exorbitant differential tuition fees for international students. On average, international students pay $25,589.00 per year for a general arts degree in Canada; an amount close to four times more than domestic students. In most provinces, international students are not covered under provincial health insurance and must rely on expensive private health insurance programs… Food and retail work, common jobs for students, were unlisted as valid Canadian work experience that would count towards a permanent residency application. Many international students are also confronted with racism and xenophobia in daily interactions in their classrooms and communities.”
The presence of foreign students varies from campus to campus, with a May 2019 article in University Affairs suggesting that it is now common for international students to comprise at least 15 per cent of student enrolment, and “sometimes much more.”
A recent report from the Education Policy Committee of the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of BC paints a picture of rapid growth in that province, with total international student enrollment growing from nearly 37,000 in 2012/13, to nearly 62,000 by 2016/17, an increase of over 40 per cent. The proportion of international students to domestic currently stands at 26 per cent at Langara College, and 24 per cent at the University of British Columbia.
The report makes a series of recommendations based on findings that the “growing reliance on tuition to support budgets, combined with particular exemptions… that favour the exploitation of income generated from international students, puts the ‘public’ nature of public post-secondary education at great risk. Who is able to access higher education is predicated on who can pay. The combined lack of international enrolment plans/strategies and reporting is particularly concerning.”
Lack of transparency made it difficult for FPSE to locate information about international education for their institutions, effectively limiting the way international education could be evaluated, financially and pedagogically.
The Committee’s recommendations “underscore a need to approach international education with mindfulness, resisting practices that are exploitative while also fostering authentic intercultural awareness.”
Similar challenges are seen across the country. Association of Nova Scotia University Teachers (ANSUT) President Scott Stewart teaches philosophy at Cape Breton University (CBU), where international students comprise 60 per cent of enrolment, the highest in the country. International enrolment at CBU more than doubled between 2017-2018 and the NS Department of Higher Education has announced that across the province international students brought in $145 million in that year, representing 37% of the total tuition fees collected in the province (which was $391 million).
Such a large injection into any local economy is welcome, Stewart says, but particularly so for Cape Breton.
“We’re a post-industrial spot. The steel and coal are completely gone and the fishing is greatly diminished. We are a declining population and particularly among college-aged students... so we have a choice. We’ve got to get smaller or we’ve got to attract students from somewhere else, either somewhere else in Canada or, increasingly, international students.”
The cost of such reliance came sharply to light when a few years ago Saudi Arabia changed policy and began limiting funding of international student tuition to top-performing, research-intensive universities. Almost overnight, enrolment of Saudi students dropped from a substantial portion to near zero at CBU. The school has since diversified its international population, a tactic also being encouraged through the federal International Education Strategy.
But even with more students from China and India attending Canadian universities, the situation across the country remains fraught with vulnerabilities, as demonstrated when a 2018 tweet from Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland displeased Saudi royalty. The tweet called for the release of imprisoned activists, and set off a stunning backlash including the threat to call home the some 10,000 Saudi students studying in Canada at the most highly ranked universities.
Beyond the financial implications, other issues percolate, from lack of adequate support for the mental health and well-being of students, to the increased workload placed on faculty who must navigate language and cultural barriers, usually in the absence of additional classroom resources or training on difficult and sensitive issues such as cross-cultural sexual violence prevention.
At CBU, Stewart has observed numbers of international students climbing at rates unmatched with increased resource allocation. “We have not thus far, until this year, hired additional faculty. So faculty have been working, especially in some programs, with too many students, as in really crazy numbers.”
“And obviously as a union person I’m in favour of hiring faculty — but the worry then becomes that with the instability in the system, and if the students disappear as they have in the past, then that raises all kinds of issues about layoffs,” he says.
Mary Asekome says the CFS’s campaign for Fairness for International Students is motivated by the many success stories of students who have none-the-less navigated the system, but remains rooted in the hope of improving it so future students may face fewer hurdles, with adequate resources in place for teachers and students alike.
“All that international students are asking for is fairness and for us not to be treated as cash cows, basically,” she sums up.
Stewart agrees. “International students are here to stay, and that’s definitely not a bad thing. An awful lot of good comes from international students. But I think we have to do it in a reasonable, sustainable, measured way, and I don’t think we’re doing that right now.”