By Elizabeth Berman
From being blamed for the housing crisis to being banned from local food banks, international students have been making headlines recently. Once a small minority, international students — and the high tuition they pay — are now a driving force on some Canadian college and university campuses.
International students can enrich the classroom experience for educators and domestic students. “Their background, their experience, and their culture can give them a different, original perspective on the issues that we raise in class,” said Patrick Noël, president of l’Association des professeur(e)s de l’Universite Saint-Boniface, a small French-language university in Winnipeg, Manitoba. About 14% of Saint-Boniface’s students are international, mostly from francophone countries in Africa.
It’s not the educational value of international students, though, that’s motivating governments and post-secondary institutions to recruit more and more of them.
“Attracting more international students is not so much a desire on the part of universities to open up to the world,” said Noël. “It is that they are trying to compensate for the cuts in funding from provincial governments.”
Sean Lougheed is president of OPSEU Local 657 at Canadore College in North Bay, Ontario, where about 72% of the student body in 2021-2022 were international students, a number that continues to rise.
“Ontario’s colleges and universities are still among the lowest nationally in provincial funding, and it’s been like that for decades,” said Lougheed. “In response, many colleges like our own have partnered with private institutions, unencumbered by domestic tuition freezes, granting the same credentials with non-unionized faculty.”
Canadore has a partnership with Stanford International College, a private career college with several campuses in the Greater Toronto Area. Without income from this public-private partnership, Canadore would be operating in the red, according to a report from the Auditor General of Ontario.
“The Auditor General was clear back in 2021 that the rate of international growth at several colleges, including Canadore, wasn’t aligned with provincial regulations,” said Lougheed. International enrolment at private campuses isn’t meant to be more than twice the international enrolment at the public college’s home campus. If it is, the public college is meant to submit a plan to achieve the correct ratio.
A lack of affordable housing, however, is constraining Canadore’s growth in North Bay. In early September, close to 20 unhoused international students were sleeping in tents at a bus stop just off campus. Canadore president George Burton later called the tents “a publicity stunt.”
“International students find themselves in common cause with poor and working-class Ontarians struggling to find affordable housing right now,” said Lougheed. While the college rushes to build more residences, the question is whether this level of financial dependence is sustainable. “Indian students alone contribute more money to the Ontario college system than the provincial government, a fact I keep reflecting on while watching recent Indo-Canadian relations. Are we prepared for the possibility of at least some contraction in the system?”
Contraction is on the horizon at Cape Breton University (CBU), where about 77% of the current 9,100 full- and part-time students are international. University president David Dingwall announced a plan in October to reduce the total number of students to around 7,000 by 2027, with a greater focus on recruiting students from within Canada.
The small community of Sydney, Nova Scotia, where CBU is located, counted just under 31,000 residents in the 2021 census. The university has come under scrutiny for the effect its burgeoning international student population is having on the availability of housing and jobs in the area.
“The issue we had was that the influx was sudden,” said Adango Miadonye, president of the Cape Breton University Faculty Association (CBUFA). The school didn’t have enough on-campus housing, though it is building more. “Hopefully in the next two to three years, we’ll be able to meet, in terms of infrastructure, the demand of the number of students we have now to accommodate them comfortably.”
With a sharp increase in the size of the student body, the CBUFA had to fight hard to make sure the university didn’t rely too heavily on contract academic staff. The issue was frontand-centre when the association took to the picket lines earlier this year.
“The essence of the strike was to avoid increasing the number of contract academic staff, to make sure that we don’t have precarious workers but to have workers that have fulltime contracts,” said Miadonye.
Precarity is also on the minds of academic staff at anglophone universities in Quebec. The Legault government announced in October that it would claw back about $17,000 of tuition from each international student as well as double tuition fees for out-of-province students.
“Everyone is worried,” said Peter Grutter, president of the McGill Association of University Teachers. “A major issue is that we don’t know what exactly the government has decided, as all we currently know is from legally non-binding statements.”
Except for students from France and Belgium, countries that have reciprocal agreements with Quebec, international tuition would rise dramatically in the province, hampering recruitment. “This will highly likely reduce the diversity of international and rest-of-Canada francophone voices in the classroom, and lead to a more homogeneous socio-economic background of international students,” said Grutter. “Only wealthy students will be able to afford to pay the high tuition rates. How can this policy be equitable or increase the influx of francophone students to Québec?”
The Legault government says its aim is to strengthen francophone universities, expressing concerns about unilingual English-speaking students contributing to the anglicization of Quebec. Prominent French institutions, including the Université de Montréal, have opposed the government’s stated intentions.
“I believe McGill currently has the right mix of international, rest-of-Canada and Québec students,” said Grutter. “Many of my colleagues, myself included, would like to see many more of these students graduate functional in French, allowing them to engage and contribute even more to Québec society. This is one of the proposals made by the three targeted universities [McGill, Bishop’s and Concordia].”
Coalitions as catalysts for change
In the face of challenges like public funding and affordable housing, academic staff associations at colleges and universities may feel powerless to effect change. Working together with other unions and organizations, however, can create collective power.
In Quebec, unions are working together through the Fédération québécoise des professeures et professeurs d’université (FQPPU), which strongly opposes the proposed tuition fee policy of the Legault government. Academic staff associations and their members in the province are encouraged to sign an official petition (www.assnat.qc.ca/en/exprimez-votre-opinion/petition/Petition-10517/index.html) calling on the government to cancel the tuition changes.
In Ontario, after the international student housing crisis in North Bay, Lougheed connected with Migrant Students United, a group of current and former international students uniting for justice, fair rules, equal rights and permanent resident status for all migrants.
“Making that connection and supporting the political advocacy efforts is the least I think we can do,” said Lougheed. He encourages other unions to connect with local organizers. Individuals and associations can also endorse the Fairness Agenda for Migrant Student Workers (www. migrantworkersalliance.org/fairnessagenda/).
Sarom Rho is an organizer with the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, which includes Migrant Students United. “When one section of our society has fewer rights, and is denied the same protections, it actually pushes the floor down for everybody,” she said. “In colleges and universities, when international students are denied rights, it hurts domestic students, it hurts faculty, it hurts the other workers on campus, because I don’t think any of us want a financialized model of education.”
Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, the Canadian Federation of Students and CAUT worked together earlier this year to help stop the deportation of Indian students who were issued fraudulent acceptance letters by an unregulated education recruiter. To prevent other students from being tricked by unscrupulous recruiters, Migrant Workers Alliance for Change has proposed an International Students Recruiter Regulatory Regime, which they presented to the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration. The federal government introduced changes to the International Student Program in October to better protect genuine students from fraud.
“Our solution is to call for a system where everybody has the same rights and protections, not only because this is fair, and we want to live in a fair society, but also it would increase our collective bargaining power to build the kind of public education system and society that we want,” said Rho.