Identifying Realities Faced by International Students in Post-Secondary

International students come to Canada for an opportunity to access one of the top ranked countries for higher education globally. Yet 16 years of flat or reduced core funding to universities and colleges has resulted in institutions being forced into a reliance on ever- increasing fees charged to international students.

Currently, British Columbia hosts almost one-third of all international students in the country. The province has experienced the largest increase in proportions of international students at institutions of any province: between 2004 and 2013 the proportion of international students increased by 6.7% (from 10.9% to 17.6%). Unprotected by a legislated cap, as domestic students are, international student fees at universities in BC have risen 538% since 1991.

It is clear that the value and impact of international students extends much farther than the campus at which they are studying. International students contribute to the local economy on things such as living expenses, arts and culture, and recreation. According to a report for Global Affairs Canada, it is calculated that in 2015 these expenditures totalled $3.12 billion in annual spending, contributing to over 26,000 jobs. This is a direct contribution of $1.77 billion to the provincial GDP and over $176 million in income taxes. With this data, it is easy to see the ways that the federal and provincial governments rely on international education as a crucial export to boost their respective economies; however, without regulation this is a highly unstable situation, which could collapse without warning.

Though important, it is not economies that this article is concerned with, but rather those impacted by the exploitive nature of international student fees – the students themselves – and the needs for better supports and protections.

Across the province, one of the biggest financial challenges facing international students is the inability to properly budget for a 4-year degree. In any given year, fees may increase by as much as 9-18% with increases based on whatever the institution deems required to balance its budget. This is an unsustainable model that often results in students struggling to stay in BC to finish their studies.

At Selkirk College, international student tuition fees were frozen during the 2017-18 academic year, though a recent Board of Governors decision will have incoming students will facing a 10% increase in May.

A secondary challenge to the current policy context is that there are no notice requirements for fee increases. Institutions are able to implement substantial fee increases with only a few weeks of notice, leaving students scrambling for resources from their home countries. Unlike domestic students, international students who fail to obtain the necessary resources face not only removal from their courses and programs, but also removal from the country – oftentimes tens of thousands of dollars in debt and no degree to show for it.

“The reality is that students are in search of a better life for themselves and families; Canada provides that opportunity, and so they risk everything,” states Yasmine Monrose. If Selkirk College wants to create and promote a healthy campus environment, they need to take this into consideration when planning and strategizing for the academic year.”

The stressors that international students face are similar to those faced by domestic students, ranging from access to safe and affordable housing to employment support to counselling. However, these issues are compounded by feelings of isolation and culture shock. Students and their allies are currently putting pressure on institutions to offer the support international students need, rather than focusing on increasing the numbers to meet financial need.

Monrose encourages the Selkirk community to do better for international students stating: “In essence, Selkirk College needs to be aware of the gravity of the issues facing international students. International students have very limited choices for assistance. As a result, they rely solely on the college for support in dealing with these issues. Therefore, the college needs to ensure that the activities held on campus are inclusive and expose students to various cultures that exist on campus.”

“As an Indian student, I know what issues I face,” says Ramanjeet Kaur in speaking about a event today that invites community members to learn about and discuss the realities international students face in our communities. “We want to address this openly so that everybody gets a better understanding and we can take action on issues.”

Kaur says challenges faced by international students include accommodation, employment, transportation and acceptance. Many of the issues are not unique to international learners, but due to the cultural differences, difficulties can become compounded. Students want to let those interested know a little bit more about themselves and how they navigate both challenges and opportunities.

Institutions are aware of the pressures international students face and the ongoing work that is required to alleviate this. At Selkirk College, a number of supports are offered that specifically target the need for inclusion. This includes assistance with immigration, accommodations, and employment supports. This spring a 2-year international student education plan will begin to be implemented, which will encourage more inclusive structures within curriculum. 

Rhonda Schmitz, the Director of Student Development, explains that Selkirk College is always seeking new ways to support international students.

The Selkirk College community will engage in meaningful dialogue with all employees and students to enhance our understanding and awareness of the rich rewards of inclusion and diversity and we plan sharing our learnings with interested community partners through a variety of communication strategies, such as presentations and social media.”

Research has shown that when institutions take these actions to embrace diversity and create socially supportive school contexts, this can improve the social inclusion and academic success of not just international students, but all students. The benefits of this will be seen in the long term: international students who feel better integrated and greater belonging in their community are much more likely to complete their studies, and are more likely to stay after graduation and become part of British Columbian society and labour force.

“In many ways, Canada is a very tolerant country, but the quickest way for that to break down is when people stop talking,” Janzen, an instructor in the Peace and Justice Studies department states. “Immigration and race are two topics on which people have very strong opinions, and yet at the same time, we seem to be very hesitant to talk about them, outside anonymous online forums. We need to develop safe spaces where we can come together to have important conversations, while at the same time, get to know each other.”

Selkirk College Students Union, along with partner unions in the BC Federation of Students, are currently campaigning on this issue through “Fairness for International Students,” which highlights the need for support and to raise awareness around those most exploited by the current system. The BCFS undertook extensive research to contribute to the campaign, which recommends amendments to the Tuition Fee Limit Policy to include regulations that provides protection for international students and a provincial educational plan that includes supports for international students to assist in their cultural, social, and academic integration.

Santanna Hernandez, Chairperson of the SCSU explains that it’s important for domestic students to stand up for fairness for international students.“What domestic students do not realize is that our education needs international students. Not only are we richer for getting to know these incredible people from around the world, but due to drastic under funding from the government many institutions are dependent on international students and therefore would not exist for domestic students to attend. This system needs to be fair for all students, as we all contribute to our educational and broader communities in many – and equal – ways.”

An event this evening seeks to provide community members an opportunity to discuss this nuanced and important topic more in depth. International students who are part of the Peace Studies 101 class will share their experience and those in attendance will be encouraged to bring forward questions. The event runs from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday, March 29 at St.Rita’s Church in Castlegar (513 7th Avenue).