This story is part of Learning Curve, a HuffPost Canada series that explores the challenges and opportunities for students, faculty and post-secondary institutions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tamunoibifiri Fombo finished her first year at Ryerson University’s RTA School of Media in Toronto this spring, but won’t be returning in September.
The high tuition costs for international students, combined with online classes in the fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic and what Fombo described as a general lack of support for international students at the school, led her to defer her studies for the year.
“I feel like [Ryerson has] been very inconsiderate for making us pay the same amount of money, when we’re not going to get the same good value [of learning] for what we’re paying for,” she told HuffPost Canada. “An increase in tuition — it just crossed the line.”
As an international student from Nigeria, Fombo’s tuition is already significantly higher than domestic students. This year she would have paid upwards of $28,600, up from about $27,700 last year. A domestic student in the same program would pay around $7,000.
International students studying in Canada pay significantly higher tuition than domestic students, since their tuition isn’t regulated by provincial governments. These high tuition fees are critical for colleges and universities, many of which have become reliant on international students and have increased their recruitment efforts to try to bring in more students from abroad and, by extension, more tuition money.
The COVID-19 pandemic poses a threat to this.
The Canadian government’s travel restrictions prevent most international students from entering the country right now. One immigration lawyer told HuffPost that she’s heard of students being turned away at Canadian airports because their online classes don’t justify their physical presence in the country.
Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada, previously told HuffPost the issue of international students not being able to come to Canada was an important one not only for the post-secondary sector, but for the entire country.
International students contributed $21.6 billion to the Canadian economy in 2018, according to the government. They also supported almost 170,000 Canadian jobs in 2016.
“We don't feel supported by the government, we don't feel supported by the institution ...”
Fombo got a summer job at Ryerson but had to quit when she deferred. She has been able to do some freelance writing and audio work during the pandemic, but as an international student, she isn’t eligible for the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB).
She said she doubts the government will take action now to help international students, despite the value they bring to the country.
“If they were going to do anything they would have probably done it long ago,” she said.
Fombo said in addition to the high tuition international students pay, she feels students like herself are lacking mental health supports.
“We don’t feel supported by the government, we don’t feel supported by the institution, we don’t feel supported in any proper way,” she said.
Ryerson spokesperson Lindsey Craig said in a statement to HuffPost that the school “understands that the international community is particularly impacted at this time.”
She said international tuition fees have been “reviewed on a program by program basis” and increased in line with peer institutions. The university has incurred almost $10 million in additional costs during the pandemic and expects to spend more in the fall.
Craig added international students are eligible for the same mental health supports and services as domestic students, including the university’s counselling and medical centres and an app that can be used in Canada or abroad where students can access counsellors for phone and text conversations.
The university’s international student support office remains open for virtual appointments as well and provided over $85,000 in relief funding to students last semester, she said.
Students want to see CESB eligibility expanded
A spokesperson from Employment and Social Development Canada said the eligibility parameters for the CESB “mirror” those for Canada Student Loans and provincial student financial assistance programs, and added that international students might qualify for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).
Ankit Tripathi, international students’ representative at the Canadian Federation of Students, said although international students qualify for the CERB, many are not eligible if they didn’t make $5,000 in the last 12 months or if they didn’t lose their job because of the pandemic.
During the academic year, international students are allowed to work a maximum of 20 hours per week on a part-time basis. They’re allowed to work full-time in the summer — which is when many save up for the upcoming school year — but Tripathi said finding work has been “near possible.”
International students are also not eligible for employment through the Canada Summer Jobs program, which the government expanded during the pandemic.
Tripathi said CFS wants to see three steps taken to help:
For the federal government to make international students eligible for the CESB, and increase the monthly amount from $1,250 to $2,000;
For the feds to remove travel restrictions for international students;
For the government, as well as post-secondary institutions, to increase funding for students and lower tuition.
Beyond the financial aspect, international students may be in a different time zone from their support network at home or face long wait times for counselling here, Tripathi said, adding institutions should be doing more to give specialized care for international students.
“The government does almost nothing to actually give back to these folks that they so desperately want to come to the country,” he said.
‘International students are getting the shorter stick at both ends’
Thrinayana Kaipuram is an international student from India studying at Humber College in Toronto, entering her third year of the animation program in the fall.
Her tuition increased by $2,000 for the upcoming school year, up to $19,800. (A domestic student in the same program would pay $6,700.)
Kaipuram said she also had to spend $2,000 on a new computer required by her program, to handle the software that they usually use in labs on campus. The lowest-range computer the program suggested was $1,500, she said.
“They didn’t suggest anything financially regarding the computer; they just said, if you can’t [afford it], then maybe you should consider deferring,” Kaipuram said.
Humber spokesperson Andrew Leopold said the college supports international students with a bursary to offset device purchases, including targeted aid for students in specific programs such as animation. The college also has a “bring your own device” bursary open to domestic and international students; those who qualify could receive between $500 to $1,000 to offset equipment costs.
Leopold said Humber is continuing to support international students during the pandemic, including giving an emergency bursary in the winter semester. International student tuition fees for 2019-22 were set months before the pandemic, he said, adding the college is reviewing ancillary fees for the fall semester and will not charge students for several fees including athletics, buildings and student government.
The college has also set aside $750,000 — part of which comes from its student union — to support international students with tuition and the cost of living for the upcoming academic year, Leopold said.
“International students are getting the shorter stick at both ends ...”
Kaipuram said she qualified for a bursary at the college in March, but the $500 didn’t stretch far. She had to put off certain dental procedures during the summer because her insurance ran out, and she adds that she knows friends who couldn’t afford to travel home to see a sick family member. She’s now relying on her savings, and support from her parents to pay tuition for the fall semester.
But not all international students have financial backing from their families. Kaipuram said while she understands why international students are excluded from the CESB, because they aren’t Canadian citizens, she feels like they are being treated like “cash cows.”
“International students are getting the shorter stick at both ends — from the government as well as the college — because our tuition is not regulated,” she said.