With a new school year on the horizon, post-secondary education institutions are rushing to ready classes and students for the fall term. While there are new considerations for the way classes will unfold, international students face even more ambiguity, risk and barriers compared to the average student population.

International students represent between 25 to 30 per cent of student bodies at big institutions, such as University of Toronto, McGill University and University of British Columbia. Not only are their numbers big – they contribute big dollars to the economy, too. In 2018, international students contributed about $22.2 billion to the economy and created almost 170,000 jobs in Canada. It’s also no secret that schools rely on international students as a steady and increasingly important revenue stream.

There is a strong appeal to studying in Canada; the country has seen a 185 per cent increase in international student enrolment in the past decade. The federal government’s five-year international education strategy, developed pre-pandemic in 2019, shows its intent to continue attracting more international students to Canada.

Despite that, there have been few substantial policy changes to support international students during the COVID-19 crisis:

  • Incoming international students can complete up to 50 per cent of their program online while maintaining eligibility for a post-graduation work permit, which allows them to work legally in Canada for a set number of years after graduating.
  • The 20-hours-per-week restriction for off-campus work during the academic session is lifted until Aug. 31, as long as the work is for essential services or functions.
  • International students are allowed to travel in Canada for education purposes if their study permit was granted before March 18, 2020.
  • International students who were working part-time through the school year, but lost their jobs because of COVID-19, may be eligible to apply for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

These changes, while helpful, do not adequately address the barriers that international students face, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Due to the precarious nature of their immigration status as temporary visitors, international students are among the first to bear the brunt of this health crisis.

We need to take deliberate steps to ensure that international students can afford to live and study in Canada. Some immediate policy changes should include:

  • Allowing international students to work more than 20 hours per week for all types of services and beyond the August deadline: As most businesses are reopening, the term “essential” has become confusing. Given the lack of clarity, many employers and international students have opted to err on the side of caution by keeping their hours below 20 per week. This means that international students are losing out on the chance to earn more income to pay for tuition fees and living expenses. With summer employment hard to come by, extending the rule change to include the 2020-21 academic year will allow students to continue earning income to support their needs.
  • Broadening eligibility criteria for COVID-19 subsidies to accommodate international students’ immigration status: Many domestic students have tapped into the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) during the summer, which provides up to $1,250 for each four-week period from May to August. International students, however, are left out of this important subsidy. Even though the federal government added 70,000 jobs to the Canada Summer Jobs program this year, international students continue to be ineligible for this program; they won’t be able to tap into these meaningful, experiential work opportunities. This is ironic, as the federal government looks to international students to “help Canada meet current and emerging labour-market challenges,” as outlined in its 2019-2024 International Education Strategy. Eligibility criteria for COVID-19 subsidies should take into account all types of residents, especially the most marginalized like international students, so that nobody falls through the cracks.
  • Freezing international tuition fees: Some provinces, like Ontario, froze the rate of domestic tuition fees for another year. Yet the same standard isn’t applied across the country to international student fees; several Canadian institutions opted instead to increase those fees. The increase could go as high as 16 percent depending on the program. Some may argue that all international students are wealthy and privileged to be able to study abroad. A country-wide study in 2018 countered this prevailing stereotype: 79 per cent of international students surveyed were concerned about covering their accommodation costs. Many also reported difficulty in finding work, citing employers’ discrimination against international experience or cultural differences. Freezing international tuition fees is the ethical step to take during a time when unemployment and cost of living are sky high.

Recognizing international students’ contributions to the Canadian economy and society, many institutions have started to strengthen support services, including immigration, wellness and student transition services, to cater to their unique needs. This may include support for students coping with racism and prejudice. Since early January, when news about the origins of the coronavirus in China first surfaced, anti-Asian sentiment further deepened in Canada. An online survey of more than 500 Canadians of Chinese ethnicity conducted by the Angus Reid Institute in June noted that close to 30 per cent of them have been made to feel that they are a threat to other people’s health. International students aren’t immune to this sentiment, especially those from China who represent the largest cohort of international students in Canada. The racism becomes especially dangerous at a time when it is easy to succumb to fear-based rhetoric to protect personal and national interests.

To ensure international students have the tools and support they need to thrive in Canada, here are some long-term recommendations:

  • Fund organizations that have a track record of supporting settlement to Canada: Services in career and employment, legal, social, cultural and emotional well-being for international students are essential for their success. Many educational institutions offer these services to international students; however, the support does not always continue post-graduation. While international students may turn to local settlement services, faith groups and informal community circles, these groups may not be well resourced to support them, especially with the growth in other types of newcomer groups. Additional funding to support these frontline organizations would help build a social safety net for international students who have limited access to services and support upon graduation.
  • Regulate international student fees: International student fees cost on average more than four times domestic students’ tuition fees for undergraduates and have increased more than 30 per cent in the past four years. We also know that schools depend on international students as an increasingly important source of revenue. International tuition fees are currently unregulated in many provinces; regulation will stop institutions from downloading extra costs to international students and help prevent international students from facing financial hardships post-pandemic.
  • Ensure bursary eligibility includes international students: Financial assistance is already hard to come by for domestic students, but international students are not always eligible for financial aid due to their immigration status. They also cannot apply for bank or government student loans in Canada. Scholarships, which are based solely on academic achievement, aren’t always accessible to international students who do not have top grades. Many institutions have established emergency bursaries to provide financial relief during this time and should continue to broaden eligibility criteria to include international students.

Let’s not wait until the next health crisis to address a long-standing gap: the lack of a strategic and cross-sectoral effort to enable international students to integrate and settle in Canada. We need to accelerate, build and strengthen support structures for international students to address challenges in housing, employment, immigration-related issues and financial support. As the student population becomes more ethnically diverse, faculty and staff need to develop the skills and experience necessary to serve individuals of diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

The responsibility to support international students should not rest on education institutions alone. Dedicated resources and staffing to facilitate referrals, address gaps and build international students’ awareness of services would help them get the support they need. Organizations must collaborate with stakeholders beyond their own bubble to strengthen service delivery for international students and work directly with them to identify new needs, gain feedback on services and provide peer support. Canada’s immigration policies and response to COVID-19 should continue to evolve to meet international students’ unique needs.

International students have much to offer to Canada, beyond their economic contribution. They enrich our country with their skills, talents and intercultural experiences. By investing in international students’ success, Canada stands to benefit from their ingenuity, resilience and innovation.

Alyssa Lai is a former international student who now works in corporate communications and public relations.

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