“I find it extremely unfair that after contributing to a good chunk of this country’s economy, paying five times the fees my local friends pay, I can’t even get some sort of relief during this period,” said Isabel Ada.
Ada is a third-year international student from Nigeria studying psychology at the University of Toronto.
Ada, like many people around the world, has been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Non-essential businesses and universities have shut down and more than 2.2 million people have lost their jobs or seen their hours significantly decrease since the shutdown began in March.
On May 15, the federal government began accepting applications for the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB). CESB is the benefit program available for Canadian citizens and permanent residents enrolled in post-secondary education programs who aren’t eligible for the Candian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) or Employment Insurance.
International students have largely been left out of the federal government’s financial support packages, which comes as no surprise to me. We international students contribute billions of dollars to the Canadian economy, as I pointed out in my last article, yet we don’t have access to these funds. By being excluded from the CESB, many of us are being left behind.
Students suffering from a loss of income
Most international students seek on-and-off-campus jobs during the academic year to make ends meet. Many of us rely on the money we make from our jobs to pay for tuition fees and other expenses. But with the current pandemic, the lack of jobs and opportunities is affecting everyone.
Matthew* is an international student from the United States. He relies on a job in the service sector and a TA (teaching assistant) position to meet his financial needs. He explained how the pandemic put him in a precarious position.
“Each summer that I’ve studied here, I’ve had to work service sector jobs in order to pay for rent, groceries, bills, and all the basic needs until my teaching assistant (TA) funding kicked back in during the fall term. With those jobs completely shut down due to COVID, I find myself in an extremely precarious spot. I have no more TA pay until the fall and the jobs I had lined up in online teaching have been canceled. This is extremely troubling,” he said.
Ada explains that some international students who are financially supported by their families abroad aren’t able to access funds because of the pandemic.
“As a result of my country’s lockdown, all offices and banks are closed meaning that my parents cannot go to work and even if they have funds to send, they can’t do so. My country in Africa isn’t the most technologically advanced and so online banking is just not an option,” she said.
There is so much uncertainty with the current situation that it makes it quite impossible to financially plan for the future.
International students feel helpless
Tuition fees are of urgent concern for those of us who continue our studies throughout the summer. Some believe students shouldn’t pay full price on their tuition because of the pandemic, especially with many campus facilities closed and other resources unavailable.
“We are expected to maintain progress in our programs, yet we are given very little in the way of tools to do so,” argued Heather Stewart. Stewart is an international student from the United States completing her Ph.D. in Philosophy at Western University.
“It is baffling – if Canada and the university value our contribution as much as they claim, why we are excluded from this benefit? Or why, in light of this exclusion, has the university not committed to achieving parity with regard to the disparity between domestic and international students’ financial support,” said Stewart.
I believe that with limited access to resources and sources of income, tuition fees should be reduced for everyone, especially international students.
Institutions see international students as ‘cash cows’
Canada’s decision to exclude international students from CESB will leave some students uncertain about whether or not they return to their studies in Canada in the fall.
“The only realistic outcome I see is one in which I withdraw from the program completely and move back home,” said Matthew*.
Institutions that have relied heavily on international students as “cash cows” will be impacted by the government’s inaction. At some post-secondary institutions, international student tuition fees make up roughly 50 per cent of the tuition revenue. A mass exodus of international students would put “billions of dollars at risk,” according to Paul Davidson, President, and CEO of Universities Canada.
Canada needs to protect the people it welcomes through its borders, including international students.
“The international students of today are future Canadians; we should be treated like our lives matter as well,” Ada said.
Extending CESB to include international students would be a step in the right direction to support all students who study in Canada during these unprecedented times.
*Name has been changed or partially withheld at the request of the interviewee.
This story has been produced under NCM’s mentoring program. Mentor: Marcus Medford.
Wesam is an international student from Egypt completing his Master's of Engineering Science at Western University. He is also Vice-President of Advocacy for the Society of Graduate Students at Western.