The price of admission

Are International College Students In Canada Getting What They Expect? Blog Post by: Owen Angus-Yamada, Research & Policy Analyst @ The College Student Alliance

Photo of #NeedOrGreed protest outside of Ontario's Legislator at Queen's Park.


Last week a coalition of six college students’ associations across Ontario organized a protest at Queen’s Park demanding fairer tuition fees for international students #NeedOrGreed. Despite some strong arguments and logical recommendations for the province, I suspect their demands will fall onto deaf ears.


Over the last two decade, colleges, and universities in Ontario have seen continual decreases in government funding. For their survival, almost every institution has turned to enrolling more and more international students. Since the turn of the millennia, the percentage of international students in Ontario’s colleges have gone from roughly 2% to over 35%. And there is good business reason for this increase. Postsecondary institutions like international students; since their tuition is unregulated they can charge them about five times the standard tuition for a year of undergraduate studies and substantially increase that tuition every year.


The impact of this high price tag for studying in Canada puts international students into very difficult financial situations. Many international students struggle just to buy food and pay for rent. In 2021, an estimated 75% of international students experienced food insecurity, a number which is probably higher considering the record high inflation and surging food prices in 2022. In addition, these students often lack the funds to secure decent housing as well as the knowledge of local housing practices and regulations, which can result in accepting unsafe living conditions or leaving them victims of scams. In fact, one of the speakers at the protest talked about how he was homeless when he arrived to Canada as a student in 2017. Like food, a red-hot rental market in the past few years has most likely increased the prevalence of housing insecurity amongst international students.


Now, given this context, it would seem like it is a no-brainer that the provincial government should step in and help regulate international student tuitions. But let me play devil’s advocate for a moment and ask this: Why should they?


Despite the high price tag, international students are still coming into Canada. They are willing to pay because enrolling in Canadian post-secondary education is widely viewed as a vehicle for obtaining permanent residency. Of course, Canada benefits from having these students come because it helps fill labour demands in the face of an aging population; however, they cannot make the price of admission free otherwise they would be receiving more immigrants than the country’s infrastructure and support systems can handle (of course, there are arguments that Canada is already taking more immigrants than it can handle, but I’ll save that for a separate discussion).


Further compounding the disincentive for political action is the fact that, to a politician, an international student is not a voting member of society. In the rare instances when the government makes policy changes that directly affects international students, it can be traced back to ulterior motives. For example, the federal government’s recent temporary lift of international students’ 20-hour work limit has been criticized as one that was done to support the economy rather than international students.


Okay, let me stop being a Debbie Downer and try to convince you that international students do in fact deserve Canadian’s attention and support.


International students are humans, like me and you (unless you are internet text-mining bot). Looking past the basic concept that humans should treat each other with decency, we humans are also fallible and can be led astray by actors with conflicting agendas. We might buy a timeshare from a good salesperson, but we would be furious to find out, after the fact, that the timeshare is beside a big, stinky dump. It would be especially disheartening if our parents poured their life savings (and then some) in this timeshare contract, which if broken would leave them and us financially and emotionally ruined.


I am not riffing about my own timeshare buying experience, but rather drawing parallels to international students’ experiences. They may be customers willing to take huge risks to improve their financial futures, but they should be able to make that decision based on accurate information. Right now, there is little known about how Canadian international students, especially those going to college, decided to come to Canada and what (mis)information they were provided and from whom. Ontario’s Minster of Colleges and Universities have binding directives which state that postsecondary institutions and their partners (i.e., recruitment agencies and private college partners) must provide transparent and accurate marketing. Unfortunately, the province currently does little to monitor and enforce these Directives, despite evidence of misleading international student recruitment marketing.


If an international student and their family knew just how difficult it would be to afford rent, food, and a tuition that keeps increasing every year, would they still take the risk? Perhaps, but at least they aren’t being sold a lie.


Informed decision making may not be the sexiest topic, but it is one that everyone, on the political spectrum, can resonate with (unless you are a hardcore fan of authoritarianism). Unfortunately, there is little incentive for the government to take these matters serious for international students because they lack a political voice; therefore, the onus is on domestic students and faculty to stand up and speak out about issues regarding this student population.


Note: In this article I outlined a need for research and policy to provide international students with consumer protection; however, the #NeedOrGreed protest also has solid recommendations that could help international students right now, such as freezing tuition fees for current students. I highly recommend you check them out here: https://needorgreed.ca/