CANADA: Tuition fees discriminatory say students

A report by one of the provincial chapters of the Canadian Federation of Students says a "visible minority" of students, those from Asia, the Middle East and Africa, are experiencing higher-than-average debt levels for a university education. The student lobby group has called the province of Ontario's system "racially discriminatory" and its report says struggling visible minority students continue to make sacrifices to attend university.

The report, The Racialised Impact of Tuition Fees: Assessing the social cost of post-secondary education says the current post-secondary tuition system negatively impacts on minorities because they are most commonly the students with the greatest financial need.

This means higher loans and subsequently higher debts for them compared with non-minority students and this, in turn, will affect them as they enter the workforce, the report contends.

It cites the economic disparity between mainstream students and those in the minorities as a common problem. Census data show that only 11% of income for an individual who is white and male will go towards paying tuition while for one who is male and from a visible minority tuition will eat up 15% of his income.

Rising tuition fees are the main concern of the report. It argues that financial hardships are being overlooked by governments which fail to acknowledge that family incomes are not rising at the same pace as tuition fees.

The report says the greater economic burden posed by increasing tuition fees pushes post-secondary education further out of reach for people from low- and middle-income backgrounds. This disproportionately affects what the report calls "racialised people", a term it uses to describe a first-generation Canadian or someone who recently immigrated to the country.

It says economic problems outside universities contribute to the obstacles minority students face when deciding to attend a post-secondary institution. These include the lower earnings of an immigrant compared with a non-visible minority Canadian citizen of the same gender, age and educational level.

While it takes time for families new to the country to reach the same economic status as white families, even the most settled of visible minority families continue to fall behind their white counterparts.

The report says that because minority families are more likely to fall below Canadian poverty lines, their students are less likely to attend a post-secondary institution.

In 2007, only 19% of undergraduates at Canadian universities belonged to visible minority groups, according to figures from the Canadian Association of University Teachers. That was despite a 4% increase in youth enrolment at the time.

Sarah Alshukhaiti says the report does not accurately represent her experience in the post-secondary system. The second-year science student at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia moved to Canada from the Middle East with her family 16 years ago.

"When you apply for a student loan they don't ask you where you're from," Alshukhaiti says, "It has nothing to do with what race you are."

Alshukhaiti takes issue with the way the report describes how visible minority students begin taking fewer courses and working more because of financial issues as they progress in university. While she did decide to get a job and take fewer classes this year, she says her decisions were based on academics not finances.

"I wanted to focus more on school and on my courses so I could do better, it had nothing to do with money," Alshukhaiti says. Furthermore, she stresses that she started working so she could have enough spending money for activities outside school.

When she graduates, Alshukhaiti plans to enter the medical field as either a nurse or doctor, and she does not believe her race will play any part in how much she earns compared with her white counterparts.

Even if Alshukhaiti's experience has been a positive one, the report argues that for post-secondary learning to become an attainable option for all students regardless of race, governments need a more effective system that encourages further education without the high fees or large debts that hinder most students.