Fears that international student intake will keep falling
The absence of 65,000 international students is already affecting local economies, university budgets and research in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.
But university and college administrators, and non-governmental organisations involved with bringing international students to Canada are concerned that travel rules introduced in February 2021 to restrict the spread of COVID-19 will further depress the numbers of international students coming to Canada, both this spring and in September.
Since this February, international flights to Canada can land only in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver, and travellers have been required to be quarantined at designated hotels.
According to Denise Amyot, president and CEO of Colleges and Institutes Canada, these new regulations have disproportionately impacted colleges and universities in smaller cities and rural and remote areas because students must serve the entirety of their quarantine at the government-approved hotels.
“There’s no designated airport in Atlantic Canada,” she notes. International students destined for universities in this region must first quarantine in a hotel at one of the hubs at a cost of CA$2,000 (US$1,600).
“This is very costly, especially for an international student,” Amyot says.
In addition, once the student travels to their destination university in, say, Halifax, Nova Scotia, or Quebec City, they will have to quarantine again. While the final tallies are not in, Amyot says, because of these two layers of quarantine, we are seeing a large number of deferrals for the spring, summer and upcoming fall intakes.
International students whose universities are near one of the designated airports must quarantine in the government-approved hotels for at least three days, the period it normally takes to receive COVID-19 test results. If they test negative, and if their school has a plan approved by the local health authority and the federal government, the student can be taken to a quarantine centre on his or her school’s campus.
In an effort to lessen the financial burden on international students, the University of Waterloo in southwestern Ontario picks up the cost for days four through to 14 for students who quarantine on its main campus in Kitchener, Ontario.
“The cost,” says University of Waterloo Associate Vice Provost Chris Read, “is about CA$2,000 and includes transportation from the airport, accommodation and food”. This programme explains why the university’s year-over-year enrolment of international students has remained stable at 8,861 in 2020-21 compared with 8,897 the year before.
Concerns about international students’ mental health has prompted the University of Calgary to include a Zoom-based buddy system in its quarantine programme. The buddies are not counsellors, says Dean and Vice-Provost Dr Robin Yates, but are peer volunteers, “a friendly face who will keep them company”.
For its part, in addition to providing quarantine space in its dormitories, the University of Toronto has established a CA$9.1 million (US$7.2 million) fund to help international students pay for the period of time they have to quarantine in a hotel.
The financial impact resulting from the absence of international students is being felt across the country and is affecting the bottom line of universities and colleges, according to Professor Robert Falconer of the University of Calgary School of Public Policy.
“Across the country, with a few exceptions, universities are relying more and more on international students as a primary source of revenue. British Columbia is most exposed with over 50% of its tuition revenue coming from international students,” he says.
The differential rates charged to international students varies, but, Falconer told University World News, “it is quite significant”. At Falconer’s university, tuition and fees for international students in the sciences is CA$8,000 (US$6,400) a year, while it is CA$3,000 for domestic students.
The figure is even greater at the University of Waterloo. Tuition fees for domestic students enrolled in graduate studies in architecture are CA$10,900 as compared to CA$59,700 (US$47,600) for international students. In the faculties of applied health sciences and art, the tuition fees for each group are CA$7,700 and CA$40,900, respectively.
According to Yates of the University of Calgary, the differential paid by international students is vital. “It helps institutions to be able to offer programmes, especially smaller institutions, that they would not have been able to afford otherwise, either because the schools did not have enough money or enough domestic students to be able to offer that programme.”
Marco Mendicino, minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship, could not have been blunter. “If we didn’t have international students, we would have a gaping hole in our economy. They contribute CA$21 billion [US$16.7 billion] to the Canadian economy as compared to CA$19 billion contributed by the automotive industry,” he says.
“This contribution might not be noticed in larger centres, but in small university towns like the University of Lethbridge [Alberta] or in Thunder Bay [Lakehead University], Ontario, they have a large impact through renting homes and buying goods and services,” says Falconer.
Threat to STEM programmes
Falconer, Yates, Amyot and the other experts University World News interviewed were especially concerned with how the decline in the number of international graduate students threatens Canada’s STEM programmes.
Of the 2,000 international graduate students at the University of Calgary, some 400 have requested deferrals and have remained in their home countries.
According to Yates, about 200 are studying remotely. In his immunology lab, Yates told University World News that while certain tasks, such as data analysis, can be done remotely for a month or two, at some point you have to go back into the lab to generate more data.
“Graduate students comprise a significant part of the workforce doing meaningful research that is pushing the research agenda forward for Canada. Anywhere between 20% and 80% of any given research group is composed of graduate students and on average a little more than one third of these students are international graduate students.”
Yates’ University of Calgary colleague, Falconer, is concerned that the brain drain in the STEM fields will hobble Canada’s post-COVID recovery.
“The OECD countries are considering what a post-COVID industrial policy, and research and development policy looks like. We have to consider [whether without these students] we even have the staffing and personnel industrial base to facilitate a post-COVID industrial economy?” he asks.
To the question, especially in a pandemic, of why Canadian taxpayers should be funding graduate schools that educate international students, Yates answered: “To drive research agendas and move our research forward, we need the best and brightest from across the globe. The taxpayers deserve when they spend millions of dollars on research that that money be spent in the best way possible. And that is to get the best people here into Canada.”
It is important, Yates adds, that people understand that the pure or applied research that international graduate students undertake in labs like his undergirded the creation of the vaccines against COVID-19.
“The PhDs that come out of these programmes are making and designing these vaccines. The workforces that are in AstraZeneca, Moderna and Pfizer are sourced from graduate programmes and these include international students,” he says.
Corridor kept open
Minister Mendicino, Falconer and Amyot each emphasised that unlike similar countries such as Australia, Canada has kept the corridor for international students open because of the long-term importance of international students to the country.
At present 25% of Canadians are older than 65, which means that for each retired person there are fewer than three working and paying into the social insurance system and taxes.
“Canada needs immigration. We need people to decide to live here because we have such a low [1.5] fertility rate,” says Amyot.
“Despite the challenges of the pandemic,” says Mendicino, “we have kept the international programme open, and we have improved it.”
The four improvements, Mendicino explained to University World News, amount to a ladder, at the top of which international students can apply for permanent residency and, ultimately, citizenship.
The first improvement allowed international students to start their studies online in their home country.
The second changed the international students’ work permits to give them the right to work in fields other than their course of study.
The third was keeping open the corridor, which required planning with universities and colleges, and, negotiating agreements with the provinces; this last always a fraught activity in the fractious Canadian federation.
The fourth improvement provides additional work permit flexibility to postgraduate students so as not to penalise them for starting their programmes online. Once they have graduated and found jobs, thousands of (former) international students apply for permanent residency.
“What I see as minister is an opportunity to broaden and accelerate the pathways that not only allow international students to come and study but also to stay in Canada and build the next chapter of their lives in Canada,” says Mendicino, who himself is the child of Italian immigrants.