Best and Brightest: International Student Accessibility

International students choosing to study in Canada have some of the highest tuition of any student population in the country. In Ontario, an international student pursuing an undergraduate degree this year can expect to pay over 264 per cent more than their domestic counterparts thanks to high, deregulated international tuition. Given the ever-climbing tuition rates for international students, it must be asked: what student financial assistance is available to international students?

In some ways, this is a bit of a peculiar question to ask. Given the high cost of pursuing a degree in Ontario as an international student, those who do choose to study in Ontario are disproportionately from high socioeconomic backgrounds, and therefore less likely to demonstrate significant financial need. This leads to Ontario’s post secondary institutions admitting international students from very homogenous socioeconomic backgrounds, greatly reducing the diversity of student perspectives international students will bring to our colleges and universities. By adding financial aid and changing existing financial aid structures for international students, Ontario can change this trend.

International students from all socioeconomic backgrounds should have equitable opportunities to study in Ontario. Unfortunately, limited access to financial assistance programs means that more often than not this is not the case. One of the primary ways in which low-income students from Ontario finance their education is through the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP). This funding is unavailable to international students, as they are not considered domestic residents of the province.

Even if international students were able to access OSAP, significant unmet need would continue to exist for low-income international students given OSAP’s $12,240 loan maximum, which is significantly lower than the $35,280 a year price tag for a first year international student at the University of Toronto studying Arts & Science, for example.

Given that international students are unable to access publicly funded financial assistance programs via OSAP, institutional scholarships often represent some of the only forms of financial assistance available to these students. As OUSA has recognized previously, universities tend to prioritize merit-based scholarships over needs-based scholarships, as a means of recruiting high-achieving students. Unfortunately, merit-based scholarships tend to benefit students from higher socio-economic backgrounds, rather than those students with the highest need, meaning that competition for the small number of needs-based scholarships available in Ontario would likely pose a significant challenge for low-income international students.

While institutions may disproportionately offer merit-based, rather than needs-based financial assistance, it is important to note that 12 of Ontario’s 20 publicly funded universities have some form of emergency bursary fund designed specifically for international students. The necessity of such funds stems from the fact that international student tuition is deregulated, making it difficult for students to budget for unpredictable tuition increases year to year. Examples of such funds include the International Student Emergency Loan offered at Western University, or the Waterloo International Undergraduate Full-Time Emergency bursary, which provide small loans to international students in cases of medical emergencies, delays in funds arriving, or other unexpected financial hardships.

While access to financial assistance in Ontario is quite limited for international students, in some cases international students may be able turn to their home countries for financial assistance. Some countries offer assistance to students who wish to study abroad, which can be a great help to students wishing to internationalize their education. Unfortunately, OUSA’s 2013 Ontario Post Secondary Student Survey (OPSSS) found that 78 per cent of international students who responded to our survey received no financial assistance from their home country, suggesting that a large number of students remain underfunded.

We at OUSA believe that to better support Ontario’s international students and to encourage students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds to study in Ontario, institutions should create international student tuition set-asides to provide aid to international students. These funds could assist international students in need at individual institutions by creating dedicated funds for those students who demonstrate unmet financial need. As long as international student tuition remains deregulated in Ontario, OUSA firmly believes that universities have a duty to ensure that they are attracting the best and brightest international students, rather than merely the richest.