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The Rational International Tuition Proposition

In case you haven’t noticed, the world is getting smaller.

I don’t mean in the literal sense, of course. I mean that different parts of our great little planet are coming closer and closer together. We have planes that carry passengers over oceans, cultural celebrations span across continents, and students can study in countries with a completely different set of opportunities.

Here in Ontario, international students flock to our world-class institutions. However, these students face challenges which are distinct (but not completely different) from domestic students.

Ontario’s post-secondary institutions are relying more and more on international students to pay the bills. This isn’t a revelation to those in the sector – international student tuition at universities has been unregulated for over two decades. While domestic tuition can only increase by a certain percentage year over year, international tuition has no such restriction. Since the deregulation of international tuition, the costs have risen steadily. As a result, international students pay on average, “about four times more in tuition than domestic students.” In 2017 for instance, Carleton University charged domestic students approximately $6,600 per year. That same year, international students were charged $25,000 in tuition.

The lack of regulation also means that tuition can increase unpredictably over the course of a student’s time at university. International students are continuously faced with the possibility that they will not be able to afford the following year’s tuition. Sudden financial shocks may force international students to apply for high-interest bank loans, or drop out of university altogether.

Results from OUSA’s 2017 Post-Secondary Student Survey (OPSSS) indicate that 55% of international students have difficulty affording tuition – dispelling the notion that no international students faces financial burden. Additionally, only 18% of international students surveyed received some form of financial assistance from their home country. 

Due to the government mandated reduction and freeze on domestic tuition, institutions are facing pressure to make up for lost revenue. Ideally, domestic tuition would have been frozen, with the resulting funding shortfall made up for by government operating grants (but that’s worthy of another blog post in itself). However, the lack of regulation on international tuition makes it a tantalizing source of revenue for institutions. There is concern that international students will face even greater uncertainty and difficulty when paying their tuition. 

Even healthcare becomes a financial challenge for international students. Upon enrollment in university, international students are placed on the University Health Insurance Plan (UHIP). Unlike the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP), UHIP is a private insurance policy and its costs are unregulated. This creates additional financial uncertainty for students, who wonder whether they can afford the cost of the plan if it were to increase.

The challenges of being an international student extend beyond financial worries. Being thrust into a foreign country with different laws, cultural practices, and potentially different languages, pose barriers to international students’ well-being. If institutions want to recruit more international students, those students need to have adequate support as they pursue their education. 

The question then becomes: what can institutions do to support their international students?

Broadly speaking, some international students may have difficulty adjusting to life abroad. For many, it will be their first time being so far away from home, with few familial supports available. There may be unfamiliar cultural norms, or language barriers that prevent international students from fully immersing themselves in the experience. Some may even face discrimination due to their ethnicity, language, or faith. Institutions have a duty to create a welcome environment for these international students and provide supports in difficult times.

Each university varies in its international student supports. OUSA has identified the following as key services that international students benefit from:

  • Academic counseling,
  • Career counseling,
  • Cultural adjustment assistance and cultural programming,
  • Financial advice,
  • Immigration and visa advising,
  • Mental health services, and
  • English (or French) language supports

This list is certainly not exhaustive, and institutions should continue to research effective resources for their students. What may work at Laurier may not work at other institutions, and vice versa. The staff and faculty of these institutions should also be mindful of the fact that international students may be apprehensive about accessing services. Students will feel much more comfortable if they receive culturally-relevant supports from staff who foster an inclusive environment.

All this said, these sorts of services require money. Nevertheless, if institutions are going to rely more on international students for revenue, funding for these supports need to account for greater demand. 

Ontario’s universities must support their international students to the same degree as domestic students, and the provincial government must do their part to make it a reality. Ontario should be a premiere destination for international students, and that all starts with excellent program and comprehensive support.

For recommendations on how the provincial government can improve post-secondary education for international students, please read OUSA’s paper on International Students and Education.

 

References

Aitchison, C., Brockie, L., Chauhan, B., & Lee, D. (2017). International Students & Education. Retrieved from Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance: https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/ousa/pages/82/attachments/original/1489757511/International_Students_and_Education_document.pdf?1489757511

Boggs, A. M. (2009). Ontario’s University Tuition Framework: A History and Current Policy Issues . Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 85.

Ireton, J. (2019, June 26). Skyrocketing tuition for international students questioned. Retrieved from CBC/Radio-Canada: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/analysis-ontario-universities-international-tuition-increases-1.5189755

Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance. (2019, August 19). Press release: Ontario Post-Secondary Students Survey Findings: Affordability Report. Retrieved from Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance: https://www.ousa.ca/press_release_opsss_2017_findings_affordability

Wilfrid Laurier University. (n.d.). UHIP Enrolment and Coverage. Retrieved from Wilfrid Laurier University: https://students.wlu.ca/wellness-and-recreation/health-and-wellness/insurance-and-health-plans/uhip.html