By UMSU Executive Committee
A mechanical engineering student from India was arrested in Ontario in December last year after police discovered he was working more hours than his study visa allowed. The root cause of his arrest – being unable to afford studying on a part-time income – debunks the false stereotype of international students as lazy rich kids. Instead, they represent an asset to our society, and we should be doing all we can to retain them.
According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, there were over 16,000 international students in Manitoba in 2017, ranging from primary students to postgraduates. That number is likely higher now. International students comprise 19% of the U of M student population and 5% at the University of Winnipeg. Together they represent a pool of skilled talent residing in our province with connections to more than 100 nations worldwide. The numbers are even more impressive in the national context: international students in Canada doubled from 2010-2016 and now some 572,000 foreign students contribute $15.5 billion annually to the national economy, supporting an estimated 170,000 jobs. The federal government intends to spend $148 million over the next five years to draw even more international students to Canada, recognizing the immense value they bring with them.
Here on campus, international students enrich our governance, culture and academics. They run numerous student groups and associations and are highly active in the wider community. The outsized tuition fees they pay – on average three times higher than domestic student rates – help offset the erosion of operating grants from the provincial government, allowing for less profitable course programs to still be offered. Government funding comprised 81% of operating revenue of Canadian universities in 1985, but by 2015 made up only half. International student tuition is mostly responsible for covering that shortfall. International students also conduct vital research and help shape a global environment on campus, broadening the perspective and experiences of all students and faculty alike. In UMSU, they sit on our board of directors and work in our businesses. Our own twice-elected Vice-President of Finance and Operations, Mbuli Matshe, hails from Zimbabwe.
These students have also been a boon to the provincial economy. Data from Statistics Canada shows that foreign students and their dependents poured close to $375 million into Manitoba in the form of tuition, rent and tourism in 2016 alone. That’s more than twice the amount of record revenue generated by Manitoba’s red-hot film industry, and underpins thousands of jobs in the housing, transport, retail and hospitality sectors.
The current and future value of retaining international students as educated, young, tax-paying professionals, business owners and job creators is critical. Of the new job openings forecasted through 2024 by Manitoba’s Department for Growth, Enterprise and Trade, some 60% – roughly 12,000 jobs per year – are identified as requiring university, college and/or apprenticeship training. Using one of the occupational groups as an example, 23,600 jobs in education, law and social, and community and government services will need to be filled by 2024. Such jobs require postsecondary education and hold inherent value in strengthening the institutions that underpin the provincial economy.
As Manitoba itself becomes more diverse and multicultural, drawing on international students already residing in the province to fill these positions and serve the province’s increasingly intercultural communities is a sound strategy. International students tend to be among the best candidates for immigration and among those most easily able to integrate into Canadian society, which is essential to counterbalance Canada’s aging population. This is underlined by the provincial government’s new International Student Entrepreneur Pathway, and the Graduate Internship Pathway. These two new initiatives echo the commitment previously made in Manitoba’s 2015 Post-Secondary Education Strategy to attract a record number of international immigrants and learners to Manitoba.
However, too often international students get unfairly labelled as kids shipped abroad by their wealthy parents on a multi-year, all-expenses paid vacation. While the most affluent of international students are the indeed the most noticeable, the majority of foreign students often finance their education through the support of an extended middle-class family network. This can include siblings, parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles that see that individual’s education as an investment in financial security and social status of the entire family unit. The average total cost for a single international student to obtain a degree in Canada is roughly $100,000 – the stress placed on foreign students to land a high–profile job immediately upon returning home and start repaying family members is enormous.
Imagine having to travel halfway across the world, alone, to complete your degree in a foreign language, in an unfamiliar (and occasionally unwelcoming) city and culture. Imagine studying under the cloud of knowing that you have zero margin for error, because you’re expected to finish your degree so you can provide for your grandparents through old age, pay off your parent’s mortgage and finance a niece and nephew’s tuition.
Other international students are enabled to study through government scholarships that carry the condition of having to return home to work in state institutions for below market wages for years in order to pay back their scholarships. In these cases, students study under the looming threat of having their scholarships dropped at any time due to policy changes. This happened to Saudi students who had their scholarships revoked amid a diplomatic spat between the Canadian government and the Saudi monarchy last year, including 48 students studying at the U of M. The credit and investment agency Moody’s says a similar risk could possibly now emerge for Chinese students, given the ongoing turmoil between our two countries – yet it would have an even more disastrous result for Canadian postsecondary institutions.
Meanwhile, others are faced with sole option of financing their education in Canada through selling all their possessions in their home country in order to build up enough assets to qualify for private loans, increasingly based on banks garnishing future earning potential. Or, alternately, international students are left navigating a complex patchwork of limited scholarships.
And yet despite such massive financial hurdles, Canada is now the fourth most in-demand country for international students, ranking behind only the US, UK and China. A 2018 survey by the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE) found that 96% of international students in Canada recommend it as a study destination. The top three reasons for choosing Canada as an education destination were the quality of our postsecondary education, reputation as a tolerant and multicultural society, and the safety of our communities. These are the competitive advantages Canada currently possesses, but that is no guarantee that things will always be that way.
Instead of seeing international students as the primary means to fill funding gaps, we need to ensure future rises in the price of their education remains proportionate to rises for domestic students. Instead of restricting how much they can participate in our economy, we need to expand their opportunities to contribute. Instead of stripping them of their right to universal health care as residents, we should be upholding it. Unless we act diligently to maintain the reasons why international students chose to uproot their lives and mortgage their future to come study in our country, in our province and at our campus, we risk losing the incredible value that these students bring with them.