Post-secondary education in the COVID-19 era: Preserving Manitoba’s status as a foreign study destination

This article is the second of a three-part series detailing recommendations from UMSU to the Government of Manitoba for how to improve access and affordability of post-secondary education given the unique challenges posed by COVID-19. Part one calls for increasing access to post-secondary education for women and marginalized communities; part two calls for actions to maximize the quality of online learning. These recommendations were presented by UMSU executives to the Minister of Finance and Minister of Economic Development and Training in a meeting on June 18.

 

Even before COVID-19 struck, the excessive cost of health care coverage compounded by escalating tuition costs for international students in Manitoba posed long-term risks to the province’s appeal as a study destination. Photo: Andrew Smith/Flickr

 


Recommendation 3 – Preserve Manitoba’s status as a desirable foreign study destination by taking measures to ensure the affordability of international student health care.

Specific actions:

  1. Allow all international students the ability to buy in to Manitoba’s public health care system at a cost-neutral rate to the Government; OR
  2. Cover the one-time $800,000 payment to MB Blue Cross required to keep private health care premiums for international student rates steady in the face of a drop in international student enrolment in 2020/2021.

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Given the robust economic impact of international students – and increased competition in a shrinking international student market in the COVID-19 era – the Government of Manitoba must maintain our competitive advantage in recruiting foreign learners and researchers to study and work in the province.

Together, the nearly 19,000 international students that resided in Manitoba prior to the pandemic represented a pool of skilled talent with connections to more than 100 nations worldwide, and were a boon to the provincial economy. According to government data, international students collectively contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to the provincial economy every year, supporting thousands of jobs.

The Government of Manitoba clearly recognizes the importance of drawing international students to the province, given the Minister of Economic Development and Training’s mandate to attract “more international students through a new International Education Strategy that targets increased global competitiveness for students in areas of high labour force demand.”

However, with the emergence of COVID-19, substantial numbers of international students – including over 50 per cent of those intending to study in Canada – are reportedly either deferring their studies or abandoning plans to study in Canada altogether. Western University in Ontario, one of the U of M’s U15 peers, has already noted a 10 per cent drop in international student enrolment compared to this time last year.

Besides COVID-19, another lingering issue that will complicate the Government of Manitoba’s plan to draw more international students to the province is the continuing lack of affordable international health care coverage.

 

UMSU helped lead #HealthHasNoBorders campaign in 2019. Advocating for the reinstatement of international student health care will continue to remain a priority for the union. Image: UMSU

The only other provinces to currently not provide foreign students with public health care coverage are Ontario and Quebec, the latter of which has bilateral exceptions with certain countries.

International students in Manitoba pay the highest health care coverage prices Canada due to being forced to purchase private coverage plans based on a 200% non-resident surcharge for treatment. At the U of M – the primary foreign study destination in Manitoba – they saw the price of their health coverage go from free prior to 2018, to $606 per student in 2018/2019 to $865 per student in 2019/2020. Students at Red River College and the University of Winnipeg have faced similar rises.

In speaking to officials at the U of M, UMSU has also learned that the cost for the Manitoba International Health Insurance Plan (MISHP) – the private insurance coverage that international students are obligated to purchase in order to qualify for a student visa – is already scheduled to rise from $865 to $996 for 2020/2021 due to the impacts of COVID-19. And this could rise even further (see graph).

Importantly, all international students will need to pay this premium upon registration, regardless of whether they actually come to reside in Manitoba for the academic year or carry out their U of M online classes from their home country due to travel restrictions.

Blue Cross has also advised the U of M that in order to keep the price at $996, even if enrolment is down between 10-20 per cent, would require a lump sum payment of roughly $800,000 to negate the diminished pool of foreign students that will be paying for the plan.

Given how the smaller number of international students coming to Canada in a post-pandemic era will likely gravitate towards more prestigious U15 schools or more high-profile cities across the country, the issue of excessive international health care costs should be of grave concern to the Government of Manitoba.

Retaining international graduates will be vital in filling some of the province’s yearly 12,000 skilled job openings that the Department of Growth, Enterprise and Trade predicts will need to be filled through 2024. The Co-Chairs’ Findings and Recommendations report on the Growing Manitoba’s Economy stakeholder consultation notes how immigration has been a successful tool in bridging labour market gaps in Manitoba, especially given the province’s relatively small population.

Newcomer-owned businesses have also been shown to be vital assets in developing and nurturing international trade relationships, and could play a key role in assisting in the expansion of export markets with new, targeted trade strategies – objectives laid out in both the Minister of Economic Development and Training’s mandate letter, and the Manitoba Works Plan.

If international students were instead able to buy into the public health care system at a cost-neutral rate it could save these students thousands of dollars over the course of a four-year degree program, reinforcing Manitoba’s other competitive advantages as a foreign study destination.

This would be vital in bolstering the attractiveness of Manitoba’s post-secondary schools to foreign students, especially given how our schools already sit lower on numerous university ranking scales, and how the University of Manitoba – the province’s only member of the U15, a group of Canada’s 15 largest public research universities – has among the lowest number of Canada Research Chairs and research income among its peers (see chart).

These research metrics are especially important in attracting to Manitoba international students and researchers interested in studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), fields the private sector is heavily interested in because they are known to spur significant innovation and economic growth.

As Manitoba becomes more diverse, drawing on international students already residing in the province to fill future job openings in the province’s increasingly multicultural communities and globally-connected economy is a sound strategy.

Indeed, international students tend to be some of the best candidates for immigration and among those most easily able to integrate into Canadian society. The Minister of Economic Development and Training’s mandate includes instruction to “leverage opportunities” in relation to using immigration pathways to meet employers’ demand for skilled and talented workers.

Furthermore, newcomers, according to studies by Statistics Canada, have been shown to be relatively successful in terms of starting a new business or being self-employed compared to Canadian-born entrepreneurs, and frequently do so by creating companies that engage in international trade with newcomers’ countries and/or regions of origin. Newcomer-owned businesses have also, on average, been shown to create more jobs than Canadian-owned businesses.

For years, international students have been relied on as the primary means to fill post-secondary funding gaps in Manitoba. And yet, contrary to popular belief, international students for the most part are only able to finance their education through the support of an extended middle-class family network in their home country, or by selling off personal assets to acquire private loans. With the current estimated cost for a foreign student to acquire an undergraduate degree in Canada sitting around $100,000, any measure of savings they can be offered will go a long way in ensuring Manitoba remains an attractive study destination.

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