U of M Budget 2020/2021: Renewing Health Care Funding for International Students

This article is part three of UMSU’s U of M Budget 2020/2021 series, detailing the recommendations we have submitted to the University of Manitoba to include in its budget for the upcoming fiscal year. You can also read part one, on expanding sexual violence prevention and education initiatives; and part two, on increasing mental health supports for students.


The University of Manitoba is home to roughly 6,000 international students in any given term, making it the province’s leading foreign study destination. Photo: Stephen Ritchie/Flickr


RECOMMENDATION 3: The University of Manitoba renew the $500,000 allocated to undergraduate bursaries in budget 2019/2020 earmarked for the International Student Health Insurance Relief Fund (ISHRF), to help offset what are now the highest universally applied health care costs for international students in any province in Canada.


International students now comprise one fifth of the U of M student population, enriching our governance, campus culture and academics. They contribute vital research and help shape a global environment on campus, broadening the perspectives and experience of students, staff and faculty alike.

With the provincial operating grant covering approximately 50% of the university’s costs of providing education, the international tuition rate of over 320% the domestic rate ensures each international student is a net provider for the university. In fact, based on the U of M’s own published estimates, international students pay in a total of over $100 million in tuition per year. Given differential rates, this results in a net positive revenue for the university of more than $40 million per year from international students.

It is undeniable that international students are being recruited to universities across the country to offset a decreasing level of public funding to post-secondary institutions. The University of Manitoba is no exception. In fact, given the provincial government’s continued freezes or cuts to the public grant, it is likely international student recruitment and retention will only become more integral to the U of M’s financial wellbeing.

Given the robust economic, academic and cultural impact of international students, the University of Manitoba must do whatever it can to maintain its competitive advantage in recruiting foreign learners and researchers to our campuses.


U of M student Olawale Ayilara displays a case study project he collaborated on with some international peers within the university’s Department of Community Health Sciences. International students bring substantial academic and cultural benefits to our campuses. Photo: Peter Macdonald/Flickr

Since the withdrawal of provincial health care coverage for international students in Manitoba in 2017-18, the U of M has done an admirable job of supporting their international students financially by covering the cost of health care fully in the first year and agreeing in 2019-20 to provide a $500,000 health care hardship fund for those in financial need.

However, despite the university’s actions the situation remains troubling for international students on our campuses. These students have been forced to purchase private coverage plans costing more than any public buy-in plan offered in the other provinces which do not cover international student health care fully.

Last year this cost increased further, based on the province’s implementation of a 200% non-resident surcharge rate for treatment raising costs from $606 per student to $865.

At current levels, the price of obligatory private health care coverage for international students in Manitoba is more than the premiums paid by a student in BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan combined; and $200 more than the next most expensive province, Nova Scotia.

Contrary to popular belief, international students are not all from wealthy backgrounds. For the most part they 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. In fact, international students are the most frequent applicants to UMSU’s foodbank and financial hardship funds.

With ever more money at stake at a time of retreating provincial operating grants, the competition for international students in the coming years will get fierce. While the University of Manitoba has done well up until this point, rising tuition and the most expensive health care rates in the country cut into its competitive advantage.

With the present estimated cost of obtaining a degree in Canada as a foreign student being roughly $100,000, any unanticipated health care costs or tuition rises distorts the amount of money international students need to budget for to complete their multi-year degree.

International students in Manitoba pay the highest universally applied health care coverage prices in the country, while tuition rates for foreign students are more than three times higher than those for domestic students.

Mitigating a portion of these two costs through renewing the $500,000 allocated to the International Student Health Insurance Relief Fund (ISHRF) would go a long way to lowering these two risk factors and avoid future international students opting elsewhere in Canada for their studies.

In the fight over lucrative international student enrolment in the future, the University of Manitoba must do whatever it can to show it is striving to achieve a high level of cost certainty for international students.

This is especially given how the University of Manitoba – the province’s only member of the U15, a group of Canada’s 15 largest research-intensive universities – has among the lowest number of Canada Research Chairs and research income among its peers (see table).

These research metrics are especially important in attracting to Manitoba international students – graduate students in particular – interested in studying and conducting research into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), fields where having cutting-edge research conducted at an institution is vital in building prestige and securing funding from private donors and/or companies interested in partnering in research projects.

In addition, both the tuition they pay and the expertise that international students and researchers develop while they are here support the University of Manitoba’s tremendous economic impact in our province. As described by U of M president David Barnard, the U of M is an “indispensable driver of economic growth and development of our province and to the well-being of communities in Manitoba.”

The University of Manitoba has an undeniable financial dependency on international students. But with continuously rising costs, these students depend on the university to stand by them. The past two years it has shown a laudable commitment to doing so and it is our sincere hope and expectation for this to continue.

Based on the earlier estimates, a loss of just 70-80 international students per year through failed recruitment or retention due to healthcare costs would offset any savings the university would incur by discontinuing the health care relief fund.

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.

Given the large amount of international students in arts and science faculties – those that are likely to see tuition increases above the mean level in 2020-21 based on the new increase model – shoring up health care support for international students is a low-risk investment that will generate long-term financial benefit for the university.

While uptake was slow on the relief fund at the beginning of the year, it was clear that as soon as the fund was promoted and students became aware of the possibility, that applications began coming in at a consistent pace. Applications to the ISHRF this year are on track to come close to matching the full amount of the fund, and with earlier promotion we believe it is likely the fund already would have been fully utilized.

Based on the factors we have cited throughout, UMSU recommends that the University of Manitoba continue to display its commitment to support for international students and renew the $500,000 allocated to the ISHRF, and promote the fund widely from the beginning of the academic term.

Doing so will ensure international students see a reduction in the financial barriers to completing their education from the University of Manitoba, while also maintaining the university’s status as a prominent destination for international recruitment and retention in Canada.

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