At the public consultation on universities that took place in the Fall of 2014, international students participating in a consultation session in Halifax were asked whether they would recommend the province’s universities to peers in their home countries. The answer was a resounding ‘no,’ according to students who attended the session.
“Many of them said that the amount of tuition they pay does not equate to the amount of resources and the quality of education they were led to believe they would receive when they came to Canada,” says Caleb Hung, an international student who was at the consultation.
Hung, who at the time was the President of the NSCAD Students’ Union, says that international students feel misled about the education and credentials they will gain from their programs and the student services that will be there to support them.
“There’s not really that many resources for international students in general.”
Amr ElKhashab, Dalhousie’s international students representative – who was also at the consultation and called the exercise “a fool’s errand” – echoed Hung’s sentiment.
“[International students] are just brought here and left to fend for ourselves,” he says, noting that critical services – such as teaching international students who are unfamiliar with conventions around plagiarism how to avoid academic integrity violations – are lacking, with implications for both the quality of education and students’ well-being.
Department of Labour and Advanced Education spokesperson Chrissy Matheson said in an email that at other consultation sessions held in Cape Breton feedback from international students was “balanced”.
As demographic decline shrinks the pool of potential domestic students, universities are looking to international students for sustenance. Students NS predicts that universities in Nova Scotia will need to double the number of international students by 2031 in order to maintain stable overall enrolment.
International students pay substantially more than their Canadian counterparts. For instance, compared to a Canadian student in an undergraduate arts and social science program at Dalhousie, for whom tuition in 2015-16 is estimated at $8,034, an international student in the same program will pay roughly $17,245.
That extra $9,211 is the international differential fee, justified on the basis that international students don’t pay taxes in Nova Scotia and are therefore not entitled to provincial subsidies.
But universities do receive some provincial funding for international students. The distribution of provincial funding for universities is based largely on enrolment, and universities can receive limited funding to cover enrolment of international students – in 2011-12, 9.5% of the provincial operating grant to universities was based on international student enrolment. This policy allows universities to ‘double-dip’ on funding, says StudentsNS.
Inflated international tuition fees aren’t unique to Nova Scotia; they aren’t even especially high, relatively speaking. Tuition for an international undergraduate student ranged from $35,280 to $39,580 at University of Toronto in 2014-15. International differential fees were first introduced in the 1970s and skyrocketed as universities came to rely increasingly on tuition to generate revenue, according to the Canadian Federation of Students.
But for international students – especially those coming from developing countries – the cost of their education in Nova Scotia can be staggering nonetheless, even when they’re offered scholarships.
What seems like a lot of money when it’s offered in a funding package quickly evaporates when you start paying tuition and living expenses, says Naznin Daisy, a PhD student in Civil Engineering.
Daisy, who is from Bangladesh, was offered $18,000 in funding for her studies Dalhousie in 2013, but after paying tuition had just $1,000 left to cover all other expenses.
“I came from a developing country, I had no idea about living costs.”
Although she says she likes Halifax, the stress of the unexpected expense and the lack of support within the university have made her regret deciding to do her degree in Nova Scotia.
In the end, though, sticking it out is easier than going home defeated – another reason why services for international students such as career counselling and mental health support are crucial, she says.
“For international students they spend a lot of money [to come here], there’s no choice for them to come back home, that’s very shameful. So they just try to hang in there,” she says.
The dissatisfaction international students feel will be exacerbated by changes introduced in the provincial budget, says Hung, including the perpetual deregulation of tuition fees for international students, a change that makes it impossible for international students to calculate the cost of their education.
In the past, student groups have called for better accountability within universities to ensure that the high fees paid by international students go to ensuring adequate international student services and quality of education.
But nothing in Bill 100, the government’s attempt to legislate accountability, makes mention of this kind of responsibility.
There is some hope on the horizon; on Tuesday, Immigration Minister Lena Metlege Diab announced changes to immigration policy that will fast track international students who’ve already worked in the province for at least a year to receive permanent residence status within six months.
For some students, this is good news. Chenlu Shao is a Chinese student currently completing her Master’s degree in Economics at Dalhousie. Shao says she had high hopes for her Canadian degree. But the experience hasn’t been as engaging as she’d anticipated.
“I did have high expectations before I came here, so when I came here I found the students around me are not as good as I expect them to be….I [was] a little disappointed in that way.”
Nonetheless, Shao says she’s okay with her pick of university, at least in part because the choice to study in Nova Scotia had less to do with specific institutions and more to do with the country in which they’re located.
“The reason I came [to Nova Scotia] is not really for education, it’s for the prospect for staying here.”
Yet ElKhashab says that changes to immigration policy won’t be enough; for a start, the international differential fee should be eliminated, he says.
“They can at least invest it correctly…in programs for international students.”
Ultimately, international students feel they’re being treated as cash cows, says Hung; if universities are going to depend on international students, they need to make sure the benefits of the relationship go both ways.