Overseas students face financial struggles in Covid-era Canada

Survey suggests nation is risking welfare of those it hopes will assist its future growth

December 27, 2020
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Canada is badly failing to meet the needs of its international students during the pandemic, raising risks to national well-being that may hit well beyond the value of their tuition dollars, survey data suggest.

Responses collected from nearly 5,000 international students and other migrants in Canada by World Education Services (WES) found that more than a quarter had lost their primary income during Covid shutdowns and that one-third have struggled to pay housing costs.

At the same time, such students are either ineligible for government social services or unaware of what assistance they could receive, according to WES, which provides credentialing services for international students.

The poll results suggest that Canada, as a nation that relies heavily on international students to finance its higher education system, might be making a costly mistake during the pandemic, said Shamira Madhany, WES’ managing director for Canada.

Yet even bigger losses might await the nation overall, Ms Madhany said, given that international students are central to Canada’s strategy for maintaining its population and economy in the face of declining birth rates.

“Are universities risking losing their golden egg? Absolutely,” said Ms Madhany, a former assistant deputy minister for health, social, education and children’s policy in the Ontario provincial government. “And it’s not just universities that are losing out – it’s communities and, generally, Canada.”

WES is a non-profit service that helps foreign students understand how their prior academic credentials translate into Western systems. It assists nearly 3 per cent of the roughly 640,000 international students who come to Canada.

Its survey of 4,932 students and other migrants who responded between April and August found that 26 per cent reported at least a temporary loss of their primary income, and that 35 per cent had experienced difficulty paying rent or utility bills.

That followed the Canadian House of Commons passing a relief measure that paid college students C$1,250 (£720) a month over the summer to cover lost jobs, but excluded international learners from the benefit.

Canada is the world’s 39th largest country by population, but it manages to attract the fourth-biggest number of international students. The Canadian government has estimated that those students account for an annual economic contribution of 170,000 jobs and more than C$20 billion in growth. Federal policies include spending nearly C$150 million over five years to expand their recruitment.

But the poor treatment of those who arrive, Ms Madhany said, belied the government’s own hope that many of those students would remain after graduating, take jobs and help to bolster Canada’s shrinking population.

“If they are going to be part of our population growth – which is intentional, which is what government is doing – then let’s make sure that we look out for them,” she said.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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