Students across British Columbia have been hit hard by the COVID–19 pandemic. A swift, chaotic shift to online classes paired with the virtual disappearance of summer employment has left many feeling anxious about their future. Lost or forgotten in the mix of emergency responses from provincial and federal governments are international students – those who have come to BC to live and study, and now find themselves stuck with limited resources, dwindling savings, and a vastly different job market.
As we move into the Summer semester, institutions are already seeing the results of the pandemic on enrolment: not only are domestic students enrolled at a lower rate than expected, virtually all post-secondary institutions in BC are seeing a decline in enrolment in international students. Why is this a problem? Because over the course of the last two decades, our post-secondary system has grown reliant on fees charged to international students to make up for insufficient public funding.
The BC Federation of Students has been sounding the alarm for years about the precarious position our institutions have allowed themselves to be in. Over-reliance on the fees from international students could mean that if enrolment were to drastically decline – like right now – the whole funding model could come crumbling down.
The reliance on international students has also meant that tuition fees for these students are unpredictable and erratic – not to mention wildly out of step with the fees paid by domestic students. In BC, international students pay as much as six times more than domestic students for the same program and courses. These fees can be increased at any time, by any amount, at the will of the institution’s Board of Governors.
International students’ decision to live and study in British Columbia has a massive economic impact that is felt throughout our province: in 2017 alone, international students accounted for $4.15 billion in spending, which created 31,400 jobs and contributed $2.37 billion to BC’s GDP. These students must be valued as more than simply revenue generating units for the post-secondary sector; they are active members of our communities and of our economy. From the rental market, to retail store, to non-profit organisations where they may volunteer, the impacts will be felt when they are gone.
The COVID–19 pandemic has exposed a fundamental crack in the system. This crack won’t be solved by a one-time change in fees charged to international students. Instead, we must use this crisis to put a spotlight on the issue and to continue to pressure the government to find solutions that protect not only the students, but the integrity of the entire system.
The Fairness for International Students campaign is more important now than ever. Progress towards the goal of regulation on international student tuition fees, and the implementation of a strategy for international education in BC, may not be a short term goal, but it is the best way to advocate for international students now and in the future.
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