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Canada’s international graduate students and COVID-19: Beyond the rhetoric of welcome

Canadian PoliticsEducationCOVID-19

Prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada hosted over 640,000 international students. Photo from Flickr.

One of the first actions taken by governments across the globe in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic was to initiate border shutdowns. This action continues to negatively impact immigrants, refugees, and temporary workers in various ways. Yet, overlooked by many, international graduate students have also been caught in the crosshairs of pandemic policy changes. Most prominently, recent reactive measures implemented by the United States and Canada have sparked an important public conversation about this vulnerable group.

In mid-July, American universities and US media outlets reacted with outrage to COVID-related regulations introduced by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), decreeing that international students will need to either take in-person courses or face deportation. The announcement left graduate students with a seemingly impossible and dangerous choice. Institutions including Harvard and MIT filed lawsuits against the ICE regulation and demanded that the directive be rescinded. Widespread resistance to the policy led the Trump administration to backtrack, but only for students already in the US—not for new incoming international students. While this controversy was brewing in the US, Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) announced plans to help international students to continue their education during the pandemic.

The IRCC announcement contrasted starkly with the Trump administration’s draconian stance. As the US has become increasingly hostile toward racialized newcomers, Canada maintained its welcoming stance to skilled immigrants. International students—much like in the US—are a major source of revenue for both Canadian universities and the broader economy, contributing nearly $22 billion annually. Further, international graduate students, especially those in doctoral programs, are used by universities as cheap, disposable labour, similar to their domestic counterparts. Most research on the exploitation of international graduate students comes out of the US, partly due to the high number of students that choose that country as their preferred destination (over one million). However, proportional to Canada’s much smaller overall population, the number of international students is staggering at 642,000, making them a critical mass in Canadian institutions.

More importantly, the growth of the international graduate student population in the US has plateaued while Canada’s increases every year. We might assume Canada’s less restrictive laws for international students—fewer constraints for on and off-campus employment, more opportunity to immigrate to the country after graduation, and smaller tuition fees—to be the reason for the increasing numbers. But as much as these conditions seem favourable compared to the US, research being conducted at the University of Calgary shows that the treatment of international students, particularly graduate students, is not much better in Canada. In fact, one could argue that beyond the legal limitations, international graduate students attending large, research-intensive universities in the US are better off than in comparable universities in Canada.

Despite the widespread notion that studying in the US is significantly costlier than in Canada, for international graduate students, the financial aid conditions for graduate programs in the US are far more promising. In Canada, international students have to pay between two and three times the tuition that Canadian students pay. This disparity leaves many international graduate students in dire financial situations since they receive the same stipends as domestic graduate students but have to pay a much larger sum in tuition and fees. Contrary to the popular myth that international students are rich, most come from modest means and squarely depend on stipends for their subsistence.

Comparatively, research-intensive public universities in the US do not differentiate between domestic and international origin at the graduate level. What these institutions do is lump international students into the same category as out-of-state students and charge them the differential out-of-state fee. For context, in the US, tax-paying residents of a state pay less in tuition to attend university (at any level) in their state. Everyone else (domestic students from another state and international students) pay tuition as out-of-state-students but, in the majority of research-intensive universities, the scholarship packages for all graduate students come with a tuition waiver easing financial burdens.

What’s more, many American universities approach the relationship between graduate students and educational institutions more equitably, with human resources departments listing them as university employees. An important and under-discussed aspect of the graduate experience, both in the US and Canada—partly due to the heavy focus on the undergraduate student experience—is that graduate students not only study, but they are academic employees in universities. Graduate students receive a stipend in return for their work as teaching or research assistants, and even as sessional or adjunct instructors, serving as cheap, disposable labour in the neoliberal university structure.

It is important to remember, however, that things did not always look this way. Canada, for example, has seen dramatic changes in the legal accommodation of international students. Before the 1980s, international students could study and work in Canada with minimal restrictions and pay the same tuition fees as Canadian-born students. By the 1980s, international fees were put in place by most provinces. The following decades witnessed frequent changes in immigration laws regarding international students, such as implementation of work restrictions, expansion of programs to facilitate working in Canada after graduation, and criteria for screening new immigrants. In 2014, the Canadian government slashed its requirement for international students to have to apply separately (in addition to their study permit) for a work permit, giving automatic permission (in most cases) for those with a study permit to work on or off-campus, for a maximum of 20 hours. A positive change for international students, but around the same time, several provinces excluded international students from eligibility in provincial healthcare, requiring students to pay excessive amounts for private healthcare.

Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted IRCC to make more substantial changes to accommodate international students who are not being allowed to come into the country until the travel ban is lifted. Study permits for students taking online classes from their home countries are being prioritized and the time spent outside Canada during the study period should not impact post-graduate work permits. While these are positive changes, the pandemic has also brought to light the exploitative conditions endured by international students who are expected to attend online courses while navigating time differences of up to 15 hours while still paying exorbitant tuition fees. This allows Canadian universities and the government to profit off of students while using the pandemic to keep them physically away.

As for international students already in Canada, they have been excluded from the Canada Emergency Student Benefit. In April, several provinces temporarily changed their work restrictions for international students, allowing those hired under “essential” positions to work beyond the 20 hour weekly limit (off-campus). This decision was later revoked once “opening” phases began, leaving international students in limbo.

When unprecedented crisis situations such as pandemics arise, protectionist laws are implemented, bills are amended, and policies changed. However, for those under temporary or vulnerable legal status in Canada, exploitative conditions are continuously normalized. The 642,000 international students in Canada have become soft and invisible targets of exploitation by institutions of higher education, facilitated by government policies in Canada. It is time for the Canadian federal government and universities to reassess their treatment of international students.

Pallavi Banerjee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Calgary. Her research interests are situated at the intersections of sociology of immigration, gender, intersectionality, transnational labour, minority families and the Global South. Her book entitled, Dismantling Dependence: Gendered Migrations, Indian High-Skilled Immigrant Families and the Visa Regime is forthcoming from New York University Press. Her other award-winning research has been published in many peer-reviewed journals including the American Behavioral Scientist, Contexts, and Sociological Forum. She has also written opinion pieces in venues such as the Globe and Mail, The Conversation and Ms. Magazine, and her research has been cited widely in the media in the US, Canada and India.

Isabel Fandino is an international MA candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Calgary. Her masters research is on the experiences of international graduate students and their families at the University of Calgary. She has been presenting her research in national and international conferences and her research has been recognized as one of the top research projects at the U of C for 2020 through a university-wide award.


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