by Marisa Coulton
November 15, 2022

How the pandemic has disrupted the lives of international students in Canada

With the traditional education-to-citizenship route disrupted, COVID-19 has thrown the future of international students in Canada into uncertainty

Bhaskar Malik in his bedroom in New Delhi. (Photograph by Ebti Nabag)

After the pandemic hit, international students at Canadian universities were faced with a choice: continue their studies in Canada or return to their home countries to study remotely. Bhaskar Malik opted for the latter. Over the summer holidays, he flew back to New Delhi to visit family and had plans to return to Vancouver in the fall. However, as COVID-19 continued to spread and his courses at the University of British Columbia moved online, he decided to remain in India. “As much as I would have loved to stay in Vancouver, it just didn’t make sense financially,” he says.

Malik is going into his fourth year of materials engineering at UBC. Before the pandemic, he was very involved in campus life, volunteering with ThunderBikes, an engineering design team that makes electric motorcycles, and working as a bartender for parties held by the Engineering Undergraduate Society. “I was not mentally prepared to be here for so long,” Malik says from his parents’ home in India. “I miss my friends; I miss my girlfriend. But I’m stuck here for at least a couple months.”

Like many international students, Malik was drawn to Canada’s abundant job opportunities, lively cities and distinct natural beauty. Canada ranks third globally as a destination for foreign students and welcomed roughly 642,000 international students last year. In 2018, international students contributed nearly $22 billion to the economy, as well as 170,000 jobs. In recent years, international student outreach has become a key focus area for the Canadian government. One of the goals of the federal 2019-24 International Education Strategy, with its budget allocation of $147.9 million over five years, is to diversify the countries from which international students are recruited.

But COVID-19 has thrown the future of international students in Canada into uncertainty. Many of them were already on tight budgets, operating in currencies weaker than the Canadian dollar, and are now stretched to their financial limit following nationwide layoffs. Travel has been severely curtailed, affecting students’ ability to enter Canada. Once here, students may be unable to go home to visit their families. And then there is the matter of making a new home in Canada. A major draw for foreign students is the opportunity to apply for a work permit after they conclude their studies and later for permanent residency status. But COVID-19 threatens to disrupt this traditional education-to-citizenship route. In many ways, international students are uniquely susceptible to the implications of the pandemic.

Getting to Canada

Travel is the most pressing concern facing international students today, according to the International Prospective Student Study, a survey conducted by Academica, a market research group, and its partner Maple Assist, a company that works with international students in Canada. The government has imposed restrictions on who can enter the country and why they can enter. The most recent information from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) states that international students who received their study permits on or before March 18 will be permitted entry. This date was too early for many first-year Western University students coming from abroad, says Britta Baron, associate vice-president, international, at Western. “Many of the new students will simply not be able to satisfy that basic requirement,” she says.

American students travelling directly from the U.S. are exempt from this deadline, but many are still confused about whether they will be allowed in. Marti Epstein’s son waited several months for his study permit. Epstein is part of a Facebook group for parents of students planning to study at the University of Toronto. “He applied at the beginning of May. It was supposed to take a month, but now they are saying 21 weeks!” she says in an interview in early September. Her son plans to study linguistics at the University of Toronto, which Epstein says is “his dream school.” Even though his classes are online, “he so desperately wants to be on campus,” she adds. (In mid-September, his permit was approved and he travelled to Canada from Massachusetts.)

Students who intend to study in-country must prove that their presence in Canada is essential—that they cannot attend online classes because of an unmanageable time difference, for example, or they lack a reliable internet connection back home. “To determine if an international student’s travel is essential (non-discretionary), border services officers will consider their specific circumstances before making a final decision on whether they can enter Canada,” the IRCC states.

Western University expects approximately 630 new international students this year, but there is no telling how many students will actually arrive. “We are relatively optimistic,” says Baron, “but nobody really knows. We are now getting messages from students experiencing issues. The airline won’t let them come, or Canadian immigration won’t let them come. There’s any number of problems that can arise under the present circumstances.”

The financial squeeze

Many international students find themselves strapped for cash, having been laid off from on-campus and part-time jobs during the pandemic. While the Canadian government made the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) available to international students who found themselves out of work because of COVID-19, many did not meet the eligibility requirements. For example, to be eligible, students need to have earned at least $5,000 in 2019 or the 12 months before the date of application.

While many students—both domestic and international—have made calls for financial relief in the form of discounted tuition, some universities actually increased fees for the 2020-21 academic year. Western, for example, recently raised tuition for international students: upper-year undergraduate programs saw an increase of four per cent, while first-year undergraduate programs saw increases between eight and 12 per cent. “These increases are consistent with international tuition fee increases over the past few years,” says Kris Dundas, communications and marketing manager at Western International.

But the increases spurred a petition that had roughly 2,700 signatures at the time of writing. “When everyone all around the world is trying to help each other in every possible way, Western University decided to increase its fee for international students,” the petition states.

“Raising tuition makes no sense to me,” says Alisha Charania, a third-year accounting student at Western whose summer internship at an accounting firm in the U.K. was cancelled, leaving her in London, Ont., without an income. Charania’s tuition currently stands at roughly $35,000 per year.

Charania, a student from Uganda, chose to stay at Western University in London, Ont.(Photograph by Brett Gundlock)

The Academica survey indicates that more than half of international students expect financial relief from their schools; 67 per cent indicate that they would prefer relief in the form of lowered tuition. “We understand that students are concerned, that this is a difficult moment for them to cope with higher fees,” says Baron. “We are fully sympathetic, but the president and senior leadership must make sure the university stays afloat and continues to operate to the standards that we are used to.” Baron adds that the international tuition at Western was traditionally lower than at other Ontario institutions. “We are realizing now, more than ever, as universities are experiencing financial constraints, we cannot afford to have lower rates than our peer institutions.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by other Canadian universities. “Tuition is not going to be reduced,” says Damara Klaassen, senior director of the International Student Initiative at the University of British Columbia. “Very understandably, students are wondering: is there a way that you can reduce tuition?” she says. “The fact of the matter is that the academic experience and the expertise that goes into delivering their courses is the same as it has always been.”

The challenges of being in a long-distance relationship with your university

When I call Malik, he is sitting on his parents’ terrace in the dark. Night has fallen in New Delhi, but in Vancouver the day has only just begun.

“Humans are not nocturnal beings,” he says. “I hope they figure out how to do online classes in such a way that people don’t feel cheated.” He worries about having to wake up extremely early or go to bed late to attend his classes and exams.

Online instruction has become the sole option for Canadian international students all over the world, but their experiences are by no means equal. They live in vastly different circumstances—and not simply in different time zones. Students in India, for example, must contend with rising COVID-19 numbers that now land the country among the top three most affected nations worldwide, while international students based in China have been unable to access Google Suite technology, such as Google Drive, because of China’s Great Firewall.

Charania’s classes at Western will be all online, but she decided to stay in Canada once she had considered the seven-hour time difference between London, Ont., and Kampala, Uganda. Moving home also would have pulled her out of the university mindset, separating her from the study group that, for years, has kept her focused and grounded. “Spaces carry different energies,” she says. Life moves at an ambling pace in her home country of Uganda, she says, and in the capital city of Kampala, “everybody knows everybody.”

When considering potential countries of study, Charania was attracted to Canada’s safety and diversity. “I’m really liking it here,” she says. “My mind has been opened up to so many different opportunities and so many different things.” Her decision to stay in London came with an unfortunate drawback, however. She can’t visit Kampala for several reasons: expensive flights, border restrictions and the very real possibility of getting stuck. “Not being able to go back home is the thing I struggle with the most,” she says.

Having to study remotely all but eliminates the cultural experience associated with attending school in Canada, says Michael Byun, who studies engineering at UBC. “You don’t go to a foreign country just to study . . .  It’s the cultural aspect that you’re exposed to,” he says. “It’s the thing that international students will miss in this pandemic, period.”

And then there’s the job question. Given the option of returning to South Korea during the pandemic, Byun chose to remain in Canada in the hope that he would still have the opportunity to network with potential employers on Canadian soil, as he had originally planned. “If I’m abroad, I may not be able to come back to Canada for interviews,” he says. “It’s not guaranteed.”

Will international students keep coming to Canada?

In light of COVID-19, incoming engineering student Trung Bui chose to defer his acceptance at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “I can bear it for a semester if I have to, but a year of online learning is not what I want to experience,” says Bui, who is from Vũng Tàu, a Vietnamese port city. Studying in person, he says, demands more communication and interaction. He had hoped to place himself in a “totally different environment” to grow and change as a person. “I know a lot of students who have different opinions,” he says. “But I think I’m doing what’s best for me.”

As students like Bui weigh their options, universities are working overtime to convince them that Canada is still the best place to study. UBC’s Klaassen says school recruitment visits that normally would have been completed in person across 80 countries are now being conducted virtually. The overarching goal remains the same: “We’re still trying to recruit top students from diverse backgrounds,” she says.

Many universities have devised unique strategies to aid international students affected by the pandemic. Western is helping students set up their personal quarantines, as well as providing them with provisions and testing them for the virus a few days into their stay. The university is also looking at increasing the bursary program that offers help to students in financial distress.

UBC is offering complimentary 14-day quarantine facilities on campus grounds and migrating nearly all student services online.

International students are the key to establishing UBC as a global institution, says Klaassen. “They’re a hugely positive impact on the institution in many ways.” Similarly, Baron says international students help expose domestic students to international perspectives and world views and help prepare them for a highly globalized work and social environment.

In addition to the qualitative benefits, international students have become a significant source of revenue for Canadian universities. They make up nearly 15 per cent of enrolment across Canada and pay four to five times more than domestic students. As the pandemic continues, international students may find that the costs of studying in Canada outweigh the benefits, especially if they are unable to study in-country. Without a doubt, Canadian universities still need international students, but do international students need them?

Canada’s stake

International students, like all students, face an uncertain job market. Many are making decisions that they might never have considered before the pandemic—decisions that could fundamentally alter the Canadian immigration landscape in years to come.

There are several routes to permanent residency status, and many require Canadian work experience. International students can apply for a post-graduate work permit upon completion of a program that is at least eight months long, as long as they have maintained full-time status in each semester of study. But the pandemic has raised concerns that these opportunities may no longer be available. “What if the situation gets worse, and Canada is no longer accepting new immigrants?” says Hossein Nasrazadani, an Iranian master’s student at the University of Toronto. He is applying for job opportunities in remote-friendly fields such as data science and machine learning instead of construction management, his chosen field of study. Construction management is generally done in person, and the industry does not appear to be hiring during the pandemic. So far, he hasn’t been able to pin anything down.

On July 14, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada announced policy changes to assist international students. Most notably, time spent pursuing online studies will now count toward a post-graduation work permit. Students outside Canada taking online programs can apply for the permit if the program is relatively short, between eight and 12 months long. Those in longer programs need to complete at least 50 per cent of their degree in-country; the task could be difficult to accomplish if the pandemic spans several years.

If he cannot find work in Canada within a year, Nasrazadani says he might pursue a Ph.D. in the U.S. He is also considering settling in other countries, such as the Netherlands or Australia, that offer a comparable standard of living.

Looking past the pandemic

New Delhi is “sensory overload” in contrast to the relative calm of Vancouver, says Malik. “It’s chaotic,” he says, “but there’s a rhythm to the chaos.” He has always enjoyed the excitement of home but misses the privacy and independence of being on his own. Lately, he has lapsed into an old, familiar routine: running errands with his mother and sister and grabbing vegan burgers with his friends at cafés.

After two months back in India, he is settled and enjoying the comforts of home, but ultimately he would like to go back to Canada. “Even though this COVID situation is probably the worst time to be in university, it is still so worth it to go to university in Canada,” Malik says. “I get to be in a place that is completely different from India—worlds apart from my hometown and home country. I’ve seen both sides of the coin, both sides of the world.”

This article appears in print in the 2021 University Rankings issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Extra-remote learning.”