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How EDI policies are failing international students

We need to re-examine the social structures that are responsible for maintaining systematic exclusion.


The Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) movement has been trending in Canada, its popularity trickling into postsecondary institutions. Subsequently, EDI has escalated and evolved quickly over the last few years, necessitating postsecondary institutions to quicken their pace of change, often in ways that they can’t live up to. These higher education administrations have embarked on this movement to showcase their stand on dismantling systematic barriers experienced by marginalized groups. As in most grassroots movements, capitalism has filtered into the fabric of the EDI movement in higher education. The current EDI work being done at Canadian universities is unfortunately riddled with face-value participation on committees, subcommittees and associations that have no real impact on systemic changes, and little power to administer changes in policies that can have any real effect.

EDI has unfortunately become institutionalized and performative. The policies currently in place seem to be just fulfilling mandates and prioritizing mainstream issues, with little discussion regarding the roles of the social class, or the education and employment systems that impact wealth and income. We saw this with Black Lives Matter and LGTB2+ initiatives, and now with EDI.

While there have been efforts to increase student enrolment in higher ed, policies and necessary resources to address EDI have not followed suit. We need policies that focus on creating inclusive and social environments and we need strategies that focus on supporting students to meet their equality, diversity, and inclusivity responsibilities through their programs of study and wider student experience opportunities.

Mitacs-funded research that I did revealed a lot about how EDI is failing international students as part of the group that EDI should address at postsecondary institutions. In my preliminary research on racialized students at four Ontario institutions, I examined how power centres are linked to maintaining the status quo. The aim of this study was to explore the lived experiences among undergraduate and graduate racialized (international and domestic) students during their higher education studies.

One international student, who arrived in Canada five years ago, could not relate to the western definition of work-life balance.

“In my culture [..] the concept of my ‘family’ is not just me and my partner – it’s my parents and my grandparents. I must take into consideration intergenerational family members.”

EDI policies need to do a better job in addressing these types of differences.

Another international student argued that:

“we go through a different process…I just want to feel heard…and feel seen.”

The same student also expresses this barrier:

“Due to the language barrier, I have to put more effort to learn the knowledge compared to my peers – it is the feeling of unfairness because I have to put in more work and effort compared to others to achieve the same thing – rarely it gets recognized – it’s not just learning the words it’s also about expressing my thoughts I would feel more validated if the school would recognize – or validate these experiences.”

EDI needs to be supplemented by ways that draw on an understanding of intersectionality, accountability, social positionality, and privileges. Universities need to re-examine and teach about social structures that are responsible for maintaining systematic exclusion to help policymakers (both current and future) understand racial, cultural, and religious differences. This will subsequently remove barriers for marginalized groups.

Another idea is to have the provinces increase the nomination of international students through the Provincial Nominee Programs (PNPs). This immigration program targets workers with the skills, education and work experience that will contribute to the economy of a particular state or territory. Increasing the PNP quota for international students may make it easier for international students to stay in Canada and in the provinces where they study. Increased PNP spots for international students may make it simpler for them to remain in the country, which would aid their retention in their study-related areas.

We need to engage racialized communities in meaningful approaches to achieve a more equitable, diverse and inclusive academic and research enterprise. This is essential to creating excellent, innovative, and impactful research and education necessary to advance knowledge and understanding, and to respond to local, national, and global challenges.

This column is coordinated through the Internationalization of Student Affairs Community of Practice of the Canadian Association of College & University Student Services (CACUSS). For comments or questions please contact [email protected].

Karine Coen-Sanchez is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Ottawa.
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  1. Stacey Wolfram / January 24, 2023 at 19:15

    Love the way Karine’s writes, it’s always within the objective of improving the system never just pointing fingers! We should have more writers like her!

  2. Tony / January 25, 2023 at 14:19

    Good article but leaves out the crucial point that international students are being used by our universities to make up for domestic shortfalls, and in this way are also financially exploited. International graduate students, for example, often come from developing regions, and pay double the tuition of our domestic students while also being denied funding and graduate assistant opportunities. This, combined with the costs to travel to and live in Canada is too much to bear in the majority of cases. We tend to accept only those who are willing to take these terrible financial deals. This form of systematic discrimination needs to be addressed alongside cultural and linguistic challenges mentioned here.

    Another important point is we have a supply problem of trained people who can fill the roles needed for EDI goals. A simple place to invest to serve this need is reducing financial obstacles to international students who can bring their cultural knowledge to the table, and get the required training in the Canadian context of higher education.

    In other words, how we treat and support our international students is directly linked to our chances of rebalancing the faculty and staff workforces in higher education in line with EDI initiatives, to be more diverse/representative and have the professional skills necessary.

  3. Helen / January 27, 2023 at 09:29

    There’s a giant leap from logic in this argument. The international students are paying $25 000/year to attend schools funded by Canadian taxpayers. Admissions of the latter are down to make room for the higher payer. True EDI would be to make the taxpayer funded post-secondary institutions available to more Canadian students (i.e., those who paid into and whose parents/guardians paid into it as required by law). We owe nothing to students who chose to avail themselves of a study abroad opportunity. We most certainly should not relegating Canadian students to the backseat in order to increase opportunities for international students simply because they have more money to throw around. Get real.

  4. Jenn / February 7, 2023 at 02:15

    International students are not racialized Canadians and the focus of EDI policies should not be them. Part of the very reason to study overseas is to experience a different environment and learn to adapt to it. It would be non-sensical for a Canadian to go study at eg Tsinghua University and then demand that the institution adopt policies that service their cultural needs as a Canadian or that their experiences “be validated”.

    It is ok for international students to feel challenged and out of place – that is part of the experience and it is for them to decide if after the conclusion of their studies Canada is or is not a place they wish to remain and build a life. Crossing borders inevitably requires adaptation to local norms to a greater or lesser degree.

  5. Snowden Zeng / May 12, 2023 at 13:29

    A real voice, gives me hope. Karine Coen-Sanchez for all that you do, thank you!