In an opinion editorial published by University Affairs in September 2023, my colleagues and I argued that treating our international students poorly, with inadequate financial and cultural supports, holds serious consequences for the broader pursuit of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) goals across the university sector and for the Canadian economy.
There is a strong case to be made that more needs to be done to invest in this valued pool of talented and diverse future workers and civic members of our communities. Here, I outline three main areas that could help show that Canada is serious about making international students feel welcome and want to stay in the country.
For example, Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) is working toward fast-tracking study permits for international students to attend Canadian tertiary institutions that offer support to students after their arrival in Canada. Such support, particularly in the area of housing, is crucial to students’ general well-being and performance, as part of the wider EDI mandate. Considering the recent announcement by Immigration Minister Marc Miller – that Canada is on track to host an estimated 900,000 international students in 2023 – making housing available (for example, by expanding on-campus residences) and affordable to students is integral to successfully absorbing a large number of them into the Canadian educational system.
More efforts to welcome students by finding accommodations and providing information on services and social supports in the community would indeed be welcome by many who arrive to a cold, Northern climate, not knowing anyone and having to rely on the university to help settle them in swiftly in an otherwise difficult housing situation. Among a number of practical steps, universities could set up a team of volunteers or provide summer jobs to domestic and international students to find and secure accommodation to incoming international students. Universities could work out an agreement with housing agencies to help students who do not have guarantors in Canada, to co-sign their lease agreement. The requirement for a police clearance in certain quarters in order to rent out apartments to students should also be reconsidered.
Universities can also pair international students with host families or seniors within the local community who may have space in their homes to rent out to at an affordable rate. This is not a new practice. The Homestay Toronto Limited (HTL) and Canada Homestay International has provided accommodation to hundreds of international high school students since 1995 and 2000, respectively. The University of Alberta and Vancouver Island University are part of a select few universities in Canada offering a variety of homestay programs to international students. The intercultural and housing crisis that such programs address are enough incentives for universities across the country to adopt the practice as a matter of urgency. This arrangement can be both mutually beneficial to students in terms of low housing price, and for the hosts in terms of general well-being and cross-cultural experience.
Additionally, a revision of the Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, which militates against the integration of people living with serious illnesses or disabilities in Canada should be carried out. The Canadian government should find better ways of admitting and accommodating prospective international students that may be suffering with what the Act describes as high-cost illnesses such as “advanced diabetes, HIV, certain autisms and Down Syndrome.”
2. Graduate teaching and assistantships
My colleagues and I noted in our previous article that university administrations are hesitant to provide graduate teaching or research assistant positions to international students under the current formula, due to lack of funding from the government. However, if the federal government did begin to subsidize universities for each international student, there would be more revenue available to universities to fund graduate student work (graduate teaching and research assistants, summer work-study programs, etc.). For example, high-achieving incoming and settled international students (e.g. Canadian equivalent minimum average of 80 per cent) could be guaranteed a $10,000 scholarship in exchange for tutoring, research help, or lab work. This way, they gain a needed financial benefit while universities enjoy more teaching and research support, with no additional cost. While this would be a major financial investment for the federal and provincial governments to ensure every visiting graduate student had campus work experience, it would be a huge boon to universities and international students.
3. End recruitment and marketing
Finally, we might recognize the important work that has been done by international recruiters in travelling the globe and finding new markets for potential students. Now that many of these new global pathways have been set up, students will spread word to the next generation of family, friends and networks back home. Thus, it may be time to curb university investment in international marketing and recruitment and instead use some of these resources toward supporting students financially when they arrive.
Our federal and provincial governments must begin to see international students as a resource to invest in the same as our domestic students. Governments may be less hesitant to invest if it is seen as a way to promote the immigration of highly qualified personnel into Canada, solving multiple problems at once.
Benjamin Maiangwa is assistant professor of political science at Lakehead University.