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International students concerned about fee increases, future in Canada during coronavirus pandemic

Last Updated Aug 28, 2020 at 12:27 am EDT

With the fall semester just days away, international students enrolled in Canadian universities are raising concerns about the impact of COVID-19 on their studies, their wallets, and their futures.

A group of international students currently enrolled at the University of Toronto have created the International Student Advocacy Network (ISAN) to present their concerns and demands to university officials.

They say the toll COVID-19 is taking on them, like their fees, is disproportionately higher than domestic students.

“They have increased fees by an average of 5.4 per cent for the coming year,” Anna BML Carneiro, coordinator at ISAN, says.

The University of Toronto’s international student fees for 2020-21 were published in April 2019 and Carneiro says once the decision to move classes online was finalized, there were no major changes to that plan.

The group says that while the fee hike is an annual occurrence, it is not justified this year considering a majority of classes are being taught online. They are demanding that the university roll back the hike.

“Losing the opportunity to network, to meet different people on campus, to use different resources … everything that makes the campus experience and the university experience so rich for us and makes it worth it coming here is no longer available,” Carneiro says.

ISAN has approached several University officials’ offices and are waiting to hear back as the deadline to register and pay fees approaches.

“We didn’t get a single response. The responses from the students have been very positive – we’ve got the support of various student groups and other campus bodies. The student union has been collaborating with us. But unfortunately we haven’t had a response from administration,” Carneiro explains.

The University of Toronto tells CityNews that incidental fees that cover on-campus experiences have been reduced.

“[They have] been adjusted accordingly to reflect that so much of university life will now be off-campus,” Joseph Wong, Vice-President, International at University of Toronto, says.

However, he says the international tuition fee increase is in line with their normal, annual fee increase. He adds that moving to online learning is not necessarily less expensive.

“We have had to invest significant amounts in terms of new education technology, academic divisions have been bringing in educational technology specialists, faculty instructors have been reworking their courses, in fact adding new elements to their courses that would likely not have occurred had the pandemic not occurred,” Wong says.

Wong also says classrooms are being fitted for a “dual delivery” system, with some students in class while others join online. They have had to be revamped with new equipment including hardware like mics and screens to accommodate both in-class and online learning.

“We want to create, as much as possible, an in-person like experience for all of the students and that requires huge investments. So you look at the renovated room — just the cost of hardware itself to make this happen and to continue to have a really high quality educational experience for our students requires resources,” he explains.

However, while all students, domestic and international, will benefit from the improvements, the only one’s facing a fee hike are international students, who already pay up to seven times the domestic tuition.

“Our domestic students, their fees or the expenses incurred to buy the same educational experience for them is subsidized by the government,” Wong says.

“Given the realities of where the levels of those subsidies are, they’re such that we’ve had to continue to increase our international student tuition — as we would normally. This is not an extraordinary increase, this is just part of our regular stepped increase.”

Wong adds that various student groups have been in touch with them with their “understandable concerns.” He says the university has been sharing with them how it is investing resources to ensure they have “a high quality, innovative academic experience with us, as well being supported in other aspects such as their health and overall well being.”

Along with a disruption in current studies, international students may also find their futures in limbo as some may not be able to fulfill the eligibility criteria for the Post Graduation Work Permit program (PGWP) thanks to COVID-19 travel restrictions.

The length of a PGWP is dependent on the length of the program in which a student is enrolled.

In it’s latest update to eligibility criteria, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) says students enrolled in an eight or 12 month program, which starts between May and September 2020, can now complete their entire program online from outside Canada and still be eligible for a PGWP.

Those in longer programs can study online from abroad until April 30, 2021 and will have no time deducted from the length of a future post-graduation work permit — but they must still complete 50 per cent of their program while physically present in Canada.

For those currently outside the country, returning to Canada to fulfill that criteria might be tricky, as they have to prove their travel is “non-discretionary” or essential. With many universities offering courses online, proving it is essential for them to be physically present in Canada could be complicated.

Ziah Sumar, an immigration lawyer with Long Mangalji LLP, says some international students may be allowed to return based on other criteria — for example, if an international student moved to Canada and was already living here and went back home for a vacation.

“IRCC has said that the “non-discretionary” [criteria] includes people who are already living in Canada. Technically by IRCC’s definition they should be able to travel back to Canada,” she says.

“With that being said, the IRCC says they “may” be able to and in the end the final decision is up to the border services officer.”

The IRCC confirms on its website that “a border services officer will make the final decision on whether your reason for travelling to Canada is non-discretionary or non-optional.”

Both University of Toronto and Ryerson University say international students will be provided with documentation to prove their travel is essential should they wish to return.

CityNews reached out to the IRCC to confirm whether those documents would be sufficient proof to re-enter the country and they would only say that the criteria for entry for international students remain the same.