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International students a “source of profit”

More than 50 per cent tuition increase for incoming international students draws sharp backlash from students
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The Centre for International Experience is one of many supports the univeristy offers for international students. HELENA NAJM/THE VARSITY
The Centre for International Experience is one of many supports the univeristy offers for international students. HELENA NAJM/THE VARSITY

Incoming Arts & Science international students are being charged $35,280 next year — an increase of 9.2 per cent. U of T is proposing an increase of more than 50 per cent over the next five years. In the past, university administration has claimed that the differential tuition fees for international and domestic students reflect the higher cost of education for international students. This increase, however, is bringing back persistent student concerns that the university sees international students as a profit source.

“International students are absolutely seen as a source of profit by the university,” said Yolen Bollo-Kamara, current vice-president, equity, of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) and president-elect. “I have participated in many meetings at which senior members of the university administration identify targets for increased international student enrolment as a way to generate revenue and compensate for gaps in government funding. The discussion always revolves around the money international students bring to the university, as opposed to their academic and social contributions,” she added.

The UTSU and the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) have both lobbied for a cap on international tuition fee increases for a number of years.

At present, there are no per-student operating grants for international students. In any given year, the federal and provincial governments subsidize approximately half of the fees incurred by a domestic student, while international students receive no subsidy. Still, the difference between domestic and international tuition fees is expected to expand in the coming years. Afirst-year domestic undergraduate student entering the Faculty of Arts & Science in 2013 pays $5,865. A first-year international undergraduate student entering the Faculty of Arts & Science in 2013 pays $32,075.

Tuition fees for new incoming international students are set to increase by 9.2 per cent next year. Fee increases for existing international students are set to increase by five per cent. On average, tuition fee increases are assumed to be three per cent for domestic students and 6.5% for international students each year of the five-year budget cycle 2014–2015 to 2018–2019. The increases come against the backdrop of U of T budget increases — U of T’s total budget is set to cross the two billion dollar mark for the first time in 2014–2015.

Domestic and international tuition fee schedules are regulated under the new Ontario Tuition Framework, introduced in 2013. Under the new framework, domestic tuition fees are capped at three per cent per year for most programs. Under the previous framework, domestic tuition fees were capped at five per cent per year for most programs. University administration estimated the impact of lowering the regulated rate of increases at $15 million in 2014–2015, growing to $56 million by the end of 2019. On the other hand, international tuition fee increases are unregulated. To that end, some allege that the university continues to increase international tuition fees to make up for funding shortfalls.

The increases in international tuition fees come against the backdrop of a rapidly increasing international student population. In 2002–2003, international students represented 6.5 per cent of the total student population. Today, that number stands at 15.2 per cent.

“As the number of international students has increased over the years, the need to provide additional and specialized services for international students has also grown,” said Laurie Stephens, U of T’s director of media relations.

Stephens cited a number of specialized services provided for international students, including immigration and transition advice, intercultural and learning strategies support, orientation programs, peer mentorship, English communication classes, and social and networking events. The university also offers special bridging programs for some international students.

University administration also maintains that increasing the diversity of the student population leads to a better academic and social experience for all students. “The University of Toronto welcomes the variety of perspectives, viewpoints, and diversity that international students bring to our already diverse campuses. These students contribute to the international character of the university, and their presence provides opportunities in our academic and co-curricular programs for the enhanced exchange of knowledge,” said Stephens.

Zakary Paget, special assistant, communications, at the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities did not directly address the issue of government funding for international students. However, according to Paget, per-student funding for Ontario universities increased from $6,719 in 2002 to $8,605 by the end of 2013, an increase of 28 per cent. “The government provides funding in a consistent and predictable manner and as autonomous institutions, we expect that schools will manage their financial health in an efficient manner,” he said.

Andrew Langille, a Toronto-based labour lawyer, argued that funding for international students should be increased. “The Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities needs to take a hard look at whether there is adequate funding for international student aid at post-secondary institutions in Ontario,” he said. Langille said that increasing funding would be a good retention strategy to keep international students in Ontario after graduation.

Bollo-Kamara recommended that the university reduce international tuition fees, and not allow them to increase at a higher rate than fees for domestic students. She also recommended that the university increase financial aid for international students. In 2012–2013, the university provided just $4.95 million in merit and need-based grants — exclusive of U of T fellowships — to about 1,600 international students.  The university provides more than $150 million in total merit and need-based grants.

Like Bollo-Kamara, Langille also said that the provincial government should look at placing a cap on international tuition fee increases. “Much like tuition fees for domestic students, the tuition fees charged to international students are extreme, unsustainable, and predatory,” he said.

Paget brushed off these concerns: “Tuition fees help to cover the costs of education and help ensure that institutions continue to have the resources needed to maintain high quality and accessible postsecondary education in Ontario,” he added: “The tuition fees for international students are determined by the institutions. Institutions have the flexibility to increase tuition fees for international students by the same amount as domestic students.”

Stephens said that U of T is doing the most that it can with the financial resources provided by the provincial government. The provincial government does not provide grants to universities to support research-stream international graduate students, leaving Ontario universities at a disadvantage when competing with universities in other provinces.

Stephens also said that the university administration is lobbying the provincial government to extend the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) to international students. In 1994, the Ontario government disqualified international students from coverage under OHIP.

Shawn Tian, president of the Arts & Science Students’ Union (ASSU), said that, for some students, international tuition fees might still be cheaper than studying at a domestic institution. He also noted that some countries fully subsidize tuition fees for their citizens to study abroad, so not all international students bear the full financial burden of increased tuition fees.

On the other hand, Tian said that there is no guarantee that revenue from increased tuition fees ends up benefitting students, a reference to the $40 million in within-university subsidies that will be transferred from undergraduate-heavy divisions of the university to graduate-heavy and revenue-poor divisions next year.