On April 30, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that he was working on formalizing the Ontario government’s request to block international students from entering Ontario. While Ontario Premier Doug Ford denied making a formal request, he did highlight in a news conference on that same day that he would not hesitate to further limit non-essential travel to protect the province. Nevertheless, a travel ban on international students would have a negligible impact on the trajectory of the pandemic while greatly harming U of T. International students are an integral part of the U of T community who can’t be left behind as the university reopens.
As a policy, blocking international students from Ontario is a misguided effort that would not be effective at fighting COVID-19. The premier likes to point to the influx of COVID-19 variants in Ontario as a justification for closing the border. The unfortunate truth is that the variants already have a strong foothold here. According to Public Health Ontario, more than 90 per cent of COVID-19 cases tested positive for a variant of concern in late April. Additionally, measures have already been taken to eliminate non-essential travel; Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has reported that 95 per cent of travel into Canada has been shut down already. Closing the border now won’t stop COVID-19 from spreading further.
If he wants to end this pandemic, the premier should listen to public health experts. Right now, the government of Ontario gives workers only three paid sick days, a measure public health experts have called insufficient for a virus with an incubation period of two weeks. The vaccine rollout in Ontario has also been heavily criticized as unclear and inequitable. Common sense measures like increasing the amount of paid sick days and speeding up the vaccine rollout in Ontario must be taken before further border closures can be considered.
While barring international students from coming to Ontario may not result in an immediate drop in enrolment, it will almost certainly scare off future international students from coming to Canada. In advertising itself to international students, U of T depicts Toronto as a city welcoming of immigrants. Recruitment materials designed by U of T mention that “nearly half of Toronto’s 2.8 million residents were born outside of Canada.” If Ford doubles down on his xenophobic views, foreign students may not even bother looking into U of T.
On a very basic level, international students are important to U of T because of their tuition. The combination of poor provincial funding with increasing international student enrolment means that international tuition is U of T’s largest revenue source. If international student enrolment falls, the lost revenue would have to be made up through domestic tuition or provincial grants in order to prevent budget shortfalls.
The diversity that international students bring to U of T, far more valuable than their tuition, is an asset that the university can’t afford to lose. More than one in five U of T students are international. The perspectives, experiences, and views that they bring to campus enhance the education of all students and distinguish U of T from its Canadian counterparts. If the Ford government successfully implements its ban, U of T will be changed for the worse.
Though most policies surrounding international students are handled by the provincial and federal governments, the university can still take action to help international students now and moving forward as U of T reopens.
U of T did take the first step in showing its support for international students by issuing a statement. The university is well-respected by the government of Ontario: our epidemiologists serve as scientific advisors to the government, and our schools and institutes attract global investment. Statements from U of T can show its international students that it supports them as well as established its priorities in front of the government.
However, U of T can do more. U of T’s hotel quarantine is only free once; students must pay for subsequent quarantines. This means that if students come to Canada and don’t have another place to quarantine, they may be stuck here. U of T should remove this limit. If it doesn’t, thousands of international students may not be able to go home over the winter break.
U of T President Meric Gertler has justified raising international tuition as a measure that is necessary to fund initiatives aimed toward international students. I can think of no better use for U of T’s $2.5 billion endowment than allowing students to see their families this winter.
As vaccine supply grows and eventually exceeds demand in Toronto, U of T should launch an initiative to vaccinate its international students. As foreign citizens in Canada, international students are eligible to be vaccinated but do not hold Ontario health cards and may have difficulty navigating city and provincial bureaucracies.
As an international student myself, I know this struggle all too well. This past fall, I tried to get my flu vaccine in Toronto. Without a health card, I couldn’t find a pharmacy that would take me. Eventually, I gave up and got vaccinated at home over winter break. By offering vaccines to international students as they quarantine and at libraries on campus, the university can accelerate its emergence from the pandemic.
While Ford denies requesting the ban, his statements regarding limiting non-essential travel represent an isolationist direction for the province. The university has two options: remain complicit in the premier’s misguided, xenophobic policies, or embrace the diversity of its student body and support international students.
Sarit Radak is a third-year molecular genetics student at University College. He served as the 2019–2020 life sciences director for the University of Toronto Students’ Union and currently serves on the Arts & Science Council as a full-time sciences student.
Editor’s Note (May 19): This article has been amended to include that Ford denied making the request in question, as well to include U of T’s statement in support of international students returning in the fall.