On April 20, 2020, it was 35°C in my room. As usual, the electric fan sitting on the floor was rotating at full speed, trying very hard to fight off the beads of sweat falling freely down the side of my face, but ultimately losing against the humidity, sunlight, and sweltering heat that were streaming through the windows. It didn’t help that the walls were painted bright yellow.
I’d been back home in Manila, Philippines for more than a month at that point, after leaving the cold Toronto air in a flurry because of COVID-19. After returning home, I spent most of my days finishing final assignments and hanging out with my family, but that day, I sat alone in my room. I started up my laptop and opened Google Chrome, filled with dread. Because April 20 was when my fee assessments rolled out on ACORN — the day when I found out how much being an international student would cost me this time around.
Paying tuition fees is always painful, but paying at international tuition rates is nauseating. I knew that for some time after that day, just like during previous terms, I wouldn’t be able to look my parents in the eye because of the embarrassment and guilt I’d feel for asking them for so much money. It’s never easy to ask your parents for tens of thousands of dollars every term. I love my parents — their support and love are unwaveringly unconditional. So I dread seeing how their faces sink each time I tell them how much they’re going to pay. For me.
I logged into ACORN. As the webpage loaded, I started biting on my thumbnail. By that point in April, our family business had been closed for almost two months due to COVID-19 and some family members were getting sick. Given the pandemic and the online format of U of T classes, I was fervently hoping for tuition fees to decrease that term — or, at the very least, for them to freeze. After all, the schools my siblings go to all lowered their fees. Surely, I thought, U of T would do so as well.
Of course, I was wrong.
I opened ACORN, looked at my credit balance, and saw $17,446.49 in red. $5,595 for each course, up from $5,329 the term before.
I just stared at the screen, stared at the numbers, stared at each of the seven red digits. I refreshed the page and still saw the same set of numbers staring back at me. Then I leaned back on my chair, put my palms over my eyes, and thought I was going to be sick.
I didn’t know how to break this news to my parents.
In 2013, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie published Americanah, a renowned novel that follows a Nigerian international student named Ifemelu as she moves to the United States to attend university.
In the novel, Achidie wrote, “all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people… who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.”
Never have I encountered a passage about international students that is so brutally honest. We don’t do illegal things — I hope — but we cough up extremely high amounts of money to satisfy our hunger for choice and certainty. In my view, we do this because we are consumed by an intense need to escape from crippling institutions — from corrupt governments, weak health and education infrastructure, low-income and trade-dependent economies, pollution, and unsafe public spaces.
Many of us also feel that our potential is best cultivated elsewhere. Colonialism conditions us from birth to look toward somewhere else — toward the Global North. I grew up watching One Tree Hill and How I Met Your Mother; I grew up listening to “American Heartbeat” constantly playing on Philippine radio; I grew up thinking that Dove, Colgate, Vaseline, and Tide were local Filipino products because of their ubiquity; and I grew up seeing people around me clamoring for their 10th pair of Nike shoes. I was born and raised in a society where value is assigned not to our own country or our own people or our own intellect, but somewhere else.
Adichie herself was also an international student while she was earning her undergraduate degree at Eastern Connecticut State University, so she understood all this well.
And so, at 18 years old, whether because of social conditioning or personal volition or a combination of both, I left Manila to live somewhere else; to travel to a place that was thousands of miles away, but that I had grown up knowing so much about — North America. I left my home, family, and friends to see if I could find certainty there.
I left to flee from choicelessness too. I was in search of wisdom in the humanities and social sciences — academic fields that are severely underdeveloped in the Philippines. Perhaps local political corruption eroded the state of education back home. But weak education is also a product of colonization — of the setbacks and debt that trickled down due to unmerciful exploitation and resource extraction that lasted for 381 years, something the government of Canada, as a settler colony itself, has never faced. Less than 50 years ago, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank were piling structural adjustment programs on the country. Those economic reforms prioritized short-term profit and integration into the global economy, but came with cutbacks to education that affect the Philippines to this day.
And, surprisingly, U of T is aware of this. In their Statement of Commitment Regarding International Students, they wrote, “By enrolling international students, the University of Toronto, as an internationally significant university, has an opportunity to share its educational resources with other countries whose institutions are still evolving.”
What they didn’t mention is that they’ll share resources on the condition that we deplete ours first. While Canadian citizens studying in the Faculty of Arts & Science (FAS) pay $6,100 a year in tuition, international students pay up to $57,020. I pay almost as much for one course as my domestic counterparts pay for a whole year of education.
This means that international students in the FAS pay almost 10 times the amount their domestic counterparts pay for the same education.
And when you consider the fact that a majority of U of T’s international student body comes from the Global South, a pattern emerges: extreme amounts of resources from the Global South are funnelled to the Global North. It truly feels like colonialism all over again. Colonialism is still my everyday reality. And for U of T, it’s a golden business opportunity.
I remember the day a U of T recruitment officer came to my high school. I’d just gotten my acceptance letter that week. With the feverish verve of someone anticipating a shiny future, I approached him and told him how excited I was to attend the university — but that I was concerned about finances.
He told me that I shouldn’t worry too much; that numerous in-course scholarships are available for international students, and that most U of T students receive some type of financial aid after their first year. We were all smiles that day; it all sounded promising.
My mistake was that I didn’t double-check his statement. Because what he didn’t mention was that those scholarships are very partial and selective, as I discovered when I was already at U of T. Most of the scholarships available to me range from $500 to $2,500, which are negligible amounts compared to the $57,020 we have to pay each year. Most of them are contingent on applications, leadership positions, academic achievements, faculty, identity, or needs. Year after year, I find that I either have to put in more work on top of my academics and job just to receive a tiny amount of money, or that I am just not eligible — and the latter is more common.
Throughout my stay in Toronto, I kept bracing myself for the loneliness and homesickness I might feel as an international student, for the stress and discomfort of adjusting to a new way of life while studying at a higher academic level. That’s all the online articles and U of T seminars ever talk about. But I was never warned that financial stress would be one of the chronic feelings I’d shoulder as an international student.
My mind frequently goes to money. I feel guilty for wasting my parents’ money and ashamed for asking them for so much. Whenever I get a bad mark, whenever there’s been a free service I didn’t take advantage of, a free event I didn’t go to, or office hours I didn’t attend, somewhere below the surface of my skin I feel like I’m wasting money. I feel like a hoarder.
So it baffles me that in all these discussions about the international student experience, no one ever talks about financial stress or seriously tackles the massive disparity in tuition fees. I realize this subject has become both a taboo and a taken-for-granted fact.
For the longest time, I, too, thought that this is just the way things were for international students — that it was natural to pay 10 times more than others for the same education. I was fed the narrative that I should just be grateful to study at U of T, even though I had worked hard in high school to earn my spot and I continue to pay extremely high amounts to stay at U of T. International students like me are busy navigating a new country and dealing with higher-level academics. The thought of protesting the tuition fees feels like too much for me to take on, especially since I don’t see other international students protesting. I was particularly afraid of being told to go back to where I came from; after all, another student had already called me “fresh off the boat” straight to my face.
I broke the news to my parents during dinner that day in April — I told them U of T had raised its tuition fees. The wrinkles on my mother’s forehead deepened, and she told me to just keep studying hard. My father’s face warped into disbelief, but he soon recovered and, like my mother, kept reassuring me that it was okay as long as I studied hard. But I understood what we were all feeling: this news was unexpected, and we were disappointed, heartbroken, and angry all at once.
Then, roughly one year after that day, U of T raised international tuition fees again. My summer 2021 term bill now stands at $5,707 per course. Next year, my fees will rise by another four per cent.
There have been many things I’ve learned this past year, and here are two of them.
Firstly, I learned that no matter what happens, no matter if classes are online or a global pandemic ravages the earth, or international students struggle with time zone differences, U of T still tries to increase its income each year. Secondly, I’ve found out that international students are just cash cows for the university — first and foremost, as sources of revenue to exploit, excavate, and bleed dry.
To me, these reasons are why international tuition has increased by 127.5 per cent over the last 11 years, why increasing international enrollment seems to be treated as an easy solution to recuperate revenue losses, and why international student tuition fees are now U of T’s largest source of income. We often forget that it’s not only the university suffering losses during this pandemic, but international students and their families too. But because we’re cash cows first and humans second, the university doesn’t see this; in fact, the university calls these fees “appropriate.”
I’m now in the middle of a great disillusionment with U of T, the education system, and really, the education-industrial complex. In the past, I was naive; I thought that education was a right, not a product to be sold. What I found is that in Canada — and in North America more broadly — education is just business as usual, another piece of capitalist machinery where there are those who profit, those who consume, and those who are exploited. Nowhere is this more evident than in U of T’s extremely high international tuition fees.
Back in 2014, U of T claimed that the disparity between international and domestic tuition fees reflects the higher cost of education for international students — but domestic and international students attend the same classes, the same tutorials, the same labs, and have the same professors. Even the eight-person team at my campus’ International Student Centre caters to both domestic and international students, as domestic students can access the centre’s cultural programming, workshops, and study abroad support. It seems like the tenfold disparity in tuition doesn’t reflect a higher cost of education for international students at all. Rather, that disparity exists in part because domestic students’ fees are regulated by the provincial government and international students’ fees are not.
After two years enmeshed in this system, I finally have the critical thinking and courage to say this: it’s not natural for international students to pay 10 times more than other students for the same thing. I’ll accept that international students have to pay more than our domestic counterparts. But I’ll never be able to accept the verdict that anybody has to pay as much as we currently do for education. Right now, international tuition fees at U of T are some of the highest in the world — but that doesn’t mean they have to be.
Education has to be more accessible for international students, which means lowering international tuition costs — not just marginally, but significantly. Collaboration between U of T, the Ontario government, and the federal government will enable this, because the problems in the current system are largely just a matter of misplaced priorities. And right now, in the midst of the pandemic, our institutions have revealed their true colors — that their priorities lie in profit, not in the people they are meant to serve.