For many university students, home is a complex concept. Going to university often means leaving behind what’s familiar. That may involve moving from the suburbs into town, or it may involve moving hours and hours away. For the over 27,000 international students at U of T, it may involve moving to a whole new country.

Additionally, the efficacy of education at every level is affected by students’ home lives. Physical health, mental health, and the struggle of juggling all of the logistics involved in being an adult can take a toll on academic performance. 

This isn’t new in university, of course — but universities hold special responsibilities toward students. For one, students living in dorms are directly dependent on the university for issues related to room and board. Beyond that, university is the first time many students are living on their own, and the first time they’re in charge of the logistics of their own lives.

Here at The Varsity, we’ve been thinking about this a lot. It’s why we pay so much attention to topics like the housing crisis, the rising cost of living, and student food insecurity. Universities don’t exist in isolation, and it’s impossible to support students in their studies without accounting for the issues they face as people. It’s a part of responsible journalistic coverage and it ties into the university’s responsibility to its students.

This rings even more true for issues that affect international students, for whom postsecondary education is often the impetus to pack up their lives and move far from home. Because of this, U of T holds a special responsibility to international students.

But, in many cases, the university’s financial policies and tuition disparity exacerbate existing issues international students face. And U of T isn’t doing enough to prepare incoming students for those difficulties; as we’ve covered in the past, U of T actively seeks international student enrolment, sometimes campaigning on misleading financial promises and information

This problem isn’t unique to U of T. There’s a lot of financial pressure on international students in the Canadian university system at large, which is going to impact other aspects of their lives down the line.

These impacts may not be visible in academics until they’re already causing significant harm — but they’ll definitely be felt at home, where students juggle the effects of their mental health on top of managing everything else in their lives. 

If we don’t go out of our way to prioritize all the issues that students are handling at home, those issues won’t be properly addressed. So let’s start talking about that. Let’s talk about the complexities of building a home as a student and all the ways those complexities feed into the existing financial and logistical disparities faced by international students at U of T.

Financial challenges

International students’ tuition at U of T is almost 10 times that of domestic students. They also don’t have access to student loans programs available to Canadians. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ontario froze domestic tuition for postsecondary students. But tuition fees for international students continued to rise. 

Factoring in recent inflation around the world and its impact on exchange rates for the Canadian dollar, it is a stressful time to be an international student at U of T. 

International students also face a host of unique challenges when establishing themselves in Toronto. Plus, some existing hurdles may be worsened by international student status — issues like housing, for example, may be more difficult to set up when students are out of the country, making students’ housing situations all the more precarious. Although support is available via the Centre for International Experience, international students may not be familiar with local rental laws, which puts them at a unique disadvantage when dealing with the rental market. They’re also more reliant on landlords to communicate information truthfully and effectively while being less able to guard themselves against housing scams when they can’t be physically present in the country during the housing search.

All the while, international students may have to reckon with problems of legal documentation that can impact their ability to plan for their immediate future. When visas don’t come through in time, students may end up in an impossible limbo where they’re unable to enter the country but are still expected to be present for class. Time windows for traveling may be cut short and lead to further complications during the age of COVID-19, making the logistical situation even more frantic for students who have no backup housing in the area.

On top of all that, until recently, international students have faced stringent restrictions on their ability to work in Canada, limited to only 20 legal hours of work per week. Although the work week restrictions are currently lifted, that’s only temporary — even though students have advocated against them for years — and the restrictions still apply to any students who applied for visas after October 8.

Study visas permitting only 20 hours of off-campus work a week can present a serious barrier to international students trying to root themselves in Toronto. International tuition fees are incredibly high and, on top of that, international students may not have as many personal resources nearby to offset costs of everyday living. Without the ability to work, not only will international students have a hard time supporting themselves and paying for their education, but they may have a tougher time kickstarting their careers.

International students at U of T come from a variety of financial backgrounds, of course, and their experiences navigating the university system can’t all be grouped together. But all of this puts international students in a weird place — they’re being put into a more precarious financial position by the university, but they’re also being used as a financial prop for it. The university can offer as many workshops as it likes, but in the end, that’s not really something a financial planning class can prepare you for.

Civic challenges

Students also face more than just financial problems — international students may also deal with challenges related to the social, civic, and cultural factors inherent to relocation. Moving somewhere new, on top of setting up things like housing and health care, means having to establish a new home, setting up new social and emotional support systems, and managing the mental workload of running a household.

At the same time, some international students may face specific challenges to establishing themselves in their new setting, either due to language barriers or general antiimmigrant sentiment. The university offers programs for English language learning, and student advocacy groups can help with finding a community, but a lot of these resources are opt-in — in order to access them, the burden is on students to reach out.

Meanwhile, many students may be navigating complicated politics or global events back home on top of juggling their studies. We’ve seen countless examples of this in the past year alone — students with concerns about family or friends because of the floods in Pakistan, the protests in Iran, the war in Ukraine, or COVID-19 restrictions in China.

How are students supposed to concentrate on schoolwork when something disastrous is going on back home? The university and many independent student advocacy groups provide resources that can help students in some of these situations, but none of those resources can work as a magic wand. 

Ultimately, the way to address all of these problems must involve better support for international students — more financial aid, stricter tuition regulations, and more straightforward channels to access university resources. It’s wonderful to provide workshops and moral support, but students need practical resources in order to see real change. And this would, of course, help everyone, not just international students — giving more members of the university community time and mental energy they can use on things they actually care about will do the community as a whole nothing but good. 

But while we advocate for these changes in the long term, we still need to pay attention to what’s going on with students in the meantime. Home isn’t just a sentimental word to describe the place where you live — it involves a multitude of factors that affect every aspect of being a student, from the time you get up in the morning to the time you go to bed at night. For students far from home, it’s something whose distance can domino into financial, emotional, and pragmatic effects everywhere down the line.

So that’s why we’re going to keep covering home at The Varsity, in all its different forms. We’re all going to need to work together to keep the university to account on this one — home, after all, is a concept bigger than any one person. And it’s not something we can afford to ignore.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email [email protected].