The unfortunate reality is that, if you’re an international student at U of T, things are only going to get worse from here. 

Since 2010, international student enrolment has increased from 12 per cent to 31 per cent of total enrolment — that is a nearly three-fold increase in slightly over a decade. However, the university has recently announced that over the next decade, this enrolment will remain at around 31 per cent. 

Although U of T has consistently relied on raising international student enrolment and international tuition fees as a means of increasing revenue, we are now reaching the maximum international student enrolment. This means that, although each international student’s tuition is expected to continue to increase, international student enrolment will remain stable. As such, each international student will be expected to pay more money. 

The Ontario government is capping international student enrolment

The province is reducing operating grants by $750 per international undergraduate and master’s student. Meanwhile, as the Ontario government mandated in its Strategic Mandate Agreement 3 , the university must maintain its five-year average enrolment within plus or minus three per cent of its target or it will be ineligible for full enrolment funding.

A critical question to ask is why international tuition continues to increase so dramatically. For several years, the Ontario government has prohibited universities from raising domestic tuition — this is commonly called the domestic tuition fee freeze. Over the last four years, the university has seen a decline in operating revenue of $195 million due to this fee freeze and a 10 per cent domestic tuition cut in 2019–2020. However, its overall revenue continues to grow to a projected $124 million in 2023–2024 alone. This growth in revenue is largely driven by “enrolment-related revenues from student fees,” which, notwithstanding moderate increases in domestic undergraduate intake, comes from international students. 

Over the last few decades, the Ontario government has slowly taken away critical revenue streams from universities, leaving international tuition as one of the few streams of revenue available. This is precisely the perverse pattern that we see playing out of U of T right now. 

For years, student unions and leaders have been wasting their time demanding that the university freeze or even reduce international tuition. As we’ve come to learn, the university won’t do this — or, more specifically, this is not an ask that can be productively made of the university administration. 

The reason is simple; international students’ tuition is directly dependent on significant political changes that are happening largely at the provincial level. The university will continue to expand revenue streams based on the pathways made available to it. If you want international students’ tuition lowered, you need to change those pathways. What we need to do is advocate at the provincial level — and, most importantly, vote.  

That is the present reality, and I think it’s better to be honest than continue to make false and grandiose promises about what we can change on our campus, as others have done and continue to do. 

But that isn’t to say that there’s nothing we can do here on campus. There are other things to focus on when advocating to the administration on behalf of international students. 

Financial aid for international students

“No student offered admission to a program at the University of Toronto should be unable to enter or complete the program due to lack of financial means.”

This principle is embedded in the 1998 Governing Council Policy on Student Financial Support, and it is the driving force behind much of the funding allocated every year towards student financial aid. The principle is repeated in other relevant documents, such as the Statement of Commitment Regarding International Students, which states that, “International students who are admitted and enrolled may encounter financial emergencies and the University will provide financial assistance as needed and where possible.”

What the University of Toronto Students’ Union has asked, and will continue to ask, of the university is simply that it abides by this principle with regard to international students. While last year we met directly with members of the Governing Council over the course of the budgetary cycle to impress this message, this time we are speaking directly to our membership; we believe that the university is patently failing to meet their promise to you. 

In fact, the administration readily admits this. When we had previously raised this concern, we were told that the university interprets this policy in such a way as to apply exclusively to domestic students.

However, we can see no justification, either in the text or spirit of this policy nor supporting documentation, for such an interpretation.  

In conversation with members of the administration, I was told that, given the university’s reliance on funding grants from provincial and federal governments, using their funds towards international students is potentially unfair. Of course, having read the university’s budget, we know that international students constitute roughly 43 per cent of the entire operating budget — a far more significant revenue stream than governmental funding has amounted to for years, which is currently around 20 per cent. If we are evaluating eligibility for student aid based on our revenue sources — which we shouldn’t be — then international students would in fact be due more financial support than domestic students.

When this was pointed out to the university administration, they stated that the university cannot be expected ‘to meet the needs of the entire world’s student population.’ Clearly, we are not asking the university to care for the world’s population. We are simply asking the university to care about its own students as the policy explicitly obligates it to do. 

Since then, this year’s budget, as well as the Enrolment Report 2022–2023, have singularly included an explicit affirmation of that domestic-exclusive interpretation, which had previously been unspoken, so far as I can tell, and based on the last five years of available documentation. 

What specifically are we asking? 

Approximately 50 per cent of financial aid provided to undergraduates is needs-based. However, only 14 per cent of the financial aid available to international students is needs-based. Worse yet, this percentage represents a significant reduction over the course of three years; in 2018–2019 and 2019–2020, needs-based financial aid amounted to around 22 per cent of the total financial aid available to undergraduate international students.

This disproportionate emphasis on merit when determining financial aid available to international students is unfair and has significant repercussions. The current structure of financial aid for international students fails to address the challenges that international students face during their academic journey. This system instead puts international students’ ability to finish their studies at risk by making it dependent on their ability to perform exceptionally well in a highly competitive university environment. 

Just as the process works for domestic students, international students’ acceptance into a program should be enough to qualify for needs-based financial support. Enrolled international students shouldn’t have to prove themselves more than domestic students just to receive the same benefits.

Our ask here is simple, actionable, meaningful, and within the university’s current budgetary constraints: shift more of the financial aid available to international students to be needs-based. Although the university is already increasing financial aid for international students up to a total of $89 million in 2027–28, from a starting point of $14.7 million, it is not committed to doing so in a way that meets its policy obligations. Furthermore, this increase comes from “international fee revenue.”

All we are calling for is that this expansion of international student financial aid over the next five years reflect the ratio of needs-based to merit-based aid that we see available for domestic students. 

This is an easy ask. We have an extant policy framework and allocation of funds; we just need to push a bit harder. 

Further, now that its position has been stated publicly, we are calling on the university to justify to our membership its domestic-exclusive interpretation of relevant policies and overreliance on merit-based financial aid for international students.

For our part, we must also begin working more closely with other student unions on our campus. Most of the important decision making is done in the fall, and at the level of each division, which determines the majority of its budget independently of the central administration. Before the Academic Budget Review, deans consult “at the local level.” So, to push this goal, each division needs to be lobbied independently months before the budget comes to the Governing Council. That part is not easy, but it is the clearest path to effect change for international students.

Omar Gharbiyeh is a fifth-year student at St. Michael’s College studying political science, history, and near and Middle Eastern civilizations. He is the president of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) for the 2022–2023 academic year.