Op-ed: Enhancing internationalization at the University of Toronto

Keeping politics aside, U of T must globalize in spirit, practice, and implementation

Op-ed: Enhancing internationalization at the University of Toronto

The University of Toronto proudly promotes the notion that it is a diverse, multicultural, and innovative research-oriented institution. The institution has grown to be a symbolic manifestation of the values of openness, progressive thought, and inclusivity imbued in the very idea of Canada as a country.

To a large extent, this is true. Our university has one of the largest student bodies in Canada, with approximately 25 per cent registered as international students. Furthermore, the wide-ranging cultural and disciplinary backgrounds of academics and staff at U of T have allowed others to regard the institution as one promoting global thought leaders.

Yet it is imperative that all stakeholders at the university pay further attention to engaging with international students through more comprehensive platforms. International student fees remain uncapped and unregulated, which has resulted in the university having one of the highest nominal undergraduate fees in the country. Moreover, problems adjusting to language, religious customs, social engagements, and other socio-economic differences, in addition to a worryingly growing unease around mental health concerns such as homesickness, depression, and anxiety, have manifested in a lack of interest among international students in the university’s governance and student politics.

This is not to say that international students remain completely uninvolved in student life. In fact, U of T has one of the largest networks of globally themed student organizations in the world, which remains a testament to the desire for students from around the world or with an interest in global affairs, cross-cultural learning, and diversity to be active members of the student community. However, we as a university need to question what is holding these organizations or individuals back from partaking in student governance. Perhaps it is the volatile nature of student politics at our university. Perhaps it is the personalization of political choices by our student leaders. We leave that up to our constituents to decide.

With respect to student politics — and particularly with respect to the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), which I am a part of — international student issues have formed a key portion of our aim to be effective representatives of our constituents. Yet, for various reasons over the course of our history, we have fallen short with regard to putting international student issues front and centre. It is a collective failure for which there is little excuse. But we recognize that this issue exists, and we want to change it.

One of the platforms that the UTSU is developing is called the Global Dialogue Series (GDS). Engaging student organizations, academics, and other stakeholders in town hall-style, discussion-based events, the UTSU organized its first GDS through a series of four events during the fall semester, with a focus on immigration, migrant rights, and minority rights in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Syria, South Sudan, and Canada. The collaborators were comprised of student clubs like the Bangladeshi Students’ Association, academics from the Munk School of Global Affairs, and even a filmmaker working with Rohingya children based in Canada. It seemed to me like a good starting point to push student-centred global issues to the forefront of the UTSU’s relationship with its constituents.

Keeping up with this philosophy, the UTSU is planning to continue its GDS series, with a primary focus in student activism and education in countries ranging from Turkey to the United States. While the planning of the event series is still in its preliminary process, with the active engagement of on-campus student clubs and external stakeholders, we hope to make this event — and, from a long-term perspective, the GDS in general — a permanent platform for student politicians to carry forward, irrespective of political differences.

I invite all interested parties to partake in this endeavour. Conversations spur conversations, which ultimately lead to a better informed student body — better informed about foreign cultures and varying ideologies and lifestyles. Maybe one day, we at the university will be able to say that rather than international students adjusting to the Toronto culture, we all should collectively adapt to and celebrate diversity. If we can do that, we will truly be able to call ourselves a comprehensively diverse institution, not just in terms of numbers, but in the way we talk about and represent ourselves.

For far too long, student politicians and activists at this university have engaged in hostile politics, sometimes just for the sake of doing so. Differences in ideologies will remain, but they do not give us the right to ignore core issues for students, including Islamophobia, mental health concerns, homophobia, and academic difficulties.

My demand as an international student is that we come together to project genuine internationalism, from engaging with platforms such as the GDS to participating in activities hosted by bodies like the Centre for International Experience. Let us put aside partisan disparities across political slates, socio-cultural organizations, and academic disciplines and unite in the spirit of putting issues affecting international students front and centre.


Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a fourth-year student at University College studying Economics and International Relations. He is the Associate Vice President-University Affairs of the University of Toronto Students’ Union.

International PhDs to pay tuition equivalent to domestic students

Graduate students respond to changes in academic rates

International PhDs to pay tuition equivalent to domestic students

Come September, domestic and international PhD students at U of T will pay equivalent tuition. This breaks from the status quo of international students paying much higher rates than domestic students.

At present, most international fees are $21,560 per year, in comparison to the domestic rate of $6,960 for a majority of programs.

Rose Liu, an international student and Masters of Pharmacology student, said she believes that the move was reasonable. “It doesn’t make sense for them to pay a whole lot extra.”

The announcement came on January 16. In a statement posted on U of T News, Joshua Barker, Dean of the School of Graduate Studies and Vice-Provost of Graduate Research and Education, said that the university “[strives] to remove any barriers, financial or otherwise, that graduate students might face as they look to attend our university.”

Barker later told The Varsity that the move was to make higher education more accessible to a larger pool of students. “We know that international students will always be looking carefully at the fees that they will be paying,” he said. “Reducing it to domestic level will improve our capacity to recruit the best of the best.”

The plan technically won’t kick in until after a student’s fourth year of study in their doctoral program. Currently, both international and domestic students are provided a funding package, comprised of grants and work opportunities, that does not require them to pay fees out of pocket for the first four years. Starting in their fifth year and any other time after that, students will have to pay fees.

“[Students will be affected] when they finish the funded portion of their degree, and we’re going to absorb the costs of that through our normal budget process,” said Barker with regard to the specific details of how the university will offset this financial change.

The announcement comes two weeks after the deadline for doctoral programs passed, and some international students are saying that the expensive fees factored into their decisions to not apply.

“We’re only able to make the announcement when the decision has been reached within the university, and we have agreement from the various faculties within the university,” said Barker.

Liu also noted how this might promote meritocracy. “If supervisors know that they don’t have to pay for international PhD students, they could probably decide to take a certain international student instead of compromising for domestic students.”

The tuition cut will not affect professional programs. The Doctor of Juridical Science, Doctor of Education, and Doctor of Music Arts will keep current international tuition rates due to their non-research orientation. According to Barker, there are no plans at present to reduce those fees. There are also no plans to equalize the tuition rates of domestic and international students at the undergraduate or master’s level.

The University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) expressed support for the announcement. Alexandra Sebben, Communications and Promotions Coordinator for the UTGSU, said that the “Executive Committee supports the reduction of tuition fees for all students, especially international students who are currently burdened by very high tuition costs.”

The UTGSU will also be meeting with Barker before the end of the month to discuss this issue in more detail.

The decision coincides with the university’s negotiations with CUPE Local 3902, Unit 1, a labour union that represents, in part, teaching assistants — many of whom are doctoral students.

Barker said that bargaining negotiations did not affect the tuition cut decision. “The desire to internationalize our graduate student body is something that we’ve been working on for some time now… It is a university priority that was articulated by the President a couple of years ago.”

CUPE 3902, Unit 1 responded positively to the news. Aleks Ivovic, Chief Spokesperson for the unit’s bargaining team, said that “support for international students is and always has been an important priority for us.”

“In terms of its effect on our international members,” said Ivovic, “we expect it will make a meaningful difference to PhD students who are in programs without funding.”

Editor’s note (January 22): This article has been updated to remove a quote from a student incorrectly suggesting that lowering tuition for international PhD students would allow for more research funding. 

New Strategic Mandate Agreement looks to bridge gap between old and new provincial funding models

UTSG to shift toward more research-based, graduate-focused programming

New Strategic Mandate Agreement looks to bridge gap between old and new provincial funding models


U of T announced on January 11 the signing of a second Strategic Mandate Agreement (SMA), outlining its goals and priorities, with the Ontario government.

The new SMA articulates U of T’s institutional goals for the next three years, measuring the university’s performance within the Ontario postsecondary system and setting out enrolment targets. These metrics will inform the continued development of the new provincial funding model, which will be part of the third SMA, to be signed in 2020.

The SMA details five areas in which the university will be measured and which the university hopes to prioritize and improve in, consistent with President Meric Gertler’s vision for the institution. These are Student Experience; Innovation in Teaching and Learning Excellence; Access and Equity; Applied Research and Excellence Impact; and Innovation, Economic Development and Community Engagement.

Part of those five areas of importance are a number of metrics and targets that U of T hopes will differentiate it from other institutions in the Ontario postsecondary system. These include being the top Ontario university in number of published papers and adding 1,000 Indigenous students across all divisions. “We’ll be tracking those over the next three years, although we won’t be either rewarded or penalized for not making those outcomes,” said U of T’s chief of government relations, Andrew Thomson.

Thomson referred to the SMA as a “master agreement” in terms of how the university will be funded. It is meant to transition the university from an old funding model to a new one, which will be informed by “metrics-based outcomes.”

In the past, the university’s funding agreements with the province have been composed of a basic operating grant plus enrolment-based funding. According to the university’s 2016–2017 budget, $668.2 million was set to come from the province under this structure.

Now, “the government is identifying that they will set aside, in the future, a portion of [U of T’s] funding which will be driven entirely be metrics, not just by enrolment funding formulas,” explained Thomson.

Notably, under the new SMA, UTSG will see a decrease in domestic undergraduate enrolment by 1,800 students over the next three years, while graduate enrolment will increase by 829 in that time. This is part of a shift in focus toward greater research and innovation at UTSG.

With the province seeing enrolment decreasing based on a dip in 18-24 year olds available for entry to undergraduate programs in Ontario, the university wanted to protect its undergraduate numbers at UTM and UTSC. The cut was easier to absorb at UTSG, which currently enrols over 40,000 undergraduates.

“This is a very large, innovative university. There’s a lot of great research that happens here,” said Thomson. “We are Canada’s top research institution and it’s important that we articulate that and continue to drive that forward. That permeates itself through everything, including the quality of the education that undergraduate students receive.”

The university will also focus on international student intake, which is projected to increase by 581 students, from 15,382 to 15,963 by 2020. Most of this increase will be in undergraduate programs. “A lot of recruitment efforts are focusing in countries that have not been previously sending large cohorts to the U of T and we think there’s an opportunity for us to grow,” said Thomson.

“Obviously U of T is significantly different than other universities in the province, and this is reflected within the agreement. Over the next three years what we are working to identify is how we explain, articulate, and prove that we are in fact driving the outcomes that we have identified in the agreement,” added Thomson.

In 2014, the Ontario government signed SMAs with all 45 public universities and colleges in an effort to differentiate the institutions in its postsecondary system, cutting down on program duplication and prioritizing each institution’s program strengths.

Tanya Blazina, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development, explained in an email that through their SMAs, institutions articulate “how they contribute in their own unique way to the postsecondary system in areas like enrolment, program mix, research, student experience and partnerships with their communities.”

The SMA also includes a brief summary about the development of the university’s five-year International Strategic Plan relating to “partnerships with universities abroad; student mobility; international student experience; and recruiting talent from around the world.”

Ontario Immigrant Nominee Program suspended for international master’s and PhD students

Program change could affect thousands of international graduates

Ontario Immigrant Nominee Program suspended for international master’s and PhD students

Ontario is pausing the Provincial Nominee Program that allows international graduate students to gain Permanent Residency (PR) upon completion of their degrees.

“As a result of changes Ontario has made to more closely align the streams of the program with the needs of its labour market, the province has already received the sufficient number of [Ontario Immigrant Nominee Program (OINP)] applications to meet its 2016 federal allocation,” read a message on the OINP website. “This is further proof that Ontario remains a very sought after destination for highly-skilled workers.”

The change took effect on May 9, 2016; any applications received after 5:00 pm that day will not be considered.

A total of 1.8 per cent of immigration to Canada comes from OINP.

“A lot of the people who come here to study might not have the intention of staying, but eventually they do because they form connections, they find job opportunities, and it would be frustrating if you work here long enough, but there’s not the possibility to legally stay,” said Libby Vervain, international first-year master’s of education student at OISE.

International students tend to experience more difficulty in qualifying for all streams of immigration, such as the Express Entry system that the Harper government implemented in 2014. Under Express Entry, international students are added to a pool of all applicants and judged on work experience that does not include jobs they held while in school.

Federal Immigration Minister John McCallum has spoken repeatedly about the importance of keeping international students in Canada and creating more pathways to citizenship for international students. He acknowledged that through the implementation of Express Entry, international students are having a harder time transitioning to PR.

Sara*, an international student from Peru commented on the university’s lack of notification about the program change: “The university is really fond of bringing international students for their fees, so at least they can give back some information, especially regarding status and immigration info in Canada because as internationals we rely on the university to have official information. It really sucks that you have to hear about this news in the papers, for example.”

Vervain believes it is the responsibility of the university to control the number of international students it admits, depending on immigration regulations in Ontario at the time. “Whether it’s their intention or not to stay, it’s important for them to have the option,” Vervain explained.

“…If this was a private institution, okay, maybe I get it, you are only seeking us for the money. But this is a public institution, so they do have responsibilities for everybody who is here,” said Sara.

Upon completing an academic program in Canada that is longer than 8 months, students are able to apply for an open work permit valid for the duration of their studies, up to a maximum of three years. International students may apply for this permit once throughout their academic career.

In November 2016, OINP is expected to make an announcement regarding their plan for 2017.

*Name changed at individual’s request

A world of worries

Why the university needs to prioritize the mental health of international students

A world of worries

According to the Faculty of Arts & Science’s website, “International students come from more than 140 different countries and make up nearly 25 per cent of U of T’s student population.” Given that international students comprise a significant portion of the university’s membership, it is important to recognize their unique concerns and the stressors that they face, specifically with respect to mental health. As an international student, I can understand the difficulties that come with adapting to, and becoming familiar with a new country.

There are certainly many benefits to being an international student, including receiving a better education, broadening perspectives on different issues, and developing new language skills. To travel to new countries is often to indulge in novel experiences that contribute not only to academic but personal growth.

Such learning, however, is often undertaken with greater risks and stresses than that of a domestic student, due to the learning curve of being in such a vastly different environment. Coping with such unfamiliar rules can take a toll on students, both physically and mentally.

Cultural norms and subjects of conversation, for instance, can put strains on even the most casual interactions between international and domestic students. Take the awkwardness of attempting to meet someone new, and compound that with a stark lack of similarity in background and values. In a similar vein, the language barriers international students face can hinder full participation in typical social meet and greet events.

These obstacles can often make it feel like international students must start from scratch with respect to both social and professional relationships. Lacking readily-available and long-established systems of support from family and friends back home, these students have to manage various challenges on their own. Such isolation makes it more likely for international students to spiral into negative health patterns.

If matters escalate, ongoing worries about academics and friendships can result in the development of anxiety, depression, or other psychological disorders. This, in turn, can impact the student’s study habits, diet, sleep, and other elements necessary for success at school and beyond.

Although the university provides psychological counselling and other beneficial services through the Health and Wellness Centre, improvements to these services can be made simply by increasing awareness of their availability within the international student community. Strategies for doing this include better promotion of events during mental health awareness month, as well as facilitating ongoing discussions and focus groups with relevant community members. Considering that international students may be particularly affected by stress, it is also important to ensure that these services provide culturally sensitive programming that is cognizant of the particular circumstances that international students must grapple with.

Promoting the well-being of international students at the university will ensure that these students have the best educational experience possible. It is important to send the message that international students are welcome at U of T, and an important part of our community. Working on mental health service awareness is an important first step in this regard.