During the Manitoban referendum campaign, I spent a lot of time walking around campus and talking to students. One day I walked by the Answers booth and began talking to some students about why they should support the newspaper. I struck up a conversation with Haseeb Zia, a third-year faculty of science student majoring in biochemistry. Haseeb and I talked for more than an hour, and it soon became clear that Haseeb and many international students feel a disconnect from the U of M experience. This was a story that needed to be heard and I promised Haseeb that I would interview him after the election and help him get his message out.
A few weeks later, in the Manitoban office, our interview took place. I began by asking Haseeb what the biggest issues facing international students were. Haseeb responded: “Fees are going up to a level students can’t afford [and] healthcare is not easily accessible; we have to pay for healthcare, but it’s not included in our fees.”
International students pay what are called “differential fees,” which basically amounts to a massive tax on international students. This differential fee has increased dramatically in past years, and when I asked Haseeb how much he paid for one course, I was quite surprised at the amount. Haseeb told me that he “paid $1350.00 for one course,” which is almost three times what I, or any non-international student, would pay generally pay for an average undergrad course.
Not only do international students have to deal with three times the tuition fees, but as Haseeb said: “Most international students live on campus, not everyone has a work permit and [first year students] can’t get a job off campus. I think international students should get a priority for jobs on campus.”
As our interview continued, Haseeb made clear that there would be consequences to a continuing rise in differential fees. He explained that “lots of international students choose U of M for cheap fees, but now things can cost as much here as the University of Alberta or the University of Calgary, [and] the degree is not worth the same.”
Many families are able to send their children overseas for an education because they know the exact cost they will be paying over a five year period and can budget. However, a sharp rise in differential fees can throw all those plans out of whack and create a situation in which many international students can’t afford their education.
Haseeb explained to me that international students are not eligible for Canadian student loans and that since so many have to work long hours to pay for their education, they become trapped in a cycle of work cutting into their study time, which reduces their marks and makes it tougher to get bursaries, so they have to work more.
The situation could be dire, as Haseeb told me that “many international students I know are thinking of leaving; many are so frustrated [and] they are thinking of going back home.”
It seems that the university is willing to make lots of money off of the fees and hard work of international students but is not as willing to provide international students with the help they need to meet some of the challenges they face.
This goes to the issue of basic fairness. If you and your neighbour both lived in a similar size house, drove a similar sized car and both received an equal amount of services from the government, imagine if you paid three times more than your neighbour in taxes but got nothing additional for it. You probably wouldn’t be too happy. This is the situation that is facing international students at the U of M right now. People who receive the same services should not be paying drastically different amounts for those services. If the university insists on charging international students much higher prices then they charge other students, then they must also provide more services for the money that is paid.
As Haseeb said, if international students are going to pay higher tuition, the least the university can do is make sure that their tuition remains stable for the remainder of the their years on campus. The university could also compensate by cutting prices for food plans, bus passes and looking at various forms of health coverage.
Would all of this cost money? Definitely. However, if the U of M becomes a campus that is seen as unwelcoming to international students, the resulting decline in our reputation could convince international students that the U of M is not a good destination for them. This would cost our university more money than any measures taken to help international students feel respected and included. As Haseeb said, “If they can afford a stadium, how can they not afford to help us?”
Spencer Fernando is the International Comment Coordinator of the Manitoban.