Manitoba has a large population of international students enrolled in post-secondary institutions including the University of Manitoba, University of Winnipeg and Red River College. In 2018, Manitoba was home to 18,725 students from more than 100 countries. According to the most recent statistics released by the government of Manitoba, these students contributed more than $400 million to the provincial economy.
Although the pandemic was difficult for all Manitobans, it was extremely devastating for international students who were struggling with the academic challenges, health-care concerns and uncertainty. Relying on the province and their post-secondary institution as their main source of support, international students in Manitoba, including myself, have expressed their frustration and disappointment with the lack of support received throughout the pandemic.
Many international students rely on the limited hours they are permitted to work in Canada and the pandemic made matters even more complicated for them. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada restricts the number of hours international students are eligible to work to a maximum of 20 hours per week. The lack of employment in the province made it difficult for those with restricted hours to be able to find a job since employers would rather hire people with more flexibility. These restrictions created a huge financial burden for those struggling to get through university away from their home.
Although the Canadian government did provide financial support programs for employees who lost their employment as a result of the pandemic, international students did not meet the criteria. To be eligible for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, individuals had to have earned an income of at least $5,000 in 2019 or in the 12 months prior to the date of their application. Meeting this criteria was extremely difficult for international students who were only able to work 20 hours per week. Further, some international students arrived in Canada just before lockdowns and were not able to find employment or apply to any government program to help them financially.
The province of Manitoba did not announce any program to support international students despite their contributions to the economy.
In the fall of 2018, the government of Manitoba decided to discontinue universal health care for international students and made it the responsibility of post-secondary institutions to provide them with insurance plans. In addition to the extra costs added to their tuition fees, discontinuing health-care coverage for international students made things substantially more complicated during COVID-19.
Up until this July, Manitobans were only eligible to receive a vaccination card if they had a Manitoba health card. Unfortunately, this was not the case for international students since the fall of 2018. So, although the alternative health insurance provided basic coverage for international students, it restricted their eligibility for vaccine cards.
Beyond this, international students were expected to travel to Canada two weeks before classes started to quarantine. During this period, they weren’t eligible for insurance, placing unnecessary financial burdens on students and leaving them in a precarious position should they get sick or injured.
Travel restrictions and online learning
Freedom of movement between countries has been a significant burden for international students. Their need to move between Canada and their home countries to see their families and handle unforeseen issues has been a common struggle.
For example, on April 22, 2021 a travel ban on flights coming from India was introduced in Canada. The decision left Indian international students unable to easily travel back and forth from Canada. This uncertainty made the decision to travel extremely difficult for international students. Additionally, in 2020, international students were faced with the precarious decision to leave Canada and be denied re-entry. Many students were isolated from their home and advised that if they didn’t demonstrate a necessity to enter Canada they would have to stay home.
Furthermore, the travel restrictions made it challenging for new students abroad to enroll in post-secondary institution in Canada. The uncertainty stemming from COVID-19 provoked a drop in the enrollment rates in the 2020-21 academic year. The shift to online learning raised various concerns about the quality of education international students received and continue to receive.
Although international students make great contributions to the province on all levels, they have faced significant obstacles during unprecedented times. The conditions could be significantly better if the province provides more support. The government of Manitoba should consider directing more resources toward improving on the conditions of international students in Manitoba to help them through the pandemic with less uncertainty and stress. Although we have been saying “we are all in this together,” this lack of support gives the impression international students are going through the pandemic alone.