Higher education and immigrants are not market commodities

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

by Free Education Montreal

Despite its claim to multiculturalism, Quebec is becoming an increasingly hostile environment for international students. Since 2008, the provincial government has been allowing universities to increase international tuition by 10% per year. The worst of these hikes came in the 2008-2009 school year, when Quebec decided to completely deregulate international tuition in six programs - meaning universities could increase fees for these students as high as they please. Some universities did not have the basic decency to warn students of increases as high as 50%, with serious consequences for the well-being of these students.

Concordia University MBA student Mahmood Salehi came here two years ago from Iran with his life savings. The April 2009 acceptance letter from Concordia promised that “the fees for the John Molson MBA Program for the academic year 2009-2010 are approximately $13,700.” He planned accordingly. It was tight, but he could just make it.

Yet when he arrived in Canada in August 2009, he was charged $19,676.98 - an increase of around 50 per cent. Concordia University had given him no warning. Since then, Salehi has suffered from extreme stress, health problems, depression, homesickness, low grades, thus difficulties in obtaining a work visa. He obtained a $2,000 remission from Concordia, but the greatest damage had already been done.

“I hadn’t bought a winter jacket, I was waiting until January trembling to buy a cheaper one” he said.

It affected his view of Canada’s respect for human rights. “If a Canadian consumer that is overcharged by any company can take legal actions against them and the media and consumers’ rights associations would support him or her, it is painful to see that Canadian universities have found international students as their best so-called ‘development,’ and nobody is there to listen to overcharged and helpless students.”

Another student in Salehi’s program returned to India because he couldn’t pay the increase, even with a scholarship from TD Bank.       

The six programs that the Quebec government deregulated in 2009 were administration, law, computer science, engineering, mathematics and the pure sciences. Yet the government is continuously increasing the differential fees for international students, not to mention the 10% increase allowance to the international tuition fee granted to universities in 2008. International students are starting to wonder whether it is worth it for them to come study here any more.

“Even though I love Montreal and Quebec,” says Concordia international graduate student Doug Smith, “I tell my friends at home not to come here. It’s just too unpredictable. I never know from one year to the next whether or not I’ll be able to stay in school.”

This sentiment seems to be spreading around the globe. According to survey data collected by Statistics Canada, Quebec’s share of international students among Canadian provinces has dropped from 37% in 1999 to 26% in 2008 - the same year, not coincidentally, as the government’s deregulation of international fees.[1]

In a recent interview with le Devoir, head of the Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec (CREPUQ) Daniel Zizian confirmed that as little as 10% of international students end up staying in the province.[2] For many, this is simply the result of financial pressures. There are few decent-paying off-campus work opportunities for international students, and faced with a complicated system of work permits at both the Quebec and Canadian levels. At the federal level, for example, international graduates must fulfill the difficult requirement of finding full-time work for one year before they are granted permanent residence, and must remain in the country until such time. International graduates simply make the choice to return to their home countries and begin paying off their debts immediately.

Despite their active contribution to Quebec’s economic development through taxes and as consumers - in fact, international students generate an estimated $ 1 billion in revenue in Quebec[3] - there are many barriers to their integration into our economy.

Out-of-province students face similar obstacles. With some exceptions, Canadian students studying in Quebec pay supplementary fees that put their annual tuition at close to $6000 per year - indexed to tuition rates in the rest of the country and therefore increasing every year. In order to be considered eligible for permanent residence in Quebec, and therefore avoid the ever-burgeoning differential fee hikes, out-of-province students must reside in Quebec for a year not as a full-time student.

“I couldn’t afford out-of-province tuition,” says McGill University graduate Fred Burrill, “but as a part-time student I wasn’t eligible for any bursaries or scholarships. So I ended up working two jobs while going to school and unfortunately had very little money or time for my studies that year.”

All of this, of course, stands in contravention of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which declares that “higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.” Education is a right, regardless of one’s nationality or place of birth. Furthermore, by charging such high fees to students often coming from countries with a significantly lower income-per-capita than Canada, Quebec is in effect perpetuating the cycle of wealth transfer from the Global South to high-income western countries.

Even more importantly, the fee differences between international and out-of-province students and students from Quebec can make it difficult to forge a united movement for accessible education - a fact not lost on the Quebec government. Often in precarious legal positions, international students have understandably been hesitant to take to the streets. However, things are changing. For example, in 2010, a campaign led by international students and their allies at Concordia University students resulted in “Angry Week.” This forced the university to negotiate and partially modify their plans.

 International and out-of-province students are an asset to the student movement. They bring their own experiences, and bring new frustrations and energy to the Quebec student movement. From Indonesia to Nova Scotia to Chile, the move to privatize education is a worldwide trend, and we are stronger when we unite. Just as we reject the dominance of market logic in the education system, we cannot and must not allow students from outside Quebec to be treated like market commodities.

With contributions from Rushdia Mehreen, Raul Chacon, and Nadia Hausfather.

[1]Kathryn McMullen et Angelo Elias, Tourism and the Centre for Education Statistics Division, “A Changing Portrait of International Students in Canadian Universities,” hiver 2011, http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/ 81-004-x/2010006/article/11405-eng.htm (10 décembre 2011).

[2]Lisa-Marie Gervais, “Portes ouvertes aux étudiantes étrangers,” Le Devoir 3 septembre 2011, http://www.ledevoir.com/societe/education/330706/portes-ouvertes-aux-etu... (10 decembre 2011).