Higher Education – and immigrants – are not market commodities
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 fees by 10 per cent per year. The worst of these hikes came in the 2008-2009 school year, when Quebec completely deregulated international tuition fees 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 international students of increases as high as 50 per cent, with serious consequences.
Concordia University MBA student Mahmood Salehi came here two years ago from Iran with his life savings. The April 2009 acceptance letter from Concordia stated 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 and 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.”
This experience also 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 for undergraduate international students 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.”
According to Statistics Canada, Quebec’s share of international students among Canadian provinces dropped from 37% in 1999 to 26% in 2008.
The reputation that Quebec universities are developing among international students may not please Quebec’s Ministry of Immigration and Cultural Communities, whose report refers to international student graduates as bringing a “beneficial contribution to Quebec society” because they have “already lived on the territory for a while, they know and share the values of Quebec.”
Though difficult to calculate, in a recent interview with le Devoir, Daniel Zizian, head of the Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec (CREPUQ), estimated that 10 per cent of international students end up staying in the province. Across the country, according to a study by the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE), 51 per cent of university international students and 57 per cent of international college students foresee applying for permanent residency, while 52 per cent and 71 per cent, respectively, plan to stay to work for up to three years after receiving their diploma.
Even if they do return to their home countries, international students generate around $1 billion in revenue in Quebec while they are here. Despite their active contribution to Quebec’s economic development through taxes and as consumers and future residents, they are faced with various challenges to their livelihood in Quebec beyond tuition, such as off-campus work restrictions while studying, insufficient on-campus job opportunities and high health insurance costs.
It may come as no surprise that 40 per cent of international students in Canada face difficulties meeting their basic needs, and that the number of international students from low-income families decreased, reports the study from the CBIE.
“I was constantly living with the uncertainty that I wouldn’t be able to pay the semester or eat that night,” said engineering student Diego Eibar. “And in those days it wasn’t even as bad as today, now that universities can raise the fees more frequently.” Eibar returned to his home-country of Argentina as the costs and stress were too high, only returning to study in Quebec recently because he succeeded in receiving permanent residency status.
Out-of-province students also face 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 without being 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 stands in contravention of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which states “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. While the Ministry of Immigration and Cultural Communities advertises that Quebec society’s “well-developed health, education and social security services ensure the well-being of the entire population,” this does not seem to be the case for international students.
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.
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 concerned about their immigration status, international students have 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.
And international students are increasingly aware that universities may obscure the truth about their legal right to protest. Concordia University sent an official message to students on March 20th stating “international students arrested while protesting could face deportation and be denied future re-entry.” The letter conveniently omits that the Constitution of Rights and Freedoms, including the right to peacefully protest, applies to anyone on Canadian soil and that the most common offense for peacefully protesting (‘unlawful assembly’) does not affect a person’s admissibility to immigration in Canada.
International and out-of-province students have the right to speak up about the difficulties they face and they are an asset to the student movement. They bring their own experiences and 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 Nadia Hausfather, Rushdia Mehreen, and Raul Chacon.
A first version of this article was published in French in the Ultimatum, issue Winter 2012.
The English version was published in the ASSÉ/CLASSE’s English Ultimatum Newspaper, May 2012