Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Canada's pitch to international students

On May 7, the Borneo Bulletin Online reported that Canada has unveiled a campaign to attract international students from Brunei. In case you weren’t sure, Brunei is a country located on the north coast of the island of Borneo, in Southeast Asia.

Leopold Battel, Canada’s High Commissioner to Brunei Darussalam, was quoted in the Borneo Bulletin saying, “Everyday, international students turn to Canada as a source of knowledge, innovation and creativity as Canadian universities and colleges offer a wide choice of quality programmes that meet the interest of Asian students, and also because the tuition fees and cost of living in Canada are among the lowest in the world.”

What is Battel measuring Canada against? Australia? New Zealand? The United States? Compared to almost anywhere else in the world, particularly in Europe, where some countries’ tuition fees are zero for domestic students and international students receive full scholarships, Canada’s fees are relatively high for both domestic and international students.

The dirty little secret is that Canada’s apparent benevolence in reaching out to young scholars abroad is that these students and their families are used by our institutions to subsidise our under-funded post-secondary education system. The more international students at an institution, the more money an institution gets.
The Borneo Bulletin Online also refers to Canada’s decision to allow international students to gain employment after graduation easier. The article reported this:
“Canadian Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Diane Finley recently announced that international students can now gain valuable work experience through off-campus employment, resulting in the ability to obtain an open work permit under the post-graduation Work Permit Programme, with no restrictions on the type of employment and no requirement for a job offer. The work permit has been extended to three years across the country and this would provide international students with more opportunities for Canadian work experience and skills development.”
While this is a significant victory for international students in Canada, we should be clear that this is part of international advertising campaigns designed to allow Canada’s colleges and universities to reap the financial benefits of unregulated tuition fees for these students. At most institutions, this can mean three times higher than domestic students.

Apart from the continued fight for lower tuition fees for international students, Ontario students’ unions and the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario are gearing up for another fight for international students’ rights. Students are demanding that international students be moved back onto the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP). OHIP covers hospital visits and basic medical care. In 1994, Bob Rae kicked international students off of OHIP and forced them to access a private insurance plan—UHIP.

UHIP can cost as much as $800 per student and doesn’t deliver access to the same quality of care as OHIP. Students are often denied medical care if they cannot pay upfront. If they do pay upfront, they can usually expect to have only 65 percent of their costs covered. Of course, this is not inclusive of the additional health and dental insurance he or she needs to purchase from their students’ union, which can be another cost of $150-$300.

This is the way I see it: OHIP is paid for through taxes. International students pay taxes just like everyone else. In fact according to the often-cited Asia Pacific Foundation 2004 study, International students contribute nearly $4 billion to Canada’s economy, excluding their much-higher-than-average tuition fees. So why aren’t they covered by the public Medicare system? Denying this to international students is wrong and needs to be fixed by the Ontario government. Maybe Battel’s pitch to would-be international students from Brunei wouldn’t be so outrageous if we are only referring to provinces like Manitoba, where no extra health care fees are levied, rather than Ontario.

While it might be too much to expect our decision-makers to understand that universal healthcare and access to education is important in its own right, let us hope at the very least that they will be compelled to reduce financial barriers in order to make Canada a competitive destination for international students.

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