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Maxed out: Why international student visas are a growing cost at Ontario’s universities

By Anthony Lippa-Hardy

Standing in the freezing cold, annoyingly waiting for his delayed MiWay bus, then 14-year-old Duan Ngo was still getting used to Canada’s unique culture. Ngo moved to Canada from Vietnam seven years ago in search of a safe education. He began his international student journey at Bronte College, a small boarding high school in Mississauga, Ont. Now a first-year fashion student at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU), Ngo is fortunate to be among the international students exempted from abandoning higher education dreams in this country amidst the recent government-enforced visa restrictions. 

A new two-year international student visa cap was announced by Canadian Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marc Miller on Jan. 22, 2024. 

According to the Canadian government, approximately 360,000 approved study permits will be issued in 2024, marking a 35 per cent decrease from 2023.  

The new policy aims to ease pressure on Canada’s housing market and other public services by reducing the rapid increase of international students in Canada. 

“We don’t really have a choice besides paying the international tuition”

However, according to Usha George, a professor in the school of social work and expert in immigration and settlement at TMU, some universities rely heavily on the income these students provide. 

“International students actually pay twice or thrice the fees…and therefore, international students are becoming a big source of revenue for certain universities,” she said. 

With less strain on Canada’s economy comes a significant loss of revenue, said George.

According to the Canadian government, in general, international students contribute $22.3 billion per year to the Canadian economy. That’s more than exports of auto parts or lumber. 

“Any reduction in the number of international students would affect the revenue that colleges and universities get. So there has to be a happy medium,” said George.

TMU’s international student tuition has also seen an increase in recent years. According to an archived page of the university’s 2020-2021 undergraduate tuition fees, the cost for international students ranged from $28,633 to $38,430. However, after comparing with TMU’s most recent tuition fees, international students have seen as much as a seven per cent increase in just three years.  

Although economic factors like inflation can have an effect on tuition fees, Daniel Lang, a professor in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto (U of T), said Canada’s overall economy doesn’t have a large effect on Ontario universities. “The climate does not make a difference,” he said. 

According to Lang, the main financial impact some universities may face upon the visa restrictions would come directly from the loss of student revenue. However, not every institution will face that issue.

He also shared that every university across Ontario receives funding differently, as there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Institutions like TMU depend on student enrollment and tuition revenue to fund their academic programs. According to a statement from TMU’s 2024-2025 budget page, “More than 90 per cent of our operating revenues come from tuition fees and grants associated with enrolment. In other words, our financial health as an institution relies on enrolment.” 

One crucial factor in the increase of these fees at TMU lies in the lack of government support. According to a written statement sent to The Eyeopener from the university, it says international students are not covered through government grants, unlike domestic students.

A large concern for Ngo is another possible increase in his already expensive tuition fees as a way for the university to accommodate lower enrollment numbers.

Tuition fees have not yet been developed for the 2024-25 school year, according to TMU’s statement. However, it reads that “In past years, fees have increased modestly to reflect inflation and offset increased costs associated with instruction and student services.”

According to TMU’s offices of International Student Support and University Planning, 3,976  international students from over 140 countries attended the university last year—around 9.3 per cent of the school’s enrollment.  On top of the large number of students, on average, international student tuition fees range from $33,423 to $38,584 per year. That’s approximately a 205 to 365 per cent increase compared to domestic student fees. 

Nervous and excited after arriving in Canada for the first time, Sina Rahimi, a third-year building science PhD candidate, temporarily migrated to Toronto  from Iran during the COVID-19 pandemic. “It was like a whole different world here,” he said describing Canada’s culture and educational system.

However, while scrolling through the news, he recently found himself disappointed as he learned about the new visa cap implementation. “This news popped up and I was like, oh my god,” he said. 

While not affected by the visa cap as a graduate student, Rahimi said he still feels he and other international students are being blamed for Canada’s poor economic climate even though international students contribute billions in revenue each year. 

“Canada passed this law because they are blaming international students for the increase in rent prices. But I don’t think this is the issue,” said Rahimi. 

Although international students make up about 10 per cent of the student population at TMU, “Roughly a quarter of TMU’s fee revenue in the 2022-23 fiscal year was from international students,” said the university’s statement to The Eye.

These larger tuition costs don’t include housing or meal plans, according to TMU’s tuition page. Unlike domestic students, Ngo explained how international students often have no choice but to pay the hefty fees as there aren’t as many scholarship opportunities available as there are for domestic students.  

On top of the high tuition costs, Ngo also explained that it is challenging to earn proper wages in Canada due to the hourly international student restrictions.  “It’s less than 20 hours now. So yeah, that’s barely covered half of the rent prices here in Toronto,” he said. This forces students like Ngo to rely on their families to help support their financial needs.

When comparing international student fees to domestic fees, the majority of the heightened expenses come from the cost of billing units per semester. For example, one billing unit for Ngo will cost $4,497.44, whereas a domestic student in the same program would only have to pay $1,202.75 for the same unit, according to TMU’s undergraduate full-time fee schedule.

Looking for an education abroad while not straying too far from her home in New York City, Whitney Zheng, a third-year business management student at TMU, decided to move to Toronto to pursue her post-secondary education. She found Toronto to be a great fit as it allows her to study abroad while still being near her family.   

Zheng, however, said she sees the high cost of living and lack of job opportunities in Toronto as an additional financial challenge for international students. “I do feel like it is difficult. And I do see the prices of things like groceries and rent increasing every year,” she said.

On top of the increasing tuition fees, according to the international undergraduate admissions at TMU, students can expect to pay at least another $17,593 in personal living expenses each year living in Toronto.   

Although tuition fee increases have not yet been released for the 2024-2025 school year, according to TMU’s 2024-2025 budget page, “Ontario’s Blue-Ribbon Panel on Postsecondary Education Financial Sustainability recommended an increase of 5 per cent in tuition fees for 2024-25—8 per cent for professional programs.”

International students are becoming a big source of revenue for certain universities”

In an effort to minimize revenue loss, TMU also stated it will continue to develop contingency plans and take part in discussions with the provincial government and sector partners regarding guidelines and implementation details with the visa cap restrictions.

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