(Photo by Maksim Sokolov via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)

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Every year, millions of young people cross national borders in pursuit of education — they are “international students,” defined as post-secondary students who do not hold citizenship, permanent residency, or official refugee status in their country of study. 

In recent years, Canada has become an increasingly popular destination for these students due to its highly-ranked universities, decent quality of life, and relative ease of access to permanent residence or even eventually citizenship status after graduation. Currently, there are over 900,000 international students across the country’s higher education institutions, a sharp rise from 300,000 just 10 years ago. Currently, international students make up around 30 percent of all students in Canadian universities.

International students are important to maintaining Canada’s economy — 30 percent end up working in Canada for at least ten years after graduation, and they spend billions during their time in the country. Unfortunately, even with all their contributions, Canada is blaming international students for causing the country’s housing crisis. Recently, the Canadian federal government introduced a proposal to cap the number of international students in the country as a solution to the housing crisis. Yet, are international students really to blame for Canada’s lack of housing? Moreover, what other impacts will this planned cap have on Canadian universities?

International Students: Cash Cows for Canadian Universities?

Behind this wave of international students coming to Canada lies a significant factor: money.  After the global recession of 2008, government funding for universities decreased by 30%, in both research and student support. To offset this financial setback, universities turned to admitting more international students. This shift is reinforced by the substantial difference in domestic and international student tuition fees, reaching nearly tenfold in certain cases.  

Now, international students are a major part of Canadian universities’ income — at the University of British Columbia (UBC), for example, international students are expected to contribute more than 60% of the school’s tuition income in the 2023-24 school year, despite making up only 27% of the undergraduate student body. There are also no caps on international student tuition increases, resulting in them becoming a continuous and lucrative source of income for Canadian universities. 

Therefore, capping the number of international students would only trigger a chain of issues. If the proportion of international to domestic students decreases, for example, universities will lose significant amounts of revenue which will put pressure on already delicate budgets. For reference, the University of Alberta is expected to suffer a $41 million deficit in the 2023-24 school year, while McGill barely broke even both last year and this year with only around $500,000 in surplus for both years.

It is also worth noting that just a few years ago, the federal government was actively encouraging international students to come to Canada, aiming to double their number of international students within 10 years. To introduce a cap on international students now would be a hypocritical policy reversal, especially if the federal government still believes that “international education is at the very heart of [its] current and future prosperity.” 

International Students Are Not the Root of the Housing Crisis – So Do Not Punish Them For It

This returns us to the question: are international students causing the housing crisis, and will capping them solve the lack of housing in Canada? While the public seems to be split on what the cause is, they do agree that international students are not to blame. International students themselves are often the victims of Canada’s housing crisis, with many forced to pay exorbitant rents for cramped living quarters. Also, because many international students are misled about their life in Canada by universities looking for more pupils to increase profits, the burden of housing should rest on the shoulders of universities who admit them. However, a report found that many universities in Ontario, a popular province for international students, have not built new student housing in the past decade, neglecting basic needs.

Rather than the proposed cap, the government should address the root of the housing issue by building more housing. By encouraging universities to be part of the solution, provincial and federal governments could make university funding contingent on them building enough housing for any expected increase in enrolment. 

Stop Depending on International Students to Foot Our Education Bill

Despite the substantial revenue generated by international students, Canadian universities need to reassess their reliance on this inherently unstable revenue stream. Treating international students like money-making machines is a fragile strategy as their inflow is largely influenced by complex geo-political factors. Just five years ago, a dispute between Saudi Arabia and Canada led to the recall of all Saudi international students. 

Now, Canada also reached a low point in relations with India; could this conflict discourage Indian students from coming to Canada? If so, there could be a serious dent in the budgets of Canadian universities, as Indian students are the largest group amongst international students within Canada’s higher education institutions. Moreover, China’s tense relationship with Canada in recent years could lead to a withdrawal of students, which could in turn make Canada lose its second-largest source of international enrolment in higher education. 

International students should be able to come to Canada — however, as their hosts, Canadian universities are responsible to house them through increased allocation of funding and government support. To avoid over-reliance on international student fees, increased support from stable government funding is essential. Through improved processes, Canada can better provide a superior educational experience for all students, domestic and international.

Edited by Alexandra Hu

Jonathan Chan

Born in Hong Kong and living in Vancouver, Canada since 2016, Jonathan (he/him) is a Science student majoring in Pharmacology at the University of British Columbia. He is passionate about many subjects,...