Why ditching health coverage for international students could turn them off Manitoba

Manitoba's plan to repeal health coverage for foreign students studying here could be enough to drive them away to other provinces, a spokesperson for international post-secondary students in Canada says.

While Ontario and Quebec have private systems, all western provinces still offer public health coverage

Manitoba's decision to repeal health coverage for international students could turn foreign scholars away from the province, says the Canadian Federation of Students. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Manitoba's plan to repeal health coverage for foreign students studying here could be enough to drive them away to other provinces, a spokesperson for international post-secondary students in Canada says.

The Progressive Conservatives recently passed an amendment to the Health Services Insurances Act stripping international students' provincial health coverage. The government says it will save $3.1 million.

It's not uncommon for penny-conscious students to move between provinces and one of Manitoba's main selling features is its affordability, says Mary Asekome, the international students commissioner for the Canadian Federation of Students.

She's critical of the government's move, calling it "a step back."

"One of the main reasons why international students go to Manitoba is because of the health plan," Asekome said. 

Manitoba colleges and universities are now devising a way to create a single private system for students before international students are cut from the public system Sept. 1, 2018.

(Source: Canadian Federation of Students)

Several provinces enrol international students in universal health care once they arrive, according to the Canadian Federation of Students. Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia (after the first year) and Newfoundland and Labrador all cover foreign students under the provincial health plan. 

British Columbia enrolls international students in the public system but they have to pay a monthly premium of $37.50.

Quebec has a private system with some exceptions depending on what country students are from, while in Ontario, the system is entirely private. 

Asekome, an international student from Nigeria studying at York University, has to pay $612 for health coverage on top of the mandatory health and dental insurance fees at her university. Her bill comes to more than $800 a year.

The private system means Asekome often has to pay upfront for lab tests or doctor visits off campus, she said. It can also be confusing figuring out what's covered and what isn't.

"A lot of times you don't get that money back … Because it's private there's all these loopholes," she said.

Asekome said it's not uncommon for students to put off going to the doctor unless the issue is really pressing just to avoid the financial headache.

Mary Asekome, the international students commissioner for the Canadian Federation of Students, says Manitoba's affordability is a key draw for international students to the promise. (courtesy Mary Asekome)

John Danakas, spokesperson for the University of Manitoba, said switching students into the private system could turn some students off the province, but for most, their decision where to study is more complex than that.

Factors like campus safety, the courses offered and research opportunities all factor into the decision, he said.

The University of Manitoba is pursuing a new private health plan for international students not because the administration is concerned about students moving away but because international students expressed worry.

"The university has been hearing from international students that they're concerned about the changes," he said.

Every year, more students from countries like China, India and nations in Africa and South American elect to study in Manitoba, said Danakas.

There is a seemingly unending stream of students willing to pay, meaning while some competition exists between Canadian universities to attract the best and brightest, there are more than enough good students fill admission targets.

International students rise up

Universities Canada, an organization that advocates for colleges and universities, found international student enrolment rose by 10.7 per cent last year. It was the 22nd straight year that the number of international students in Canada went up. There are now about 194,000 international students on university campuses alone.

Manitoba saw a 5.6 per cent increase in international university students last year, according to Universities Canada.

The Canadian Federation of Students has long complained about using foreign students as money pits when provincial dollars stagnate. 

On average, international students pay more than three times what domestic students pay to study in Canada. At the University of Manitoba, that means tuition for Canadian students is $4,400 and for international students it's $14,800.

And international students are growing tired of it, says Asekome.

"There is an assumption that international students come from wealthy families but that's not true," she said.

"A lot of international students are from middle income families and our parents have basically emptied their savings accounts to make sure that we're here."

International students pay taxes, inject money into local economies and bring valuable global perspectives to universities, she said. They are growing tired of being seen as mere cash cows.

"We're beginning to talk about our issues … I know we're not going to back down."

Asekome is calling on Canadian students to join the fight and speak out against the fees facing students from away.

About the Author

Laura Glowacki

Reporter

Laura Glowacki is based in Winnipeg. Reach her at laura.glowacki@cbc.ca and find her on Twitter @glowackiCBC.