British Columbia

As international students struggle to make ends meet, universities face crippling drop in enrolment

International students are struggling to make ends meet during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the institutions that depend on them are also worried about their financial future.

Students from abroad bring Canadian institutions $6B in fees, which could dry up under pandemic restrictions

Students on campus at the University of British Columbia in November 2019. International students are questioning the value of online learning, especially as they can pay three to four times the amount in tuition fees compared to domestic students. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

While international students are struggling to make ends meet during the COVID-19 pandemic, the institutions that depend on them are also worried about their financial future. 

Amrita Ramkumar, a business administration student at Douglas College who is originally from India, worked two part-time jobs to support herself before the pandemic. When she was laid off from one of them, meeting rent, food, and other expenses became a challenge. 

Even though her parents have been trying to send her help financially, India is under lockdown and money transfers have slowed, making the process of transferring funds arduous. 

"The whole process has definitely been a massive learning curve," said Ramkumar. 

There are few financial supports available to international students, says Jade Ho, a PhD student in education at Simon Fraser University who is originally from Taiwan.

No help is available at the provincial level, she said. Federally, international students can apply to EI or CERB, but a lot of people find they are not eligible because they don't meet minimum income requirements or possess a social insurance number. 

Meanwhile, teaching assistant positions, which have traditionally supplemented the income of postgraduate students, have been cut or reduced as classes transition to online learning.

Like other students, Ho says, international students — who typically pay three to four times as much tuition as domestic students — are questioning whether the transition to online learning is worth the same as an in-class experience.

"The quality is definitely going to be different and not as good ... but nothing is being said about tuition [costs]," Ho said. 

Severe impact on universities

Universities themselves are also feeling the pressure as they look forward to the next few months. 

International students contribute $6 billion in tuition fees across the country and make up a substantial amount of a university's revenue, says Paul Davidson, CEO of Universities Canada, a group that provides university presidents with a unified voice at a federal level. 

If international student enrolment drops due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the losses could be staggering, Davidson says. It could have a severe impact on the quality of education institutions offer and could have ripple effects into university towns that depend on the economic contributions of incoming students, he added.

International students are also an important part of the fabric of Canadian universities, Davidson says, adding to the diversity on campus and allowing for a greater variety of course offerings. 

He said universities are working on scenario planning in anticipation of these changes like setting up emergency financial assistance, changing rules around off-campus work and contemplating arrangements for international students having to quarantine.

Nevertheless, there could be some major changes to university funding as a whole. 

"If the federal contributions remain low… we will need to find a new business model," Davidson said.

If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at

With files from The Early Edition and On The Coast


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