Manitoba hopes to save $3M by pulling universal health care for international students

The provincial government could save millions of dollars by cutting universal health care for international post-secondary students, but some say that could deter some from pursuing higher education in Manitoba.

Health care for students from abroad came into effect in 2012; province considering dropping it to save money

Flanked by other international students Wednesday at the Manitoba Legislature, Dele Ojewole says the province's desire to cut health care coverage for international students will hurt people like him. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

The Manitoba government could save millions of dollars by cutting universal health care for international post-secondary students, but some say that could deter potential scholars from pursuing higher education in Manitoba.

The province is considering repealing health care coverage for the students to save an estimated $3.1 million, a spokesperson for Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen said Wednesday.

Dele Ojewole has since graduated and is now a Canadian citizen, but came to the country from Nigeria as an international student in 2010. Now the interim-chairperson of the Manitoba chapter of the Canadian Federation of Students, Ojewole said adding health-care fees to the already significant financial costs for international students is concerning and unfair.

"Right now we know that international students are already paying triple the tuition, so however the government is trying to charge them for health-care coverage, it's something that we think is harsh, it's something that we think is inhumane and it's something we hope the government will take a step back on," said Ojewole.

The former NDP government pushed through universal health care for international students in 2011 and it came into effect on April 1, 2012.

Manitoba Health initiated a review of that policy, among others, as part of the sweeping changes to health care carried out since the Progressive Conservatives came to power in 2016.

The Tory government has also discussed plans to scrap interest-free student loans and passed legislation last year to remove a cap on tuition fees.

The 2018-19 provincial budget released this week also reveals plans to cut overall funding for post-secondary institutions by one per cent, or $6 million.

"Our government has been reviewing an awful lot of programs … and we look for value for money," said Education Minister Ian Wishart.

The impetus for the review is trying to save taxpayers money, he said, adding the province wants to revert back to a private system where international students pay for health care out of pocket.

Under the current system, students with a valid study permit from Citizenship and Immigration Canada who have lived in the country for at least six months and submitted confirmation of enrolment from a post-secondary institution in Manitoba are eligible to apply for a Manitoba Health card.

International students, along with their spouses and children, who obtained health cards have been able to get  medication, surgeries, nursing services, doctor visits, therapy and counselling covered under the plan.

NDP pans plan

"It just strikes me as deeply unfair. These are kids that are coming to our province to get a leg up," said NDP Opposition Leader Wab Kinew, who added pulling health care from international students would also affect kids in the K-12 system.

"They should have access to health care."

We're certainly a very affordable option in terms of going to post-secondary education, even with any changes.- Education Minister Ian Wishart

Ojewole came to Canada to pursue a post-secondary degree eight years ago, when Manitoba didn't extend universal health care to students in his position. He says at the time, health-care costs kept him from accessing treatment and other medical services.

"Right now they are depriving the international students of the right to … health-care coverage. It's something that's very concerning and would be a very, very bad decision."

'Very affordable'

Wishart said tuition in Manitoba is the second-lowest in the country and that universal health care for international students is rare outside Canada.

Education Minister Ian Wishart says the province wants international students to pay for private health insurance rather than receive coverage under the current universal plan. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

"We're certainly a very affordable option in terms of going to post-secondary education even with any changes," he said.

Wishart said Manitoba tuition rates for international students are competitive compared to other provinces. He estimated it would cost about $400 per international student to purchase private health insurance annually, and doesn't expect that to hamper Manitoba's ability to attract those students.

'Drive students out' of Manitoba

But Kinew and Ojewole disagree, saying free health care is one of the factors that has brought international students to Manitoba over other provinces in the first place.

"It's something that will drive students out of this province," Ojewole said.

He said private insurance companies are more likely to discriminate against international students with pre-existing medical conditions by charging them more than Wishart's estimate.

Not only will the change make Manitoba less appealing, Ojewole says, but local businesses and culture will also suffer.

"We know the value that international students bring to this province in terms of their investment, in terms of the fact that not only will they stay in this province when they finish their education, but it will also improve the economy of this province and educate the society."


Bryce Hoye


Bryce Hoye is a multi-platform Manitoba journalist covering news, science, justice, health, 2SLGBTQ issues and other community stories. He has a background in wildlife biology and occasionally works for CBC's Quirks & Quarks and Front Burner. He won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award for a 2017 feature on the history of the fur trade. He is also Prairie rep for outCBC.

With files from Sean Kavanagh