Post-secondary schools face rough autumn if pandemic keeps foreign students away

International students have become a vital part of Canada's post-secondary system. But with closed campuses and borders threatening new enrolment and schools anticipating significant budget cuts, Canadian universities and colleges are bracing for rough semesters ahead.

Already strained by COVID-19, institutions could be further challenged by lack of new students

The nearly empty University of Toronto campus is pictured on Tuesday. The COVID-19 pandemic has already put a strain Canadian schools, which are deep into planning for a host of different scenarios to be put into place for an uncertain fall semester. (CBC)

Having imagined coming to Canada since her teen years, Fabiana Costa was living her dream. A former lawyer, the Brazilian student began the international transportation and customs program at Toronto's Seneca College in 2019 and found a part-time job in the industry that was helping her pay expenses and save for her tuition. 

Then COVID-19 hit.

Costa's campus closed, classes moved online and she lost her part-time job. She said she doesn't qualify for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and, because she's neither a citizen nor a permanent resident, can't access student loan programs like the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP).

This month, the approximately $7,000 bill for her final, three-month semester in Toronto comes due.

"I want to finish my school and if I don't have money to pay, I can't," she said. "Now what am I going to do here? I [will] have to go back to Brazil."

Just a few months ago, Fabiana Costa, an international student from Brazil, was living her dream: studying for a promising career in Canada. Then COVID-19 hit. (CBC)

In the past decade, international students — typically charged at least double the tuition paid by domestic students — have become a vital part of Canada's post-secondary system. But with closed campuses and borders threatening new enrolment and schools anticipating significant budget cuts, Canadian universities and colleges are bracing for rough semesters ahead. 

"All universities — like all Canadians — want to get back to normal as quickly as we can, but some of that is outside our control," said Universities Canada president Paul Davidson, whose association represents public and private universities across the country.

Costa, centre, is seen with two friends at a Seneca College's Newnham Campus in Toronto. (Submitted by Fabiana Costa)

What happens with international students is a definite concern, as they represent about 50 per cent, on average, of total tuition revenue, according to Davidson. In its recent international education strategy plan, the federal government reported foreign students contributed an estimated $21.6 billion to Canada's GDP in 2018 and that, between 2014 and 2018, the number of international students studying in Canada increased by 68 per cent.

"One of things that people have not noticed over the last decade or so is that governments, both federal and provincial, now fund less than 50 per cent of the cost of higher education," Davidson said.

He added that the economic impact of international students — not just tuition fees but also rent, groceries, transportation, entertainment and more — is as important to Canada as the contributions of industries like softwood lumber, wheat or auto parts. 

"This really matters to communities large and small across the country."

Losing just 1 country's students was costly

The loss of these students can be severe. Davidson pointed to 2018, when Canada lost a cohort from Saudi Arabia amid a diplomatic dispute. After helping students return home, schools then faced the decision of which classes, labs and other resources to cut, he said, since it was the presence of these students that helped finance those offerings.

Universities Canada president Paul Davidson says the economic impact of international students is as important to Canada as the contributions of industries such as softwood lumber, wheat or auto parts.  (CBC)

The federal government has made temporary provisions for foreign students, including exempting those previously approved for a study permit from travel restrictions into Canada, loosening some eligibility restrictions for the Post-Graduation Work Permit Program and allowing them to work more than 20 hours a week if providing essential services during the pandemic.

Canada remains "a hot target for international students," because of a high-quality education system, welcoming society, overall safety and favourable post-grad work permits, Davidson said.

"Students very much want to come to Canada. If they can begin their studies online [while still at home], that will make a big difference even if they can't come immediately in September. It will open the doors and get them on the path to completing their studies," he said.

'It would be quite devastating'

Aside from the ongoing work overhauling programs for a multitude of teaching scenarios this fall, many schools are anticipating a different landscape — especially institutions now used to welcoming students from abroad.

Cape Breton University is one of them. In the last few years, it has nearly doubled its student population from about 3,000 to 5,500, due to international students studying in programs such as business, hospitality and engineering.

CBU is rare among Canadian universities in that 65 per cent of its student population hails from abroad. At larger schools that attract international students, for instance University of British Columbia or Montreal's McGill University, that percentage runs closer to 30 per cent of the total student population. 

"In the fall, if we can't run in-person classes at all, if we're only online, I suspect we will have a drop in domestic enrolment," said Cape Breton University Prof. Scott Stewart, who is also president of the Association of Nova Scotia University Teachers and former president of the Cape Breton University Faculty Association. 

He added that he believes there's "no chance" borders will be opened up for international students.

Layoffs would be 'destructive not just to the universities themselves, but a huge economic hit for the communities,' says Scott Stewart, a professor at Cape Breton University and president of the Association of Nova Scotia University Teachers. (Submitted by Scott Stewart)

In a recent letter to faculty, CBU officials suggested the school could have a $45-million shortfall because of COVID-19. Even if the figure is closer to $10 million or $20 million, "it's a terrible hit that can't possibly be dealt with in any way but some fairly substantial job layoffs for faculty, academic support, maintenance, you name it. It would be quite devastating," Stewart said from North Sydney, N.S.

With many post-secondary institutions located in smaller towns, schools are major employers. Layoffs can be "destructive not just to the universities themselves, but a huge economic hit for the communities," he said.

Stewart is part of a Nova Scotia coalition of faculty unions and student groups now calling for financial support from universities and governments.

They want:

  • University workers to be added to the federal wage subsidy programs for businesses. 
  • A one-time lowering of tuition.
  • Increased financial aid for students this fall.
  • No staff cuts.

Other Canadian post-secondary faculty groups have similarly called for government aid.

"We're asking for universities themselves to accept that they may run deficits this year, just like the federal and provincial governments are doing, municipal governments are doing," Stewart said.

Pandemic 'put a strain on our finances'

But it's an ask that could be more difficult for some schools to manage. Grappling with the pandemic this spring has already challenged Sudbury, Ont.'s Laurentian University, said president Robert Haché. 

"We've had residences that have closed early. We've had to refund fees. We have recreation facilities that are no longer generating revenue. Overall, that has put a strain on our finances," he said. 

'We're working very hard to keep our university as whole as possible,' says Laurentian University president Robert Haché. (Laurentian University/YouTube)

With still so many unknowns about reopening this fall, school administrators are deep into planning different scenarios: a mix of approaches ranging from online-only learning to in-person sessions with limited numbers of students. 

However, "if we have fewer enrolments, we can expect to have fewer sections of each of our courses.… We may even have to reduce the total number of courses that we offer," Haché said. 

"We're working very hard to keep our university as whole as possible and that means maintaining employment levels as high as we possibly can, because we do see coming through the end of this…. At the same, with the revenue shortfalls that we're seeing, we have started to cut back on things like part-time work, contract work," he said.

A notice is seen at the University of Toronto campus on Tuesday. (CBC)

However, the goal for all post-secondary institutions is to ensure safe, secure and flexible learning environments for students, said Haché, adding that he and his peers have been in discussion with provincial and federal authorities. 

"What can [governments] do to support us in encouraging students to come, to stay in school, to come back to school this fall? I think that's really what it's all about: how we can maintain the registrations, because really this is for the future of the province — for the future of the country — to have a strong population of university graduates."

With files from Deana Sumanac-Johnson and Nigel Hunt

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