Thunder Bay

Feeling like 'cash cows': International students at Lakehead University upset by tuition hike during pandemic

International tuition fees for engineering is increased by almost 13 per cent for the 2020/2021 school year at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont.

International tuition for engineering increases by almost 13% for 2020/2021 school year at Thunder Bay school

Mishel Mani, an engineering student at Lakehead University from India, says he is frustrated by the constant increases to his tuition. (Submitted by Mishel Mani)

Mishel Mani was out for groceries when he bumped into a friend and fellow international student, who asked if Mani knew that Lakehead University (LU) in Thunder Bay, Ont., had substantially increased international tuition fees yet again for the 2020/2021 school year.

Mani couldn't believe what he was hearing. At first, he was shocked. Then, he was outraged.

"Somebody mentioned the term 'cash cows' and that's a very interesting concept. Essentially, the idea is that farmers – when they have cows and livestock – they basically milk them over what they can actually handle to get the maximum profit ... that's definitely how I feel right now."

Several international students spoke to CBC and expressed similar sentiments.

Electra Coonjah is an international student from Guyana who is studying civil engineering at LU.  When she learned her annual tuition had increased by nearly $4,000 dollars for the new year, Coonjah was surprised.

"The international student tuition at Lakehead University has been increasing for several years now, but what's most shocking to me is that this is happening during a pandemic," said Coonjah.

Electra Coonjah studies civil engineering at Lakehead University. She says it was 'heartbreaking' to see that Lakehead University increased international student tuition for the 2020-2021 academic year despite the global COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Electra Coonjah)

She added, "I do understand that a lot of schools make money from their international students, but increasing the fees makes them feel trapped and obligated to pay. And it makes them feel like they've already invested so much that they have to either drop out and lose the tens of thousands of dollars they've already paid, or increase and invest some more into it ... it's kind of heartless."

Recent tuition increases hit engineering students

International tuition fees have been increasing at post-secondary institutions for many years, to the dismay of students across Canada.

The fee increase for the 2020/2021 academic year at LU was approved during a Board of Governor's meeting March 12.

As a result, international students in most faculties – including arts, sciences and business – will see an increase in their tuition by roughly five per cent. Students in the engineering faculty however, will see an increase of about 13 per cent, as their tuition will rise to $32,000 from $28,400 during the previous academic school year.

Engineering students have been particularly hard hit by tuition increases at LU in recent years. While most programs have seen their international student tuition rise by five to six per cent year-over-year, the tuition for international students in engineering increased by 12 per cent between 2018/2019 and 2019/2020.

For an international student who began their undergraduate engineering program in 2017/2018 and would graduate by the end of the upcoming 2020/2021 academic year, their annual tuition rose to $32,000 in their fourth year, as compared to $24,150 in their first year.

Tuition fees to stay the same, according to LU officials

Lakehead University did not respond directly to a question about why the international tuition fee for undergraduate engineering programs increased at a rate higher than other undergraduate programs.

However, David Barnett, the provost and vice president academic for the university said, "the tuition fee increases are made in order to maintain our comprehensive supports and services that they can offer to all of our students."

Barnett added, "we will be looking to continue with our tuition rates as had been established by the board and all the processes that go behind that. But, we will continue to look at how we can work on scholarships and bursaries to assist students."

Vice Provost International James Aldridge said while the tuition fees will remain the same for the upcoming year, the international office has been "working tirelessly to make sure students have what they need" and he hears the concerns of students "loud and clear."

Aldridge added that because some post-secondary institutions are receiving less money due to declining domestic enrolment and decreases in government funding, "some institutions are trying to recruit more international students to make up the difference."

He said, "we have chosen at Lakehead to try to maintain fees as low as possible, but there are required increases and certainly some of that is because of the decrease in funding that comes from government."

Student Union calls for dialogue and transparency over tuition increase

An online petition calling on LU to lower tuition fees for international students is gaining traction with over 1,500 signatures as of Monday. It has also caught the attention of the students union at the university.

"LUSU [Lakehead University Student Union] stands with the students because we understand their frustrations about the tuition increase ... every year, there is an increase without an explanation. We would like to talk with [Lakehead University administration] and work on a solution," said Prabhjot Singh Ahuja, the vice president operations and finance for the student union.

I think it needs to be determined what international students actually mean to universities ... and to the government.- Mishel Mani, international student at Lakehead University

But dialogue may not be enough to satisfy some students.

"At some point, I think it needs to be determined what international students actually mean to universities such as Lakehead, and the government itself for that matter ... I think the government needs to get involved and help regulate fees for international students to something that's acceptable," said Mani.

Coonjah added, "I want to be part of an establishment that cares about me and that I can be proud to be a part of, and not an institution that will ask me for more money and add more stress during a pandemic."