International students are hugely beneficial to Canada. They contribute to our economy and our diversity, and they fill labour gaps in our workforce. Economically, international students contributed $8 billion to our GDP in 2011; the GDP contribution would be $40 billion if we filled labour market vacancies that currently exist by naturalising our international students. For a city like Brandon that largely draws our students from rural areas, our student demographic can be quite homologous. International students help diversify our landscape; they can help to expose students like myself to cultures, languages, and ideas that we would never have experienced on our own. My university experience has been enriched by engaging and interacting with students who see the world in a completely different way than I do, and who have an entirely different lived experience than myself. International students and immigrants can also fill the labour vacancies that currently exist. We have to look no further than our own city to see how immigration is filling the gaps that exist in our current workforce. We have doctors, nurses, and Maple Leaf workers who were not born in Canada, but work to help Canadian citizens.
There is a perception that international students either come from very wealthy families or come from incredibly poor families as refugee students. People often do not consider those families that come from the same backgrounds as most of us. These are the people for whom skyrocketing international differential tuition fees produce the most hardship. Prior to the late 1970s, international students were not charged differential fees. In 1976, transfer payments from the federal government to provincial governments were being negotiated, and the federal government suggested differential tuition fees as a way to generate additional revenue at post-secondary institutions. Many provincial governments then cut or eliminated grants that helped international students in the past, saving them money, then passing the cost of those grants on to students. The results were as one might expect; post-secondary education in Canada started on the path to being inaccessible for all but the wealthiest international students and the handful lucky enough to be sponsored or receive scholarships. By the fall of 2011, average tuition fees for international students were $15,127, more than three times the fees paid by domestic students.
It is important that the community of Brandon, as a part of our larger society, recognizes the benefits of international students. In the recognition of the value that international students add to our community, we can’t lose sight of their value as people in favour of their value as commodities. As a comparatively wealthy country, Canada has an obligation to work towards educating the citizens of less privileged countries, giving their individuals and their societies an opportunity to attain their potential. It is important that we ensure that the best and brightest students who want to study in Canada are able to do so. Government will make the argument that international students don’t pay taxes and the Canadian government therefore should not subsidize their education. If we have the opportunity to bring students with great potential into our country, we should not create insurmountable barriers for these students to study in Canada. Whether it is through increasing the number and value of grants to bring less privileged students to Canada, or through pressuring the government to increase funding to universities so that our post-secondary institutions will not need to increase international student tuition fees to cover the gap left by inadequate government funding, we need to ensure accessibility for international students. Brandon University, with our comparatively low international differential fees, has a unique opportunity to be a trailblazer in the education of the high-calibre student looking for an opportunity that they would not otherwise be able to pursue. Brandon University should create the opportunity for discussions around ways to set us apart from other universities as a place for international students to find their own success. We need to be able to provide the supports, financially, socially, and emotionally, to help the transition and growth of our international students.
Republished from The Quill print edition, Volume 103, Issue 15, December 11, 2012.