Along with the University of Saskatchewan’s goals for strategic growth over the next five years comes plans to increase the international student population. By 2025, the U of S is planning on 10 per cent of undergraduate students to be international.
“We know that the City of Saskatoon is projected to grow significantly over the next couple of decades, and we know that we need additional spaces to educate a growing population… The university also has a role in contributing to knowledge globally,” said Alison Pickrell, assistant vice-provost of strategic enrollment management, in an interview with the Sheaf in 2018.
“We are looking out to the future — we are preparing for it instead of just letting it happen.”
While Pickrell has said that the university’s forethought extends to preparing for an increasingly international student body, there is still worry among international student leaders about whether the university is supporting this vulnerable demographic enough.
International students are a vulnerable demographic
Yulissa Campos is a Saskatoon Open Door Society settlement support worker and U of S alumna. In her work with newcomers, as well as her experience as one, she has witnessed how international students need more support from the university to help them achieve success in their studies and beyond.
“You have the pressure to work because you have to pay your bills. You have the pressure to get good marks because if you fail, your visa won’t be renewed. You can’t take less than three classes and also the longer you stay in university, the more money you pay,” Campos said. “So is it worth it to pay so much for your education?”
International students at the U of S currently pay 2.73 times what domestic students pay. When the cost for Canadians enrolled in one class is around $500, paying almost triple adds up significantly for a full course load.
Is the university doing enough?
The university’s justification for the tuition differential is two-fold; some of the money is allocated for extra resources needed by international students and some of it is meant to make up for this group not having paid taxes in Canada while growing up.
The International Student and Study Abroad Centre is the university’s hub for international student resources. The centre offers a mix of services, including assistance with arrival, legal help with immigration issues and cultural events meant to ease newcomers’ transition into Canadian culture.
While Campos appreciates the value of the cultural programming that makes up the bulk of ISSAC’s presence on campus, she questions its lasting impact on students.
“They create programs for international students to feel more involved in the community and have community support, which is very important in many cultures — since here it’s very individualistic and everyone is on their own,” Campos said.
“I still think that the amount of money they charge for it, from international students, is not justified by these resources.”
Who is benefiting and who is not
Campos says that while typically international students have not contributed to the Canadian economy for most of their lives, newcomers are likely to be a good investment for the university, since they bring with them the hefty sums of money needed to pay the tuition differential.
She adds that it is international students who get the short end of the stick in this deal, since their investment in attending university in Canada hangs on the chance that they will secure permanent residence status post-graduation.
“International students are fighting for the same opportunities as domestic people, with the difference that they have to put a lot more money in and have no guarantee of seeing a return,” Campos said.
While in university, Campos herself did not realize she even had extra supports available to her as an international until her last year of studies. Campos says this is a common experience for newcomers. With having to keep up with classes while building a new support system and experiencing culture shock, life can quickly become a whirlwind for international students.
“University is hard enough already for English-born people, imagine someone for whom English is maybe their third or fourth language, right? So you’re trying to survive, you don’t have time to be looking for extra help.”
Barriers to international students’ advocacy
In 2018, fourth-year student Nancy Eze ran into this same issue. Eze was the president of the U of S International Students’ Association. At the time, INSA was disappearing due to a lack of participants.
“It was very disheartening,” Eze said in an interview with the Sheaf. “A lot of international students don’t want to get involved in university politics because they come here paying so much [in tuition] that they just want to study. They feel like they don’t have time for it.”
There are a variety of reasons why international students would not feel compelled to participate in campus life, but not being involved in the wider community is not ideal for their settlement and long-time success. This trend presents itself across the board; for example, the U of S receives significantly less financial aid and awards applications from international students, despite how much more they pay for tuition.
The current INSA president, Akingbehin Akinwande, brings up that international students’ lack of participation in university life makes it difficult for them to advocate for themselves. His vision for the association when he took it on after Eze was for the group to amplify international students’ voices and advocate for their concerns.
This mission is difficult to achieve when international students are disengaged outside of their studies. Although Akinwande ran into this issue in his first year as president, he is determined to get internationals involved in advocating for themselves.
“The university administration has these [services] that are supposed to fill in some of these gaps for international students, but they’re not doing it. So it’s up to people like us to make the changes we really need,” Akinwande said.
International student leaders are looking to empower
This year, INSA’s main activities have included advocating for international students to be able to run for executive positions within the U of S Students’ Union, which is an ongoing cause. They have also put on cultural programming with the goal of bringing international students out and together. Their first event in the 2019- 20 academic year was a big cultural mingle with around 80 people in attendance.
“We gave lots of speeches about “diversity” and “inclusion” — and we meant it. It’s not like when the university says these words,” Akinwande said. “We are the ones who know what this feels like.”
However, the INSA’s main goal is to tackle the big issues that international students face in university. Their list of priorities includes improving information strategy and information availability, which refers to students’ knowledge of how their tuition is allocated. They are also interested in addressing racism and lack of inclusion among other issues international students face while in university.
Finances are a big concern for the group, especially the fact that some international students are not aware of what their money funds and do not question the reasoning behind the differential, as well as domestic students’ tuition increases, which affect international students doubly.
Akinwande is discontent with the U of S’s constant tuition hikes, which in the past couple of years have also been accompanied by increases in the tuition differential. For 2020-21, the university is considering increasing the differential by rounding it to three times more than domestic tuition.
“The fact that the university administration is justifying this is, for me, a crime,” Akinwande said. “If this is a publicly-funded institution, why can’t the public afford it? They have misplaced priorities.”
Akinwande sees unity among international students, and empowering this group towards activism and leadership as a way to address the issue. However, his efforts in trying to do this have not been met positively by the institutions he critiques. Akinwande says that the university counts on students being disengaged and without a voice for hiking up costs with no great pushback.
“You begin to feel the heat, some friction from the system because you are supposed to just do your homework and get your degree. This is what they count on. The fact that students are busy, that many students don’t even care about all this stuff,” Akinwande said.
“They say ‘you are the leaders of tomorrow’ but then tomorrow never comes. Because who are you to question university authorities?”
A voice growing louder
Akinwande’s push for international students to advocate for themselves comes at a good time. While the international tuition differential was static at 2.6 for most of the decade of the 2010s, in recent years it has been creeping up, first to 2.73 and now, tentatively, to three times domestic tuition.
“I see it as a crime because they’re taking this group of people who want to learn and are young, idealistic, passionate — especially international students because they have this idea of coming into a new world — and they exploit those ideals and desires for profit at the expense of the soul of the individual,” Akinwande said.
According to Akinwande, now is the time for students to influence what goes on at the university. Despite his critiques of the USSU’s relationship with international students this year, he says he still believes they have to find common ground and advocate for the entire student population together.
“It’s important for us to see how we have a lot more in common than we do differences. And we can really make serious changes, if we work together as a student body,” Akinwande said.
“This university is a great institution, but it is just scratching the surface of its potential, of what they could be, if they have an open mind and if they listen to the people.”
And with international students set to make up 10 per cent of the undergraduate student body by 2025 — and the group already exceeding the 35 per cent target for graduate students — their voices will only grow in prominence at the U of S.
Ana Cristina Camacho | News Editor
Photos: Victoria Becker | Photo Editor