In January 2023, Karine Coen-Sanchez published a Global Campus column in University Affairs on the failure of current equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) policies to adequately accommodate international students on Canadian campuses. Ms. Sanchez-Coen’s interview-based research explored the various barriers experienced by international students upon joining Canadian universities. The students she interviewed reported frustrations with barriers to learning such as problematic cultural assumptions, social isolation, and language-based barriers, which put them at a disadvantage in ways that are never fully recognized. Essentially, her argument is that EDI is nothing short of an institutional performance with no real bearing on the systemic changes that would be needed for healthy cultural integration to international students. This may explain why many newcomers, according to the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, are hesitant to become Canadian citizens given that they do not feel they were properly welcomed and integrated into the multicultural mosaic image that Canada claims to foster.
We agree with Ms. Coen-Sanchez that EDI policies on intercultural relations and social integration are currently failing our international students, in itself a serious problem. However, treating our international students poorly with inadequate financial and cultural supports also holds serious consequences for the broader pursuit of EDI goals throughout the university sector and for the entire Canadian economy. We constantly think about how to hire a more diverse pool of staff and faculty on campus but do little to consider how to actually bolster our talent pools of diverse scholars further upstream. We make the case here that improving our financial aid policies toward international students at Canadian campuses will not only benefit the students’ educational experiences here but will also provide an excellent solution for the integration of our international students in terms of diversity, depth and innovation across all sectors of employment. Indeed, the need to deepen, broaden and diversify our talent pools is fundamental in the quest to build a diverse and highly-skilled competitive workforce.
The failure of governments to subsidize international students is the key problem here, but this does not entirely let university administrators off the hook either. Not only are international students denied many scholarship and funding opportunities, but they also have to pay much higher tuition fees, in addition the costs of travel and accommodation. These costs are far too often subsidized by the students themselves, who work odd jobs off campus to make ends meet, sometimes suffering from food and housing insecurity. Worse, international graduate students are often denied graduate assistant positions that domestic graduate students are usually guaranteed. This leaves international graduate students without the needed financial help these positions provide, but also, and most importantly, they miss out on many of the rich learning experiences that are part of teaching and research assistantships within the culture of campus life. The current system hence produces financially challenged, unhappy, overworked and food-insecure students, who receive a second-class educational experience in relation to their domestic counterparts. This is a recipe by which many will simply fail give up or dedicate more time towards working precarious jobs to make ends meet. This reality results in wasting a pool of raw talent that is unable to truly thrive and develop into the dynamic and diverse workforce that would otherwise be amenable to EDI goals.
We do acknowledge that there is no quick fix to the massive structural problem facing our international students. University administrations are in a difficult position to help, without incentives through government funding. The training of domestic students is understood by our government as a type of investment for the future economy, yet international students are not perceived in the same way and are assumed to have come to Canada for the educational benefits, only to then return to work in their home countries. In reality, we know from Statistics Canada that roughly 50 per cent of master’s and PhD international graduate students go on to become Canadian citizens within 10 years of graduating. Thus, while there is no guarantee they will stay in Canada and contribute to the economy after obtaining their degree, a large portion do. Surely government funding could be put into place with the understanding that a large portion of our highly trained and diverse international students will then form the basis of wealth-generating and tax-paying talent pools in the public and private sectors.
Without this funding in place, the costs to international graduate students is staggering. Tuition is not subsidized by the government in the same way as it is for domestic students, resulting in much higher fees – $36,000 per year for undergraduate students, and $21,000 per year for graduate students. Then there are the costs of travel to and from Canada ($5,000) and the living expenses incurred once one arrives – conservatively estimated at at least $15,000 per year.
Supporting every international student with a graduate assistantship or scholarship (at the very minimum) provides the university with a highly qualified workforce to handle the everyday tasks of classroom instruction, marking, tutoring and technical lab working return, all the while ensuring a better overall educational experience. These graduate students would also supply the future economy with a rich and culturally diverse talent pool that employers increasingly seek. A student-centred and well-intentioned EDI policy aimed at catering to the financial and social needs of international students is a wise investment for universities and colleges toward building a more diverse and talent-rich workforce for Canada as we look to the future.
Benjamin Maiangwa teaches in the department of political science at Lakehead University. Antony Puddephatt is a professor of sociology at Lakehead. Oluwatomi Akinyede is a healthcare professional who holds a MA in sociology from Lakehead.