Canadian society and the Canadian academy are proud of their openness and diversity. Every year, thousands of international students are encouraged to embark upon undergraduate and graduate studies at Canadian institutes of higher education. Indeed, the drive amongst Canadian universities to attract top-quality international students in greater numbers is intensifying. And yet, there is a significant systemic problem for those international students in the arts and humanities who undertake doctoral studies in Canada.
These PhD candidates are encouraged to complete their degree in four years and, with but few exceptions, funding generally isn’t provided beyond this period. But looking at studies on PhD completion times at Canadian universities, it is clear that the vast majority of students do not finish in four years: the average post-master’s completion time is about five years, according to a 2003 report by Frank Elgar (PDF).
This is a worrying statistic. It shows a misalignment between the expectations of university authorities and the lived reality of PhD students. It is worrying for Canadian PhD candidates, and certainly causes hardship to those Canadians who do not complete their degrees before their funding expires. But for international students, the situation is dramatic.
University fees for international students are approximately twice those of Canadian students. At the University of Western Ontario, for example, the 2011-12 fall term costs $2,836 for a Canadian student, but more than twice that, at $5,807, for an international student. While funding is secure, of course, this difference is barely felt. The drama unfolds when funding runs out.
International students who cannot pay their fees are unable to prove to Immigration Canada that they have sufficient funds to remain in the country. They are faced with having to leave Canada without a degree, after four years of hard work, with little prospect of completing a doctoral program at another institution.
In the past, many savvy international PhD candidates would apply for permanent residence in Canada so as to pay the much lower resident fees once their funding had expired. But since the summer of 2010, this is no longer possible: the provincial nominee program in Ontario, for example, specifies that candidates are eligible to be nominated for residence only after completion of their PhD degree.
Thus, under current conditions, international PhD candidates must confront the stark prospect of having to leave empty-handed. This situation causes much anxiety and distress. Not only do international students have to deal with issues of culture and language differences and homesickness, but they must also deal with the added pressure of having to be, on average, faster at completing their studies than their Canadian colleagues. Some manage to do this. Others will fall by the wayside, or else submit a thesis which they know is below academic standards.
What is it about international students that makes their pockets intrinsically better lined with money? Placements and funding at Canadian universities, we are told, are accorded on merit. But in practice it will be those international students who can pay who will be academically more successful. Or, international students are tacitly expected to be superior academicallythan their Canadian colleagues. This is not a “culture of completion” as university authorities tell us, but a “culture of discrimination.”
It is the universities that are at fault. There is no logic in limiting funding to four years if it is patently obvious that most students in the arts and humanities are not completing their degrees within those time constraints. Unfortunately, it is our experience that university authorities adopt an attitude of “our hands are tied,” blaming other university bodies, or the provincial or federal government.
Some tentative steps are being taken by universities to curtail completion times. But what is required is a greater determination to confront the systemic dilemma that international PhD students face. Otherwise, we fear, international students may be discouraged from studying in Canada and Canadian universities may forfeit the very diversity they so yearn for.
Stephanie Kapusta and Cristina Roadevin are PhD candidates at the University of Western Ontario.