With COVID-19 pushing Nova Scotia universities to deliver some, if not all, of their course content online in the upcoming fall semester, some international students in the province are suggesting they should get a break on tuition.
To date, Cape Breton University, Mount Saint Vincent University, Dalhousie University and the University of King’s College have announced they will be moving their fall classes online, while other universities are considering continuing course delivery online, in person, or some combination of both.
Beatrice Chiang, an international student at Dalhousie University and president of the Dalhousie International Students’ Association, said universities should consider lowering tuition fees or eliminating differential fees for international students who are “financially struggling” to help them as they “continue to study during these challenging times.”
Missing out on ‘international experience’, technical skills
Chiang noted international students in the province typically pay twice the tuition fees of domestic students, but are now unable to get the same university experience they signed up for when they came to study in Nova Scotia, as they “won’t make the same level of meaningful connections” that they would have in a classroom or on-campus setting.
“I think (lowering fees) goes a long way towards enhancing retention and also in the sense that a lot of students choose to come to Canada to study because of the popularity of having an international experience,” said Chiang, one of nearly 900 students who signed a petition calling on Dalhousie University to lower tuition fees for international students during the pandemic.
Amrinder Singh, an international student and president of the Cape Breton University Students’ Union, similarly said there is “a need for a reduction in fees” since international students have travelled thousands of kilometres to study in Nova Scotia but “the experience, the teaching, everything won’t be the same” for them when the fall semester rolls around.
Singh said a concern among both domestic and international students is that the quality of education will not be as high with online classes since students will not be able to have group discussions or gain the same technical skills that they would have in physical labs or other classroom environments.
“It might also affect the grades of students. There might be students who might not be able to do all their work or be comfortable with online systems, so it might affect their grades in a negative way,” he added.
Cape Breton University spokeswoman Lenore Parsley said in an email that the university is devoting “considerable time and resources to ensuring online experience provides the exceptional, high-quality experience that CBU is known for.”
“With our move to a fully online fall semester, it’s important to note that while the mode of educational delivery has changed, it does not change the standard to which that education is held,” Parsley added.
Mount Saint Vincent University spokeswoman Gillian Batten said the university “has a strong history in quality online program delivery.”
Lowering fees would ease financial hardship for students
Lowering tuition fees will also help ease the financial hardship for many international students who have lost their jobs or prospects of getting a job during the pandemic in order to pay for their tuition and living expenses, according to Singh.
“As job opportunities have decreased, students are not able to work and now opportunities in the summer to get a job won’t be as high as normal. Most students, especially international students, use this summertime to find a full-time job and earn money to pay their fall and winter semester tuition fees,” he said.
Singh added some international students feel left out because they don’t qualify for federal assistance – namely, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, if they did not earn $5,000 or more in the last year, and the Canada Emergency Student Benefit, which excludes international students altogether.
According to Chiang, there has also been “a greater level of food and housing insecurity” among international students at Dalhousie University during the pandemic.
Chiang, who volunteers at the student-run food bank at Dalhousie, said the majority of students she has seen accessing the food bank in the last two months, or “around 90 per cent,” appear to be international students.
“There is this common stereotype that international students are really wealthy, but we’ve come to know that most of them are not. … Now that a lot of businesses are shut down, they’re having a lot of difficulty,” she said.
International enrolment numbers could see a dip
At Cape Breton University, roughly 65 per cent of the student population was made up of international students in 2019, while at Dalhousie University it was roughly 24 per cent. And at Mount Saint Vincent University, there were about 3,800 students enrolled, with 672 visa students at the time, according to Batten.
Both Chiang and Singh said it is “very likely” that international enrolment numbers will decrease for Nova Scotia universities in the upcoming school year as many current international students and prospective international students will choose not to study in Nova Scotia if they are not able to get access to in-class learning classroom or on-campus opportunities.
This could have a “lasting negative impact” on the economy, said Business Minister Geoff MacLellan, while speaking to reporters after a cabinet meeting last week. He said Cape Breton University’s boost in international enrolment in recent years has caused a “significant injection of economic life” in Cape Breton and the switch to online classes will likely impact international enrolment at the university.
“I’m not at all questioning the decision (of the university). I think that they’re very smart folks, they’re in tune with what the university needs and what their students need, but the reality is that it’s going to impact the international students that are going to register and be part of the CBU academic program,” he said.
“I think it remains to be seen how deep the impact will be, but without question, it’s going to hurt.”
Universities reviewing fees
Universities in Nova Scotia are reviewing tuition fees for the upcoming fall semester, noting they have bursaries and other financial supports in place to support students during this time.
According to Batten, tuition fees for Mount Saint Vincent University’s fall courses “are still under review as part of our 2020/2021 budget planning process still in progress.”
Cape Breton University is currently “reviewing fees and working through the 2020/2021 budget process in light of the new, and significant challenges presented by COVID-19,” said Parsley.
Meanwhile, Dalhousie University “is still working through the impacts of the pandemic and specific decisions about the fall. I can tell you that for spring/summer 2020 courses, tuition fees have remained the same as last year, other than what was previously approved by the board,” said spokeswoman Lindsay Dowling-Savelle.