When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, Canadian university and college students have faced many challenges. Courses moved online, students were asked to vacate campus residence halls and many students lost jobs or reduced working hours.
While some domestic students were able to return home, many international students were unable to return to their home country, either because of the cost or because of border restrictions.
Roommates in shared accommodation struggled to adhere to proper social distancing measures. Suggested media reports the pandemic has made international students more vulnerable to adverse events and presented them with unique challenges.
In fall 2020, we decided to ask international students how they were doing, using a survey and in-depth interviews. We hoped that a better understanding of the challenges they faced could inform an effective policy response. What students told us revealed intense psychological, academic, and financial vulnerabilities, often occurring in conjunction with each other.
Growing number of international students at Canadian universities and colleges
The number of international students at Canadian universities and colleges has grown rapidly over the past decade, while the number of Canadian students has remained relatively constant. According to Statistics Canada there were 142,170 post-secondary international student enrollments in fall 2010; there were 388,782 in fall 2019. Based on data from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) a 35% drop in the number of new study permits issued in 2020, presumably because of the pandemic; however, the number rebounded to pre-pandemic levels at the end of 2021.
IRRC study permit data also shows that more than half of all international students come from India or China. Since 2017, India has become the top source country.
Universities and colleges have made considerable efforts to attract international studentsWho pay three to four times the tuition fees of domestic students.
International Student Survey
In our survey, we were not looking for a representative sample of international students based on their background or school. Instead, we were hoping to hear from anyone willing to share their experiences.
We announced the investigation on social media and wrote to university clubs, student associations and international student offices. About 1,000 international students answered at least some of the survey questions, and about 600 answered the entire survey. Our sample included students from 84 countries. About 46% of respondents were from India and 7% from China. Other nationalities represented included: the Philippines (3.7%); the United States (3.4%); Colombia (3.3%); Nigeria (3.3%) and Iran (2.4%).
After the survey ended in February 2021, we conducted in-depth interviews with 25 survey respondents.
We asked students four questions aimed at capturing how often they felt anxious Where depressed in the previous two weeks. Importantly, the four questions constitute psychological scales correlated with clinical diagnoses of depression and anxiety.
Based on their responses, approximately 55% of our respondents were at risk for depression and approximately 50% at risk for an anxiety disorder. In interviews, international students spoke of loneliness, mental exhaustion, panic attacks and social isolation.
Students said they found counseling centers at their schools difficult to get to and that attempts to book appointments had not worked due to the large number of people seeking help. At best, there were long waits for appointments. Shivajan Sivapalan and Yasir Khan, two doctors who work in student health and welfare services, report that international students face significant barriers to accessing health services.
A significant minority of our respondents – around 30% – said they had not adapted well to teaching online. International students overwhelmingly felt that online courses undermined their overall educational experience due to the lack of interaction with other students.
Nearly two-thirds identified lack of interaction as a barrier to online learning. Lack of interaction with peers was also chosen as the most important barrier by the greatest number of respondents.
The inability to experience and adapt to Canadian culture, lack of social networks, and inability to use campus space and amenities were other factors that undermined their overall educational experience.
Journalist Nicholas Hune-Brown’s excellent story, “Students for salenotes that the study-work-immigrate dream is heavily marketed overseas with admission to a Canadian university or college as the entry point. It details how some arriving students carry heavy debts from home, as well as massive expectations from family and community.
Our survey and interviews showed that loss of parental or spousal income and loss of salary from off-campus employment created the greatest financial hardship for international students.
When we asked international students “how concerned are you about your ability to pay for your education”, almost 80% were either “concerned” or “very concerned”.
In interviews, students specifically identified a persistent and pervasive feeling of not receiving adequate value for the fees they were paying. One said:
“I feel like we’re getting the end of the stick a bit by paying almost double [of] …domestic students during the pandemic.
“…now I feel like I’m paying $10,000 a semester to teach myself.”
About two-thirds of respondents to our survey suffered from financial stress, just over 70% from psychological stress and almost 40% from academic stress. More than 25% felt both financial and psychological stress, but no academic stress; about 20% felt all three types of stress.
While some students experience all three forms of stress together, others experience only one or two or none. We observed that psychological, academic and financial stress interacted with each other, worsening the collective toll. For example, not having a job can increase anxiety; high levels of anxiety can affect concentration and, therefore, school performance.
The difficulty our interviewees had in getting help to cope with their psychological distress suggests that universities and colleges need better, more easily accessible and culturally competent mental health services, targeted to the needs of international students.
Many Community groups or community-partnered campaigns like the Pardesi Project at Sheridan College also highlighted the need to improve mental health services. That said, we know of no comprehensive analysis of mental health services tailored to international students at Canadian universities and colleges.
The financial precariousness experienced by many international students suggests a need for targeted and sustained financial support, including emergency grants and loans and extended tuition payment deadlines.
Although Canada was relatively generous in allowing international students who met the eligibility criteria to receive the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit of CA$2,000 per month, no sustained financial support was offered by universities and colleges. Canadians. Emergency support would recognize the financial situation international students find themselves in. Even without the pandemic, the loss of a job or a long period of illness or injury can spell financial disaster.
International students pay significant tuition fees and, as future permanent residents and citizens, contribute to Canada’s success. There is an urgent need to understand their unique vulnerabilities and develop effective policy responses.