When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, students in Canadian universities and colleges faced many challenges. Classes moved online, students were asked to leave campus residences and many students lost jobs or faced reduced work hours.
While some domestic students could return home, many international students could not go back to their home countries, either because of the cost or because of border restrictions.
Roommates in shared dwellings struggled to adhere to proper social distancing measures. Media reports suggested the pandemic had made international students more vulnerable to adverse events and had posed unique challenges for them.
In fall 2020, we decided to ask international students how they were faring, using a survey and in-depth interviews. We hoped that a better understanding of the challenges they encountered could inform an effective policy response. What the students told us revealed intense psychological, academic and financial vulnerabilities, often occurring in conjunction with one another.
Growing number of international students
The number of international students in Canadian colleges and universities has grown rapidly over the past decade, while the number of domestic students has remained relatively constant. According to Statistics Canada there were 142,170 international post-secondary student enrolments in fall 2010; there were 388,782 in fall 2019. Based on data from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) there was a 35 per cent dip in the number of new study permits issued in 2020, presumably because of the pandemic; however, the number rebounded to the pre-pandemic level by the end of 2021.
The IRCC study permit data also shows that more than half of all international students come from either India or China. Since 2017, India has become the top source country.
Universities and colleges have made strenuous efforts to attract international students, who pay three to four times the tuition of domestic students.
Survey of international students
In our survey, we were not seeking a representative sample of international students based on where they came from or where they were going to school. Instead, we hoped to hear from anyone willing to share their experiences.
We advertised the survey on social media and wrote to campus clubs, student unions and international student offices. About 1,000 international students answered at least some of the survey questions, and roughly 600 completed the whole survey. Our sample included students from 84 countries. About 46 per cent of respondents were from India and seven per cent were from China. Other nationalities represented included: the Philippines (3.7 per cent); the United States (3.4 per cent); Colombia (3.3 per cent); Nigeria (3.3 per cent) and Iran (2.4 per cent).
After the survey ended in February 2021, we conducted in-depth interviews with 25 survey respondents.
We asked students four questions that sought to capture how often they felt anxious or depressed in the previous two weeks. Importantly, the four questions constitute psychological scales that are correlated with clinical diagnoses of depression and anxiety.
Based on their answers, about 55 per cent of our respondents were at risk of depression and about 50 per cent were at risk of an anxiety disorder. In interviews, international students spoke of loneliness, mental exhaustion, panic attacks and social isolation.
Students reported that they found counselling centres at their schools hard to reach and that attempts to make appointments did not work out due to the large number seeking help. At best, there were long waits to get appointments. Shivajan Sivapalan and Yasir Khan, two doctors who work in student health and wellness services, report that international students face significant barriers in accessing health supports.
A significant minority of our respondents — about 30 per cent — reported that they had not adapted well to online instruction. International students overwhelmingly felt that online courses undermined their overall educational experience because of the lack of interaction with fellow students.
Almost two-thirds identified lack of interaction as an obstacle to online learning. Lack of interaction with peers was also chosen as the most important obstacle by the greatest number of respondents.
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 Sale,” notes that the study-work-immigrate dream is being heavily marketed abroad with admission to a Canadian university or college as the entry point. He details how some arriving students are carrying heavy debts from home, along with massive family and community expectations.
Our survey and interviews showed that the loss of parental or spousal income and the loss of wages from off-campus employment created the greatest financial hardships for international students.
When we asked international students “how concerned are you about your ability to pay for your education,” almost 80 per cent 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 kind of the short end of the stick with paying almost double [of] … domestic students during the pandemic.”
“ … now it feels like I’m paying $10,000 per semester to teach myself.”
Roughly two-thirds of our survey respondents experienced financial stress, just over 70 per cent psychological stress, and almost 40 per cent academic stress. Over 25 per cent felt both financial and psychological stress but not academic stress; about 20 per cent felt all three kinds of stress.
While some students experience all three forms of stress together, others experience only one or two or none at all. We observed that psychological, academic and financial stress interacted with each other, compounding the collective toll. For example, not having a job can increase anxiety; high levels of anxiety can affect focus and, in turn, academic performance.
The difficulty that our interviewees had in getting help to deal with their psychological distress suggests that universities and colleges need better and more easily accessible and culturally competent mental health services targeted to the needs of international students.
Several community groups or community-partnered campaigns like the Pardesi Project at Sheridan College have also pointed out the need for better mental health services. That said, we know of no comprehensive analysis of mental health services tailored to international students in Canadian universities and colleges.
The financial precarity that many international students experience suggests a need for targeted and sustained financial support, including emergency grants and loans and the extension of tuition fee payment deadlines.
While Canada was comparatively generous in allowing international students who met the eligibility requirements to receive the $2,000 per month Canada Emergency Response Benefit, there was no sustained financial support offered by Canadian universities and colleges. Emergency support would acknowledge the financial situation in which international students find themselves. Even without the pandemic, the loss of a job or a lengthy spell 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 to develop effective policy responses.
Anil Varughese's research was funded by a Partnership Engage Grant from Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council with the Canadian Federation of Students as the community partner.
Saul Schwartz's research was funded by a Partnership Engage Grant from Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council with the Canadian Federation of Students as the community partner.