Unclear policies, concerns over donor exclusion raise questions over the equity of financial aid for international students at Capilano University and across Canada
Sarah Rose // Contributor
“I wanted to come to Canada because of discrimination,” says Parneet Kaur. A handful of years ago, Kaur traded her home in Northern India for the occluded forest view from a North Shore rental. The recent Business Administration graduate loves being near the water — fitting, maybe, since she’s spent the last half hour reflecting on the isolation of her experience as an international student at Capilano University (CapU).
Kaur’s the kind of girl who greets her days, often from the tiny square of a Zoom screen, in a “Hello Monday!” t-shirt and a smile. It’s the sort of optimism worn bravely between the milieu of 18-hour days filled with online classes, club responsibilities, peer mentorship and a part-time job at Walmart. It’s also a reminder that, like all immigrants caught in the undertow of adjusting to a new life, Kaur wants to belong, and she’s not simply happy to be here.
The road to academia for international students starts by paying three semesters in advance at a tuition rate roughly five times higher than domestic tuition. Many families like Kaur’s pool together finances, just enough to pass the requisites, before pulling back to make ends meet. “$35 [CAD] is like 500,000 rupees. It’s hard for them, but they’d never tell me that.” *editor’s note: $35 CAD is the equivalent of 2073.23 rupees at the time of writing.
When COVID-19 hit, borders closed, and students were left stranded thousands of miles from support networks. For Kaur, that’s when the cracks began to show. Despite working the maximum number of hours she’s allotted by the government, in 2020, Kaur found herself buried under tuition, rent and MSP. She came up short, and like many of her domestic peers, turned to financial aid.
“My friends and I believed that when you get good grades, you’re awarded scholarships,” Kaur explains. Sitting at a 4.0 GPA, her first trip to the Financial Aid office had the same brand of optimism she wears on her sleeve. Until the advisor told her: “we don’t expect international students to apply for scholarships. Your parents should’ve paid three semesters in advance.” Kaur says after this trip, she became aware of four possible scholarships she could apply for — none of which she received.
In the last decade alone, international student enrollment in Canadian universities has more than tripled. In September 2020, international study permits issued in British Columbia increased by 43.9 percent from 2019, compared to the national average increase of 1.7 percent. The figures across other provinces vary widely given how international tuition is generally unregulated, but it highlights a nationwide problem. With international student tuition averaging four times that of domestic students, institutions are becoming increasingly reliant on foreign money while leaving students like Kaur without adequate support once the tuition cheques clear.
CIC News, a national Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship media outlet, reports that international students add an annual $22 billion to the Canadian economy, a figure which tops Canada’s export of auto parts, lumber and aircrafts. While many, like Kaur, describe feeling excluded and unwelcome — an experience that often begins in the classroom.
As Morgan Poteet and Bianca Gomez write in the study “It’s Both Ways” in The Journal of New Brunswick Studies, “The sense of belonging [that they] developed as international students [was] detached from the local community, and even from Canada.” Gaps in services related to lack of support and resources for international students directly impact integration and academic success. They advocate for long-term policies and programs, including financial aid, for international students.
CapU policy documents call for “equity in competition and distribution” regarding award and scholarship criteria and “fair and wide distribution of funds.” At present, only 17 of the 301 University-wide awards on the Financial Award portal are for international students. There is no reference within official policy documents to the criteria listed on the Financial Aid website pertaining to being a citizen, permanent resident or landed immigrant. CapU includes a specific page for international student funding, however, there are no distinct criteria provided, as it redirects to the general award criteria page.
A sitting member of a CapU Department Scholarship Committee who wishes to remain anonymous out of respect for the award process explains, “we nominated multiple students [for an internal scholarship] who were declined on the basis that they were international students.” Another anonymous internal source claimed in an email that the Patsy & Crissy George entrance bursary meant for female students of African descent has not been awarded for years, if ever.
Both Associate Registrar Harb Johal and Registrar Kyle Vuorinen report that it’s typical for donors to exclude international students. “The criteria is established based on the donor’s wishes and intent of whom the award will support. This practice is not unique to Canada,” said Johal. “The Capilano excellence scholarship [and] athletic entrance award is available to international students,” Vuorinen added, stating that in 2020 and 2021, 215 international students received funding through the CapU Cares Student Fund.
In April 2020, CapU announced a $242,000 grant from the Ministry of Advanced Education to assist students experiencing financial hardship exacerbated by the pandemic. The grant consisted of $140,000 in supplemental emergency financial assistance to students and an additional $38,000 to supplement Indigenous emergency assistance while encouraging international students to “pursue alternative sources,” including government scholarships.
In response, the Capilano Students Union (CSU) introduced the Student Society Emergency Assistance Fund (SSEA) with $75,000 of emergency funding for both domestic and international students. “One of my coworkers got [SSEA],” said Kaur, who adds that she didn’t meet the criteria herself. “You have to show them you really need it. There’s nothing [CapU] can do besides provide us scholarships, but they don’t.”
“Financial Aid told [the CSU] they had to be classified as emergency funding,” explains former CSU President Emily Bridge. If there is no wording in internal policy to restrict international students from awards, Bridge, like many, is left to wonder where — or from whom — the exclusion originates. “If it’s not a policy [issue], if it’s coming from donors, [we need to] encourage the opening of criteria.”
Bridge encourages any students struggling financially or with finding appropriate answers and resources through Financial Aid to contact the CSU. The more students reach out, the more they help strengthen CSU advocacy and open doors for challenging inequitable practices for international students. Bridge emphasizes the importance of the role domestic students can play in pushing the conversation on equity for their international peers. “If international students are the only ones speaking up, it’s easier for people to not take it seriously,” she said. “We try [to] get people to see [that] these issues are bad for all students, it benefits all of us to see a more equitable process.”
Today, Kaur still lives in North Vancouver. Since graduating last summer, Kaur is still floating in the in-between of a resident and a temporary visitor with a work permit. Eventually, she landed a job in the insurance industry — the kind of job that can be used to apply for permanent residency. Although Kaur hasn’t seen her family in India for over two years, between flight bans and the ongoing pandemic, she tells me how thankful she is that they’re okay — she’s just glad I asked.