The real reasons why international students pay higher tuition fees

by Victoria Ross

International students are a staple of any Canadian university and integral to the financial buoyancy of our post-secondary education system.

1 – How much do international students pay for a university education in Canada?

Here are the latest figures from Statistics Canada:

– The average tuition fees for international undergraduate students in Canada rose 7.6% to $29,714 in 2019/ 2020. 

– Two-thirds of international students were studying at the undergraduate level.  Of this group, 29% were enrolled in business, management and public administration, with an average tuition fee of $28,680/ yr.

– Just over 13% of international undergraduate students were enrolled full time in engineering, which had above average tuition fees of $33,703/ yr.

– Average tuition fees for international students in graduate programs rose 4.4% to $17,744 in 2019/ 2020.

And here are some of the undergraduate tuition fees for international students listed on UW’s website for 2019-20:

Faculty of Engineering, Software Engineering  $54,600

Computer Science  $54,500

Faculty of Mathematics  $37,900

Faculty of Science  $36,700

Accounting and Financial Management  $35,400

In his 2018 article, Canada’s growing reliance on international students, Alex Usher, President of Higher Education Strategy Associates, a consulting firm based in Toronto, explains that  “fees for international students, which average about four times what domestic students pay, now equal 12 percent of operating revenue and 35 percent of all fees collected by institutions, and these proportions continue to climb.  Already some major institutions, including the University of Toronto, are receiving more money from international students than they get in operating grants from their provincial governments.” 

International tuition rates continue to increase year-over-year.  On March 28, 2019, The Waterloo Chronicle reported that “First-year international undergraduate computer science students will see a 62.1 per cent increase next fall, taking the current 2018/ 19 term tuition fee of $15,823 to $25,653 in 2019/20…Tuition for year-one undergraduate programs other than computer science will rise by 15 per cent and upper-year undergraduate programs will go up by five per cent. Other rate increases between three and 15 per cent will be applied to international graduate students in other programs.

2 – Have international students always paid much higher tuition fees?

Ira Basen, a Toronto-based documentary producer for CBC Radio, points out that twenty years ago there was very little, if any, focus on international student recruitment by Ontario’s colleges and universities but that began to change after the election of Mike Harris’s Progressive Conservative government in 1995.  

In his article, Ontario colleges need international tuition.  It could cost them,  Basen explains that colleges were encouraged to think globally, not locally — to establish partnerships with other institutions around the world and even to open up satellite campuses abroad.  They were also told that they should compete for students in a deregulated, global educational marketplace [ and ] in 1996, the Harris government deregulated international tuition and let schools keep all the money it generated.  Suddenly, colleges had a new and potentially very lucrative source of revenue.

In his article, Basen also notes that over the past 15 years, successive Canadian governments have relaxed entry rules for international students.  Today, Canada has Student Direct Stream agreements with seven countries [ China, India, Morocco, Pakistan, the Philippines, Senegal and Vietnam ]   If you’re a high-school graduate from one of those countries, can demonstrate that you have $15,000 to pay your first year of tuition, have purchased a $10,000 guaranteed investment certificate from a participating [  Canadian ] bank, and have met the minimum standard on an IELTS exam — the internationally recognized test for English-language proficiency — your admission to the Ontario college of your choice is virtually assured.

3 – Could higher tuition costs for international students be considered problematic?

Usher believes that this policy option may have some unintended consequences.  In his article, Usher points out that such a policy makes universities more oriented to the business, engineering and science programs that international students want to take, and less oriented to the health, social sciences and humanities programs that they tend to avoid.

OUSA, The Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, also believes that deregulated international student tuition is part of a larger systemic problem facing post-secondary education today.”   In his article, The Need to Regulate International Student Tuition, former Research & Policy Analyst with OUSA, Colin Aitchison writes,  Since the province deregulated international student tuition rates in 1996, it has become virtually impossible for international students to predict the overall cost of their undergraduate education in Ontario. 

According to our 2015 Ontario-Post-Secondary Student Survey, 49 per cent of international students stated that they had difficulty meeting their annual tuition payments, debunking the myth that all of these students come from wealthy backgrounds.  With these students already being forced to pay significantly higher fees, the lack of predictability year-to-year … creates a potential barrier to post-secondary success.

4 – What is the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms?

The Canadian Encyclopedia defines The Charter of Rights and Freedoms as the most visible and recognized part of Canada’s Constitution.”   It states,The principal rights and freedoms covered by the Charter include: freedom of expression; the right to a democratic government; the right to live and seek work anywhere in Canada; the legal rights of people accused of crimes; the rights of Indigenous peoples; the right to equality including gender equality; the right to use Canada’s official languages; and the right of French or English minorities to an education in their language.

Canada’s Department of Justice website states that  Equality rights are at the core of the Charter.  They are intended to ensure that everyone is treated with the same respect, dignity and consideration (i.e. without discrimination), regardless of personal characteristics such as race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, or mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, residency, marital status or citizenship.  As a result, everyone should be treated the same under the law. Everyone is also entitled to the same benefits provided by laws or government policies. 

5 – Are universities required to follow the rules set out in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms?

Dr. Yin Yuan Chen is an Assistant Professor at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law and a  lawyer by training, whose research program examines laws and policies that contribute to health inequities and marginalization, particularly among noncitizens and racialized minorities. 

According to Chen, Back in 1990, the Supreme Court of Canada in a case called McKinney v University of Guelph ruled that insofar as universities are not government-controlled entities, their policies or practices (e.g., policies requiring faculties to retire at age 65) are generally free from the Charter’s scrutiny.  However, it is possible that some aspects of universities’ functions can be seen as governmental acts and therefore must comply with the Charter.  [ So ] when it comes to the delivery of post-secondary education, one can argue that universities are agents that are tasked with implementing a government program. 

And as such, universities’ policies and/ or practices relating strictly to the delivery of post-secondary education may similarly be subject to the Charter. 

Dr. Emmett Macfarlane, an Assistant Professor  in Political Science at the University of Waterloo, whose research explores the relationships between rights, governance, and public policy, with a particular focus on political discourse under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, notes that  The Charter only applies to ’government’ so private actors cannot violate the Charter. 

The question of whether our public universities count as ’government’ for the purposes of the Charter is complicated.  In early Charter decisions on issues like mandatory retirement, the Supreme Court initially ruled that no, the Charter does not apply to universities.  More recently, we have seen some courts apply the Charter in the context of free expression cases on campuses. So, it’s not clear whether the Charter would apply to an issue like differential tuition rates.

6 – What is the meaning of unconstitutional?

According to Chen, A law or a government action is unconstitutional when it is contrary to what the Constitution mandates.  In practice, if a law or a government action is found by courts to be unconstitutional, generally speaking, this law or government action will be invalidated and therefore will no longer have force or effect. 

7 – Could higher tuition fees for international students be considered unconstitutional?

Chen explains that Assuming that the Charter applies to universities’ tuition policies, the allegation that unequal tuition fees are unconstitutional will typically be grounded in section 15 of the Charter, which guarantees everyone’s right to equality without discrimination.  Unfortunately, based on existing case law in Canada, establishing this claim of section 15 Charter violation will run into some difficulty. Section 15 of the Charter only protects against discrimination that is based on one of the grounds listed in that section or grounds that are deemed analogous. 

Some of these grounds include race, national or ethnic origin, religion, sex, age, disability and sexual orientation. Notably, immigration status is neither listed in section 15 as a protected ground of discrimination, nor deemed by courts to be an analogous ground. Therefore, differential treatment experienced by international students when compared with domestic students may be said to fall outside the scope of the Charter’s equality rights guarantee. 

Even if international students can successfully establish that their higher tuition amounts to a violation of their equality rights, section 1 of the Charter allows government to justify such a violation if it is a proportionate measure taken to address some important societal objectives. 

8 – Is there anything that can be done to change universities’ tuition policies?

Chen has argued for “immigration status” to be recognized by courts as an analogous ground of discrimination under section 15 of the Charter.   Chen contends that we know that migrants often experience multiple forms of marginalization in receiving societies. 

As such, to not recognize immigration status as a constitutionally-protected ground of discrimination risks giving government free rein to subject migrants, including international students, to poorer treatment for no justifiable purposes.  I think this needs to change. [ So ] I do not think international students’ lack of publicly funded health care in some provinces can be justified. The same argument may… apply to the context of tuition fees.

Chen added,  “I would encourage anyone who is concerned about the unequal tuition fees to continue raising awareness and challenging people to think harder about this issue.  Through such public discourse and some strategic advocacy efforts aiming at governments, perhaps some changes in the future may be possible. 

Macfarlane suggested,  “International students can …  pursue political means to change policy.  They can lobby universities or the provinces to make changes.  But as a non-voting group, they may not enjoy enough political influence to do so, and their case would rest with persuading the broader population that charging higher tuition rate to international students was somehow unfair. 

And indeed, a change in universities’ tuition policies may be on the horizon.  In 2018 the Toronto Star reported that in a rare move, the University of Toronto drastically cut its tuition fees for international PhD students to  “open doors for more outstanding academics from around the world.  

Chen thinks that it is important to consider people’s contribution to society that do not take the form of tax payment. 

“Societies may stand to benefit from international students in many other ways. For example, international students add to the diversity on campus and in the broader society, their experiences and skills enrich domestic students’ learning, they fuel the higher-education industry, and they foster ties between Canada and other parts of the world,”  said Chen.




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