The work international students must do in B.C.

Several years ago my late Kwantlen colleague Arley McNeney organized a class project in which her students presented research on the challenges international students at our school face. I was embarrassed when I read their report; I had been so clueless, about so much, regarding the lives of my own students. I was particularly alarmed by the report’s findings illustrating how many international students faced continual food insecurity. There were additional widespread problems these students face, including precarious living situations (usually far away from a KPU campus) and abusive work environments.

This week The Tyee published what can be read as an update of the report prepared by Arley’s class: “Cash Cows and Cheap Labour: The Plight of International Students.” One disquieting theme: Students recruited internationally were shocked by how many hours they needed to work outside of school simply to survive in Canada. One study surveyed

1,300 international students at Langara and the College of New Caledonia in Prince George. They found the vast majority of students were working, and many were struggling. Only 28 per cent of surveyed Langara students said they had enough cash to meet their basic needs.

In theory, international students need to show they have the financial means to support themselves for one year in Canada. Since the early 2000s, that figure has been set at tuition, travel costs and $10,000 in cash. The federal government has recently announced that figure will double to $20,635.

But McCartney said the government likely knew for years that the $10,000 threshold was far too little to make ends meet, especially in cities like Vancouver, where the cost of a vacant rental unit stood at $2,373 a month as of last year.

The result was that students, either by plan or by necessity, found jobs. …

“At the end of the day, I think that we all believe students shouldn’t have to work 40 hours a week to pay for their rent, their groceries, their food. I wish that was the reality,” Chirino said. “But when you look at their fees and how much they have to pay, that simply isn’t feasible.”

At least 90% of my international students have jobs, very often more than one job. But it is not rare for me to hear growling stomachs in the classroom.

A couple of weeks ago, our university president, Alan Davis, wrote an open letter to the university community on this topic:

We have done significant work to improve the experience for international students in the past few years, but we also heard what you said [in a recent large survey] and there is more to do….

This won’t be an easy road. The federal and provincial governments are taking a close look at international education and some of the changes they are making or might propose could have a significant impact on KPU. While we’ve been gradually increasing the diversity of our international student population and we’ve seen a softening of international enrolment, the emerging external factors provide additional complexity in forecasting future trends.

Our annual student satisfaction survey repeatedly shows a higher proportion of our international students have more positive views of KPU than domestic students across several important metrics, including supporting student success and feeling part of the community. We have some strong foundations, but we will build on them in a careful and considerate way.

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