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Call for action

International students exceptionally vulnerable to pandemic impact

Campus and Community

By Dr. Meghan Burchell and Dr. Sevtap Savas

We are delighted that the federal government implemented benefit packages and programs to minimize the financial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) and Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) programs.

From left are Drs. Meghan Burchell and Sevtap Savas.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

These programs are particularly useful for university students enrolled in Canadian post-secondary institutions.

We are concerned, however, that international students at Canadian post-secondary institutions are not eligible for CESB and CSSG, and are eligible for CERB only if they are able to satisfy the past work earnings requirement.

Financial disadvantage

According to the Canadian Bureau for International Education, there are more than 600,000 international students in Canada.

Around 3,500 of these international students study at Memorial University, including a high proportion (1,600) of graduate students.

International students pay higher tuition, have restricted work opportunities, and are away from their home and families.

Current students and recent graduates depend on off-campus employment to subsidize their living expenses and, with the global economic slowdown, many are unable to receive funding from home, further amplifying the effects of their financial disadvantage.

In addition, due to their youth and the fact that they live in Canada as temporary residents, international students form a vulnerable population to whom we owe a duty of care.

‘Tremendous contributions’

Despite their challenges, especially during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, international students significantly contribute to the Canadian and provincial economy, and our enriched and diverse social fabric and character.

They also continue to make tremendous contributions to our academic, scientific and technical discoveries, research, innovation and entrepreneurship.

Due to their lack of eligibility for many financial aid programs during the COVID-19 pandemic, the vulnerability of international students has increased considerably.

We are horrified, for example, by the stories that are reflected in local news articles where it is clear that international students are being hit hard by the effects of the pandemic and lack of financial security.

If the needs of international students continue to be disregarded, it is possible that our post-secondary institution, our province and our country will lose the international talents that we are all so proud of and benefit from.

Systemic bias

More importantly, there has not been a better time to re-emphasize the importance of diversity, inclusion and equity than in our current social stage.

Leaving out this vulnerable population of international students from federal aid packages just because of their federal residency status while we enjoy their labour, talents, skills and efforts is a type of systematic bias.

As Dr. Sonja Knutson, director, Internationalization Office, Memorial University, states: “Isn’t it our moral obligation to remove such barriers for a fair post-secondary education system and Canadian society, rather than creating new ones? It is key to note here that students are considered “residents” for Canada Revenue Agency tax purposes from the moment they receive a Social Insurance Number on arrival in Canada.”

In addition, many international students are considered “residents” in the provinces in which they live, accessing provincial health care plans and other social programs. We do not agree that student aid programs should be based on immigration status, but should be based on other residency criteria.

Tax residency vs. immigration residency

As members of the Memorial University, we were pleased to see the Canadian government take its responsibility to students seriously.

“We specifically asked that the COVID19-related financial support packages be based on tax residency instead of immigration residency.”

In a recent letter addressed to the Hon. Seamus O’Regan, *we advised that the Government of Canada create opportunities and provides financial aid for a wider population of international students at post-secondary institutions and recent international graduates.

We specifically asked that the COVID19-related financial support packages be based on tax residency instead of immigration residency. Such a change would help with international students being eligible for these federal benefits.

We sincerely believe that international students in Newfoundland and Labrador and the rest of the country deserve this much-needed support and that the Government of Canada will be more than happy to once again show its dedication to social justice and protecting the most vulnerable.

We invite all individuals who are interested in supporting international students to write similar letters, or use ours as a template. Our letter template and contact information for the Hon. Seamus O’Regan can be found here.

Please show your support by taking action.

Thank you.

*A letter with the contents of this Call For Action piece was recently sent to the Hon. Seamus O’Regan by Drs. Sevtap Savas and Meghan Burchell.

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