Around 800,000 international students currently call Canada home, with thousands more expected to come with every new academic year.
As students head back to school this fall, the focus is increasing on whose responsibility it is to house them, and what the growing numbers mean for Canada’s housing crisis.
Pressure is growing on the Liberal government to address the housing crisis, and several federal ministers have hinted that the number of international students could be capped in the future to ease housing demand.
“This is a tale as old as time, that immigrants are responsible for social crises; that immigrants and migrants are responsible for the housing shortage, which is simply not true,” said Sarom Rho, an organizer for Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC).
Rho said Canada has already seen that a cap on international students wouldn’t work, because it has already seen “something similar to a cap” during the COVID-19 crisis.
“In 2020 and 2021, we saw that very few migrants, including current and former international students, were coming to this country because the borders were closed. Yet housing prices continue to increase. In fact, they spiked drastically.”
‘Very difficult to find a house’: Concerns grow about post-secondary student housing crisis
Instead, Rho said the emphasis should be on adequately housing students — both domestic and international — as universities and colleges continue to rely on the latter for hundreds of millions of dollars each in tuition fees each year, and bank on that growth for their financial futures.
“Colleges and universities and post-secondary institutions must do more to ensure that both international students and domestic students can access affordable housing, have protections at school, which include caps on the rate of fee increases and in-school supports. And a lot of this is denied to international students,” Rho said.
Universities across Canada have pushed back against the government’s suggestion of capping international student intake, and pointed to the need for more funding to build housing for students.
The University of Waterloo on Tuesday announced that it was building a new, 500-bed residence building on its main campus and it would open by the fall of 2026. And in that announcement, the university’s president and vice-chancellor acknowledged the need amid the housing crunch.
“This investment is also a key contribution to continuing to grow the Region’s housing capacity, which is especially significant in light of the ongoing challenge of availability in our community and across the country,” Vivek Goel said in a press release.
A University of British Columbia spokesperson told Global News it is also working on building more student housing, and said university representatives have told Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada it does not support a cap on international student intake.
“With more than 15,000 beds across the Vancouver and Okanagan campuses, UBC is the largest student residence provider in Canada and plans to add another 4,800 beds (4300 at Vancouver and 500 at Okanagan) over the next 10-15 years at an estimated cost of $1.2 billion,” the spokesperson added.
Toronto Metropolitan University said that while it does not have any current plans to build more student housing, it was looking to “explore more affordable methods” to build more housing capacity.
But experts say it still is not enough, especially as the amounts being paid by international students for many of the schools continue to grow.
“Ask a student in Brampton and they will tell you horror stories about how they are living. There are six or seven students living in underground basement apartments,” Bikram Singh, a member of the Brampton, Ont.-based advocacy group Naujawan Support Network (NSN), said.
“They’re paying rent, paying tuition and having to face exploitative landlords,” he said. “If they can’t give us housing or hostels for students, why are they charging us so much for an education?”
Canadian students and advocates conflicted on international student cap
According to Statistics Canada, the gulf between domestic and international fees is significant.
In the 2022-23 academic year, the average domestic student in Canada paid $6,834 in tuition. By contrast, the average international student paid nearly six times that amount at $36,123.
A Global Affairs Canada report said international students in Canada spend $22.3 billion on tuition, accommodation, and discretionary spending every year. This is in addition to international students being a major source of labour for Canada, which has faced a severe worker shortage in recent years.
This trend appears to be reflected in the financial statements of Canadian colleges.
What do financial statements tell us?
In 2017-18, Canadore College in North Bay, Ont., made $12.25 million in tuition revenue from domestic students and $41.3 million from international students. In 2022-23, domestic tuition revenue rose to $14.5 million and international tuition skyrocketed to $131.5 million.
Canadore College did not respond to requests for comment.
Sheridan College, which has campuses across Ontario in Brampton, Mississauga and Oakville, has become the stuff of legend in Punjabi hip-hop music. Some of the most popular Punjabi hip-hop artists have referenced the “Sheridan life” in their songs and videos.
A spokesperson told Global News Sheridan’s international enrolment has risen by six per cent in the last five years and said their 8,832 international students is the lowest of Ontario’s 10 public colleges.
Between 2021-22 and 2022-23, Sheridan’s revenue from domestic students actually dropped eight per cent, from $65.2 million to $57 million, according to financial statements. Meanwhile, revenue from international students shot up 37.4 per cent, from $105.3 million to $142.7 million.
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A spokesperson for Sheridan College told Global News that their approach to international student intake has been “slow” and “measured,” but hinted that this was necessary because of dwindling government funding support.
“Given the changes in government funding levels, this decision—while in keeping with Sheridan’s values and commitment to academic excellence—has had significant financial implications,” the spokesperson said.
Seneca Polytechnic, based in Toronto, draws 80 per cent of its tuition revenue from international tuition and 20 per cent from domestic students, according to a spokesperson.
The college said this was because while the cost of educating a domestic student is partially supported by government grants, international student tuition must cover the entire cost of program delivery.
This boom in students is happening outside Ontario too. For example, over the past decade, the number of international students in Quebec has doubled. As of December 2022, there were 58,675 international students at Quebec universities — an increase of 10,000 from the year before, when they accounted for 14 per cent of the total student body. Another 19,460 international students study at public junior colleges and private career colleges.
Could universities and colleges build more?
Seneca has suite-style accommodation for 1,330 students, and told Global News the college cannot build more without funding from multiple levels of government.
“Given the cost of constructing housing in the GTA, we cannot build affordable housing without a partnership with all three levels of government and the private sector to discuss solutions. Student housing is but one component of a much bigger issue of affordability across Canada,” a spokesperson for the college said.
Singh blames 10 years of Conservatives, 8 years of Liberal power for housing crisis
Fay Faraday, a law professor at Toronto’s Osgoode Hall Law School and immigration law expert, said that provincial “withdrawal and underfunding of public institutions, including post-secondary institutions, is what drives this cycle of increasingly needing to recruit students from outside of Canada.”
University of Toronto vice-president Joseph Wong said in a recent message to members of that university community that “universities do not receive public funding for student housing, nor can they use tuition fees for this purpose.”
“But we think providing students with suitable housing options is so important that we have made a decision to assume debt to build these new residences,” he said in the message. “We are working with government partners to identify and hopefully remove key barriers so we can build more residences even faster to support our students.”
Seneca Polytechnic told Global News that, “From a financial perspective, operating grants to polytechnics and colleges in Ontario have not been increased for more than a decade.”
“Tuition was cut by 10 per cent four years ago and has remained frozen ever since. The system is on an unsustainable financial path without a fiscally responsible framework that allows us to deliver a high-quality education to all of our students.”
Sheridan College said it is also working to ensure students can get secure off-campus housing, such as homestays, and is also connecting students to vetted landlords on Places4Students – a safe housing database for students.
The question that remains is what it will take to build more.
For Faraday, there can be no question that the blame assigned to international students is misplaced.
“When we’re talking about international students, the focus should be on what do we need to do to ease their transition to permanent status and to ensure that they get permanent status and to protect them through their their educational and their work journey. That’s the conversation that we should be having, not blaming them for the fallout of provincial policies and legislation in other areas, for which they bear the brunt.”
— with files from The Canadian Press