On Bedford Street in Halifax, N.S., Kenneth Zhang stood next to his crashed car. It was a snowy night in January 2021. The third-year international student at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) was on his way to deliver take-out Chinese food, when his car slipped on the road and hit a street light. His manager kept calling, asking him when he would finish the delivery. Kenneth needed the money to keep going to school, but he had to tell his manager that the order couldn’t be made; his car was broken.
“Even though my work is exhausting, I never thought about giving up my studies. I work so hard to continue my studies,” Zhang said.
Kenneth Zhang is from Harbin, a tourism city in China. His parents run a hotel in his hometown. During the pandemic, only a few tourists came to Harbin. The profits of the hotel suffered greatly, leaving Zhang with no help to pay for his living expenses. In October 2020, he had to take on a second part-time job.
For the 2020 fall term, Zhang paid $11236.80 for tuition. He took five courses – a 15 credit-hour course load. His classmates, who are Nova Scotia residents and have the same credit load, paid $4619.80. This is nearly identical to the situation facing international students at Dalhousie University, where international tuition is more than double the price of domestic tuition.
While students have attempted to advocate for a tuition freeze in the past, Mohab Brisha, the Dalhousie Student Union’s vice-president (finance and operations) and an international student from Egypt, says students need to re-frame the debate around the issue.
“The main idea now is use what has already happened to our advantage. Unfortunately, the board has made their decisions about fees,” he said. “Try to think about it as getting our money’s worth. You are going to make us pay more? Show us what we’re paying for,” Brisha said.
How international tuition got so expensive
In 2019, Dalhousie University began a phased plan to increase international tuition fees over four years. Under the plan, international students who began their time at the university after 2019 have to pay an additional $1473 each year they attend the university.
These increases are included in what Dal calls, “the international differential fee.”
For the 2021 fall term, the international differential fee for an undergraduate international student who enrolled after 2019 will pay a $6538.50 international differential fee each term on top of their program’s tuition.
For students in arts and social sciences, for example, the international differential fee alone is more than $1000 higher than a Nova Scotian student’s entire tuition for the 2021 fall term, according to the university’s fee calculator.
A timeline of student attempts to fight back
Beatrice Chiang, the president of the Dalhousie International Student Association (DISA), said the plan to increase tuition made students so upset, they fought back. Last year, DISA collected over 1030 names on a petition and wants to negotiate with the university about decreasing the fees. The University has not yet responded to the petition.
“I saw from the petitions that a lot of students are struggling with the high tuition fees. There are a lot of students who said they study full-time in the university and at the same time have to do three or more part-time jobs to sustain their daily expenses,” Chiang said.
Students staged a sit-in outside the university president’s office in 2019, but the administrators rejected their request to freeze tuition increases. During the sit-in, Yiqing Zhang, the president of Dalhousie Chinese Student and Scholars Association, said students were told they shouldn’t be concerned about the increase because they had enrolled prior to the fall 2019 term, meaning they wouldn’t be included in the phased increases.
Yiqing Zhang said, “This was not the crux of the problem. We did not only care about our own interests. We knew that future international students would face a severe financial plight. We had to try our best to prevent it, only because we stood in international students’ position. If we did not prevent this proposal before it was approved, the future international students would find it harder to prevent the increase,” he said.
In April of 2021, the Dalhousie Student Union (DSU) staged a campout on the Studley campus quad against rising tuition fees, including international fees, prior to the 2021 board of governors meeting.
Despite these efforts from the DSU, the board voted once again to increase tuition for all students.
Brisha said the DSU and DISA should change their strategy to be “more confrontational than protesting.”
Dal’s defence and what’s next
In an interview with the Gazette, Lindsay Dowling-Savelle, Dalhousie’s communications manager, said international students are vital to the institution but tuition fee increases are inevitable.
“Tuition fees go up each year because the costs of delivering courses and operating the university, even during the pandemic,” said Dowling-Savelle. “Government funding does not increase enough to cover these costs, and while faculties and units work to find cost savings, without tuition increases there would need to be much deeper cuts to programs and services,” she said.
There is a three per cent cap to tuition increases in Nova Scotia for Canadian students, which has been in place since 2011. According to Yiqing Zhang, international student tuition is an easier and unrestricted way for universities to gain more revenue. Zhang wants international fees to have a similar cap.
“It doesn’t have to be a three per cent cap, but such continuous growth needs to be controlled,” Zhang said.
Brisha said a similar cap wouldn’t be enough to fight growing international fees.
“I need to see international tuition go back,” said Brisha. “It needs to decrease… once we’ve rolled back international tuition to a reasonable level then we can talk about a cap.”
Brisha says international students should now be asking for more services and representation from their schools.
“We need legal support and advice from Dalhousie, we don’t have the resources to deal with the issues international students might need help with,” Brisha said. This fall, many international students are struggling with poor communication from the Dalhousie International Center on their return to campus.
In addition to better services from the University, Brisha would also like to see more international student representation, “If you’re paying more you’re becoming more of a stakeholder in Dalhousie, so you deserve more representation in the decision-making bodies of Dalhousie,” he said.
Brisha said with this better representation, a decrease in fees could become a greater possibility, “We want to fight so the board of governors make decisions that include international students.”
Lisa Roberts, the NDP member of the legislative assembly for Halifax-Needham from 2015 to 2021, who is now seeking the federal seat for the Halifax riding, said “our general position as the NDP caucus is that we would reduce university tuition fees by 10 per cent over four years through direct funding to institutions. We don’t have a specific position for international student fees. However, we meet frequently with Canadian Federation of Students and, like them, do not support onerous, excessive fees imposed on international students.”
Kenneth Zhang’s car is repaired, but he now has to pay higher insurance premiums because of his accident. He’s back to delivering every day and everywhere throughout the city, working two other jobs.
“I do hope tuition fees won’t increase next year. Otherwise, I will have to take more jobs.”