This past fall I conducted an equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) consultation, where I asked several dozen international students at Carleton University what their most pressing equity concern was. The answer I anticipated – racial justice – surprisingly came second to their economic anxieties.
Racial justice was the answer I anticipated for two reasons. First, because the majority of international students, based on their country of origin, are likely to be considered racialized in Canada. Second, because the past 12 months were defined by more than COVID-19. The high-profile death of George Floyd in Minnesota triggered international protests in 2020 and highlighted the prevalence of police violence and racism globally. This impacted international students in unique ways – with some challenging police violence in their home countries and others reconciling the social dynamics of racial identity in a new country. While many of the students I spoke to are passionate about racial justice, they were also deeply worried about affording rent at the end of the month.
Of course, economic anxieties, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, are not unique to international students. However, the challenges they face are. Not only are their education expenses greater than domestic students, but depending on their location, they also have limitations on where and how much they can work, which can stifle their ability to earn an income.
In Ontario, international students are typically limited to 20 hours of off-campus work per week. Finding an employer willing to hire an international student, who has limited Canadian work experience and can only work part-time, was already difficult before the economic stagnation caused by COVID-19. And although the 20 hours per week limitation was temporarily lifted, the off-campus jobs that are readily available to international students are often frontline positions – in grocery stores and on factory floors. As we’ve learned over the past year, individuals in these jobs are significantly more likely to be exposed to and contract COVID-19.
Then there is on-campus employment. With most campuses partially or fully closed, jobs are limited. Further, as most staff in postsecondary institutions will likely attest, slim departmental budgets mean available student jobs are often subsidized by provincially funded programs like Work-Study in Ontario, which international students do not qualify for.
The now ceased Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and Canadian Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) had several holes in them. To be eligible for CERB, applicants were required to have earned a certain amount of income in the previous year, which a challenging requirement for many international students to meet. They outright did not qualify for CESB. Although changes have been made to other regulations that assist international students, like extending postsecondary work permits, the absence of immediate economic relief continues to be felt by many international students still in Canada.
Postsecondary institutions have a unique opportunity to address the absence of financial support available to international students through EDI plans. While most began the work to establish or update EDI plans in recent years, many institutions are revising these plans in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and recent racial justice movements.
Although the Ontario Human Rights Code (OHRC), which frames the EDI directives of most post-secondary institutions in Ontario, does not identify socioeconomic status as a protected category, it does provide guidance based on the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – which Canada is a signatory to. The OHRC outlines that “groups that have experienced historical disadvantage and who are identified by Code grounds are more likely to experience low social and economic status,” which includes “women, Aboriginal people, racialized groups and people with disabilities.”
Knowing the interconnected relationship between socioeconomic status and social identity, postsecondary institutions should apply an intersectional approach to their EDI plans. Including socioeconomic status as a key directive area is the first step they can take to strengthen their supports for international students. For example, Carleton’s international strategic plan (which is integrated into Carleton’s EDI plan), explicitly outlines the difference in needs and financial resources for international students. It includes directives like increasing entrance scholarships for international undergraduate students and research funding for international graduate students.
Addressing the barrier of socioeconomic status also opens up the possibility of implementing targeted support mechanisms, like wage subsidy programs specifically for international students, which could increase both on-campus and off-campus employment. This model already exists for other underserved groups, including persons with disabilities. Carleton’s ACT to Employ program helps students with disabilities find paid experiential learning opportunities that align with their academic and career goals. This program is possible because of the well-documented barriers to labour participation persons with disabilities face, thereby affecting their socioeconomic status.
While scholarships, research funding and expanded employment opportunities are not the only ways to address the financial barriers international students face and do not target the larger systemic issues at play, like the disproportionate cost of tuition, they are a starting point. The larger impact is the doors that are opened by applying an intersectional lens to policy development and acknowledging socioeconomic status as a key directive area for EDI. This seemingly small change provides institutions with the flexibility to meet the needs of not just international students, but the full diversity of social and economic identities that make up our campus communities.