Cutting international students’ health coverage inhumane policy

Graphic by Ernest Zarzuela.

he need for health coverage is critical for international students who face many challenges while studying in Manitoba.

International students pay three to four times the tuition of a domestic student and deal with many of the same issues all students face – including food and housing insecurity, and securing enough money to cover rising costs of living and tuition.

The inherent vulnerabilities associated with living abroad – lack of a social circle or support system, an unfamiliarity with cultural life – add to the government’s onus to provide international students with accessible healthcare.

International students have a further right to access free health care not only as a result of their extensive social and culture contributions to the province, but also due to their economic input. International students bring in over $200 million annually to the province.

Despite this need being recognized by the former NDP government, the current Progressive Conservative government is looking to help balance its budget by repealing basic health coverage for international students.

The fight for free healthcare for international students was a hard-fought battle. Following extensive lobbying and student activism, coverage was extended to international students in 2012.

But now, with a continuing rise in international tuition fees, the passage of Bill 31, and the possibility of students losing basic health care while studying in the province – what message are we sending to potential international students?

Access to basic healthcare and the welcoming nature of Manitobans contribute to the decision of international students to move to and stay in the province. In fact, many international students apply to become permanent residents after they complete their degree. If Manitoba wants to continue attracting international students, retaining the basic health coverage will demonstrate it values their contributions and that they are welcome in the province. This will continue to incentivize international students to study in Manitoba and go on contributing to the province following graduation.

One could propose that this government is relying on stereotypes of international students to navigate its decision to revoke healthcare – the stereotype being all international students are extremely wealthy. This generalization is fallacious. Just as there are many ways domestic students scrape together tuition and living costs, so too is this the reality for many international students. For example, some international students are self-funding their education, which means they are working and accessing food banks to get by.

An additional issue is that international students will be made to depend on second-rate, poorly accessible healthcare. Private insurance is further limited in terms of accessible coverage compared to Manitoba health insurance, and this limitation may be detrimental to international students’ health should the proposed elimination go through.

The elimination of international student health coverage will leave many students more susceptible to illness and mental health issues, cornering them in a situation where they have to be their own doctor or rely on websites to diagnose their injury or illness. One would have to decide whether any given symptom would be worth a costly trip to the doctor. Alternatively, serious symptoms may end up ignored by virtue of international students’ oft-precarious economic situation. The introduction of private health insurance coverage would be yet another cash grab and form of exploitation of international students.

The Pallister government’s willingness to reassess the importance of providing healthcare coverage to tax-paying students is shortsighted, cruel, and confirms the government’s lack of empathy and understanding of the struggles of international students. Instead of a cut to free health coverage for international students, the Manitoba government should look inwards and consider cutting the salary increases that its cabinet received in 2016.

According to Global Affairs Canada, international students as a whole in Manitoba spend a total of almost $221 million on tuition, accommodation, and discretionary spending yearly. It is unfortunate that the government has once again resorted to cutting support to crucial programs and services that affect the lives of Manitobans while rolling back years of progress in welcoming international students who contribute immensely to the economy. Making precarious students shoulder the burden of a balanced budget is inhumane.

Forcing international students to pay a premium for access to healthcare fails to acknowledge the social, cultural, and economic benefits that international students bring to Manitoba and Canada. Not only unjust, eliminating health coverage for international students is shortsighted.

As a federation we will not relent, sit back, or give in to fear. We will continue taking action against the hostility of this government and protect our hard-fought victories in addition to realizing new successes.


Dele Ojewole is the interim chairperson of CFS-MB.