International students increasingly strapped financially

Changes to health-care coverage exacerbate already difficult situation

In the spring of 2018, Manitoba announced it would stop providing universal health care for international students.

Last year, the fees were covered by the university, which negotiated an international student health-care agreement with Blue Cross and StudentCare that ensured students had access to the same level of coverage previously offered by the province.

This year, international students were left on their own.

UMSU international representative and fourth-year Nigerian student Victoria Nwabuisi said the bridge agreement was welcomed but still left international students in a difficult position.

“We appreciate that [the U of M covered the first year] but what happens the next year? You just hang [international students] out to dry,” she said.

Nwabuisi said she felt the fight for health care was one international students were left to fight on their own.

“I felt like it was a battle that we were trying to fight by ourselves because a lot of people go with the stereotype of ‘International students are so wealthy, they have a lot of money [and] we can afford to use them as cash cows and make them pay for everything in this province,’” she said.

“But that’s not OK because even if people are cash cows, they shouldn’t be milked until they’re dry — it’s inhumane.”

Health care costs for international students come to $1,210 a year — $865 for health insurance plus the standard $345 for the UMSU health and dental plan. Tuition fees are generally at least three times as much than domestic students.

Add on textbook costs, recreation fees and the U-Pass and international students are paying more than $19,000 a year before housing and food is even factored in, leaving many international students financially insecure.

As the Manitoban reported last week, food bank usage at the U of M is surging in recent years. Demand in 2019 has already surpassed 2018’s just over 700 visits with operators expecting to surpass 800 by year’s end.

The issue is not confined to campus. Winnipeg Harvest director of client services Grace Weigelt said that while the not-for-profit does not have firm data — because it does not ask if users are international students — anecdotal evidence shows demand rising.

“I can say we have seen lots and lots of international students who can only work part time, which isn’t enough to cover their bills plus tuition,” she said. “Some of them, it’s because now they’re not getting the health benefits — so now they’re having to pay that, which is making it tight.”

Nwabuisi noted international students also make up a greater percentage of holiday hamper users, which she said could be driven by numerous factors.

“Maybe they feel like they’re not going back home so they want to feel a little loved and just feel like they will be receiving some form of support from their community,” she said.

“It [could be] something extra to make their Christmas special,” she said, “or maybe they need this food because they are unable to afford to buy food.”

According to Nwabuisi, the financial insecurity can be only partially credited to the health care cuts.

“It’s not just health care — it’s the cost of an international student being in this province,” she said. “Housing is going up [in cost]. Tuition is going up.”

Nwabuisi said that when she first enrolled, tuition was between $10,000 and $12,000 a year, but has since risen to between $16,000 and $20,000. A University 1 undergraduate student who started in the fall of 2019 will pay $16,300 in tuition alone compared to $4,800 for domestic students.

Nwabuisi said people question why financially insecure individuals travel abroad for their university education but noted that, in addition to rising costs in Manitoba, the financial and economic realities of the families and relatives supporting the students are subject to change.

To manage the rising costs, Nwabuisi said students can not be left to rely only on themselves and their relatives. She said they need sustained support from the university community and UMSU that goes beyond just words.

She noted that the university’s international centre, which offers different resources and support for the students, is consistently facing funding cuts and called on the university to follow through on its rhetoric.

“I don’t know how it would play out for the university itself to not only on paper say, ‘We appreciate international students, we want to promote a very diverse culture,’ but to put their money where their mouth is on these types of issues,” Nwabuisi said.

“You say you want to promote a diverse culture, you say you appreciate international students — then let us feel that in this community. Let us feel heard.”