No, International Students didn’t Come to Canada to Use Food Banks

Recently I’ve noticed a surge in news articles and social media posts about international students, ranging from claims of their use of food banks as free source of food to accusations of their influence on the worsening housing crisis. While some of these were legitimate concerns, I found the coverage of the issue to be quite shallow, often wrong and failing to point at the root of the issues.

Worse, I started reading many comments online that blame the international students for causing those problems, most of them not justified and sometimes borderline xenophobic (e.g., “they should go back home fast”). I was hoping this to be a temporary phenomenon but unfortunately it instead became a regular sport in many Internet forums, from national news outlets (CBC) to even student subreddits like r/uwaterloo. I’ve seen similar comments on the Korean web, blaming their international students for all kinds of problems.

I found it quite upsetting to browse the web. As someone who started their life as an international student, this is a very important and personal topic for me. I came to Canada from South Korea 18 years ago as an international student. Since graduating from University of Waterloo in 2012, I’ve been working in Toronto, and am now a naturalized Canadian.

Even though I don’t struggle with the same issues as these students anymore, I still remember what it was like to be an international student. Everyone’s ready to take advantage of you, and the system here treats you far worse than other classes of foreigners (e.g., foreign workers and refugees). This is what drove me to speak out on behalf of international students today.

The food bank controversy

There was a news article a couple of months back about how there is a surge of international students overloading the local food banks. The crisis supposedly started with the video that “suggested food banks in Canada could provide visitors with a regular supply of free food”. This overloaded the food banks, and many food banks across the country put a blanket ban on the international students.

The inflation and housing crisis hits us all, and there is no doubt that food banks are also in a tough situation. However, I found this blanket ban on international students not only misdirected but dehumanizing.

First, let’s deal with the abuse of food banks (i.e., using food banks as a regular source of food). Obviously, such abuse is wrong and deserves condemnation. It’s not clear to me, however, if the majority of students were visiting the food banks for this reason. First, the video in question was in the Malayalam language. Let’s put that into perspective. In 2019, Indians made up 34% of all international students and the language is spoken by 3% of Indians (link to wiki). It’s a big stretch to say the International Students all watched this video and started going to food banks.

Further, later in the article states “[…] once students were informed about how food banks work, they were apologetic.” It sounds to me that the small number of people who followed this “advice” were willing to stop their bad behaviour. Anyone can make mistakes and the spread of misinformation can happen in any groups, not just for international students (just watch those TikTok challenges). Admittedly, it was an outrageous video, but it doesn’t mean we should assume that hundreds of thousands of international students are unethical based on this one video. Until they leave Canada, they are just our neighbours with less social support; We should treat them with dignity, and not treat them as “they”.

Second, assuming they are not abusing food banks, the reaction “international students should be responsible for themselves” is unjustified. The unprecedented inflation hit all of us equally hard. In Toronto alone the food bank usage went up 50% year over year (source). A large number of people are suffering, international students or not.

I saw many people online claiming that the international students are set up to be this way because they were only required to bring as little as $10,000/year (as per regulation until last year). This is not quite correct. First, this does not mean most of them actually bring the minimum. Students do research and will try to prepare appropriately for the city they are going to. No one plans to study abroad to live a food-bank lifestyle. Those who can pay the international tuition can certainly lead better lifestyles back home. Most importantly, there was no news article about the previous minimum funding rule causing issues before the pandemic. The pandemic put an unprecedented and unexpected amount of budget pressure on everyone and that includes the international students who were already here. Most international students, just like us, have a set budget, and they will struggle with a sudden inflation. It’s not because international students as a whole are any less responsible than the rest of us, or they deliberately plan to come here with insufficient funding.

It’s ok to debate whether we should make the minimum financial requirement so the students don’t struggle, but we cannot direct the blame to the international students that are already here, that we let in, for not foreseeing the inflation, and seeking help from food banks to meet basic human needs. We don’t rank people in food banks lines by the level of their misery. I don’t see why international students are any special in this regard.

On top of the usual inflation, international students are vulnerable to a unique type of inflation.

Unregulated tuition increases.

When I was studying computer science at UWaterloo, the international tuition for the first year was around $19,000. It was quite expensive, but fortunately my parents could help me at the time. What I found far less thrilling, though, was that my tuition went up to $23,000 per year by the last year of school. That’s an annual increase of 7% and close to $10,000 extra over the course of the undergrad program. Worse, there was no explanation whatsoever from the university that this will happen. I got lucky in that I had a good paying co-op job and was able to absorb the increase.

I thought this was a temporary affair but shockingly, the University continued to hike the international tuition since then at the steady rate of 7% per year, at least for the last 17 years. It’s far more than at the average rate of inflation around 2% per year for the same period.

Now it will cost $310,000 in tuition fees to complete the CS program. To add to this, because the tuition fees have been increasing by 7% a year, the students will need to come up with an extra $30,000 to actually complete the program—something the university does not disclose to students, despite the consistent pattern tuition fee increases for decades. The university should be up-front about the total cost of the program with prospective and current students.

Aside from the ethics or justification of charging international three times more, this is not fair. Since the tuition is growing exponentially, the problem of “surprise” increase of tuition has gotten far worse, dollar amount-wise. $10,000s of unexpected extra cost is a lot. Then add the pandemic inflation on top of it. It’s no wonder so many international students are struggling.

There should be a moratorium put on the current system of unregulated tuition increase. At minimum, the school should be forced to be transparent with students about future fee increases, especially once a student is enrolled. If Rogers increases your phone bill in the middle of your contract, that’s illegal. I don’t see why it’s OK to pull an extra $30,000 from unsuspecting students, just because they are foreigners. I wonder if it is because the university knows the students are in a difficult position to leave after sinking lot of money.

Update (2024-01-29): It looks like B.C. is doing the right thing by having their "post-secondary institutions would be required to clearly communicate full tuition costs to international students for the whole time someone is studying" source. There is no reason Ontario shouldn't do this, too.

International Students aren’t just a source of money.

International students are important for Canada, more than just for money. As long as Canada continues to bring more immigrants, international students make the best candidates. They have our education, speak our language, and they share our values.

Even if they do not end up immigrating to Canada, they are continuing to be important to Canada. They will be generally more friendly to Canada, and some of them will become important Canadians in the future. For example, the first South Korean ( president went to university in America, and this shaped the future of the relationship between the two countries.

No amount of change in the minimum fund requirement change can cover such a large unchecked tuition increases. It’s good for Canada to educate students from diverse backgrounds with bright futures. I am not so sure about educating just the wealthiest.

Strip-mall Colleges

Another accusation I read is that foreign students are enrolling in diploma mills as an easy way to get permanent residency (PR). Such a take flips the offender-victim relationship, and I wanted to correct this misunderstanding.

First, it’s important to understand that people outside Canada don’t actually know very well about the Canadian school system. Even when all the information is available on the Internet, it’s difficult to know where to look, if you are not from Canada (I have not heard of UWaterloo before coming to Canada). That is why there is a government sanctioned list (known as designated learning institutions or DLIs) that lists what schools can host international students. It’s supposed to be a stamp of approval such that we don’t issue study permits to random institutions or admit low quality candidates. The entire immigration system around international students their pathways hinges on this list not being useless (e.g., we issue open work permits to new graduates, and award extra points for permanent residency).

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like the DLI list is are maintained effectively, if at all. And now we just have a cottage industry of basically ripping off foreigners (example 1, example 2), with the our own government providing some legitimacy to this by issuing a permit for them to enter the country.

Does going to these colleges help students get the Canadian PR easily? Not really. The new system in place installed by the Harper government in 2015 (called “express entry”) lines up potential immigrants against each other and pick the highest scoring one every month. It’s quite a cut-throat system, if you ask me. If what people say about the problematic colleges are true (i.e., doesn’t set you up for a job), then there is basically no chance the students will be able to get a PR here. Sure, they will get an open work permit after graduation – with no health benefits - but that will not lead to any meaningful future in Canada (no, working for UberEATS will not get you a PR). When their open work permit expires, they will have to leave the country.

It is not good for Canada, either. The chances are these students will go back home and recount negative experiences about Canada back home. The only winners are the shareholders of the colleges. It would have been much better for both Canada and the international students if the government does its job and not let this happen at all.

In short, the international students coming to Canada to attend low quality colleges are just getting screwed. They are not going to steal your jobs. They are victims in shitty situations. We should be questioning instead why our system allows this to happen.

But what about Conestoga college, which is public?

Even legitimate schools smelled money and they are getting on the train. As mentioned earlier, there is no regulation for what the college can charge international students or how much they can be increased, so it makes a lucrative funding source. In fact, as of recent, international students fund our post-secondary education, not our province (example 1, example 2).

Conestoga college is an egregious example of this. They hosted 10,000 students in total in 2012. In 2022, the college hosted 30,000 international students. Of course, the quality of teaching will degrade significantly. It is simply not possible to scale the quality of teaching that fast.

It's a dangerous game to play for the college. On one hand, the college is incentivized to do this to get more funding since the public schools are not allowed to increase tuition for Canadian students and the provincial government is not interested in increasing funding for education. International students are an attractive way out of this. On the other hand, this will damage reputation for the institution and reputation for Canada. Sadly, however, the decision makers do not care much about the consequences because it’s “good business”. Things will not change without public pressure, or appropriate media coverage.

Housing Problems

The entire Waterloo region is estimated to have 648,000 people. If you rapidly increase the population by 5% (30,000 people) over a short period of time, the system will experience problems. It doesn’t matter what the source of that additional population is (e.g., Canadians, foreigners, etc.).

What angers me greatly is that this is where you will hear people blaming or mocking the international students (for rooming with multiple people), rather than pointing out the issue with the international student system. It’s OK to talk about reducing the number of study permits, or other ways to solve the housing problems. It is not fair to criticize or ostracize those who are already here for taking our houses away. It’s not OK to treat people poorly because they are international students.

We let them in. All students have done was to pay a lot of money to study here. If anything, they are quite screwed. We should take responsibility.

Ask questions:

  1. Where did so much tuition go? 30,000 students just in one year would have paid half a billion dollars of tuition. For example, TCHC ( could build a thousand units with that. Could some of it have been used to build more student housing instead?
  2. Why are the federal and provincial governments not doing anything about it? Is it because the victims of the housing crisis are the economically disadvantaged (powerless) and international students (even more powerless)?

Why did I decide to write this?

Being an international student in Canada isn’t easy. They actually bring a lot of money to Canada, yet surpisingly some people continue to think international student aren’t contributing economically (example), or worse, accused of being a leech. Aside from the absurdity of trying to rank people by their “contribution to Canada”, would the same people advocate that the poorer students to pay more into the education system? I don’t think this is what Canada stands for.

Still, let’s make an economic comparison just for the sake of that argument. One could invest (not spending, they are still making money!) around $300,000 - equivalent to the CS program tuition today - in Canada and become a permanent resident with all the associated benefits. Clearly, this is a “good enough contribution” to our country to live here freely and enjoy all the benefits. International students who spend that much money outright in our economy, ought to be treated better than how they are treated today.

If the students had time, it would have been more advantageous to take “invest to get PR” path and then enroll in school, but they are young and they can’t afford to do that.

I believe the reason the international students are treated so poorly, is because international students have very little power in our society. Contrary to the stereotype, most of them don’t have an infinite pool of money, or all drive a BMW. They have schoolwork to keep up with and have spent all their savings on their education already. They don’t have stable status or support network in Canada. You are not eligible for most scholarships. No one powerful understands their experience or speaks for them, even when it is completely off base. They become the punching bag.

I was quite disappointed how these issues were portrayed in the news and social media. I kept seeing unfiltered and frankly dangerous opinions without any explanation or counterpoints. They did not ask further probing questions. When you don’t ask the right questions, instinct takes over. It quickly becomes us vs them.

I also noticed discussions around the international students became very one-dimensional: Are they contributing or leeching off our society? I wanted to add more colour to this discussion.

I enjoyed my time as an international student. I learned a lot in school, made lifelong friendships and am living comfortably in Canada. At the same time, the reading the recent controversies dug up a lot of bad memories – why is the tuition going up every year? Why is it so difficult to get medical care as an international student? I paid a lot of federal and provincial taxes as a student. Why am I not getting any benefits?

I am not an international student anymore, but I did not forget my past and I wanted to do my part to help. I wanted to tell you a different perspective, the one I think is underrepresented.

If you read this and found it insightful, please share with your friends or your MP and MPPs.

Catergorized under: opinions

Published: 2024-01-27T20:26:05.158959
Last modified: 2024-01-30T01:43:41.381110