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Saint Mary’s lockdown rules unfairly target international students

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – The lives of all students are heavily impacted by the Coronavirus lockdown. The pandemic has restricted student accessibility to in person learning, face to face meetings with educators and access education altogether because of increased costs associated with online learning and other barriers such as learning disabilities. 

International students face all these same barriers and then some. 

After the holidays international students returning to Nova Scotia were required to self-isolate for the mandatory fourteen days, which is standard. However, several universities, Saint Mary’s among them, required international students to self-isolate in hotels. Cost associated with the fourteen day stay in the hotel is approximately $1,800. This rule does not only apply to international students living on campus, but also the ones that live off campus.

How are these students expected to pay their rent while also paying for a hotel? This is simply not feasible given the rising costs of living and tuition. 

“I was told that if I did not isolate in the hotel that I would be reported to the Nova Scotia Department of Justice, which could result in significant fines,” an international student at Saint Mary’s University stated. The student was also notified that to stay in the hotel was a requirement under provincial law. 

Saint Mary’s University has committed to reimbursing students fifty percent or up to $875 for isolation costs. However, this applies only to students who have been approved to travel. Students are made to understand that only essential or mandatory travel plans would be approved by the university, meaning that international students could be unable to spend the holidays with their families and will have no choice but to stay in their dorms or apartments. 

All this means that international students and Canadian students can share the same flights, but they will be treated differently by their educational institutions. 

The provincial government requires international students to follow their universities monitoring plans, and for Saint Mary’s University that means using the university’s pick-up service from the airport and staying at one of the university- approved hotels for fourteen days. 

Meanwhile individuals who travelled outside the province are only mandated to self-isolate for fourteen days, and self-isolation does not have to happen in a hotel. 

The province has given too much power to the universities, and it leaves the students without a say. There was no proactive plan put into place that would be beneficial to the students while also ensuring the health and safety of all. Rather, the plan was made solely by the universities without consultation with students, which has had major financial consequences for international students. Many international students feel left out of the decision-making process and would have liked to have had the opportunity to give their opinions and feelings on how the pandemic has impacted their ability to access education. 

“I think it needs to be known how the university is actually dealing with this situation, as they claim to be doing everything they can. I think their approach is very authoritarian and threatening way at combating such a delicate and crucial situation. It’s a bit frustrating to see that instead of being understanding, the the university decided to enforce its rules on students and threatened to report their students,” one such student stated.

When reflecting on the regulations and restrictions that Canada has regarding international travelling, students feel that this is just another way of discriminating against people of different national origins. Many of the countries that international students come from have lower rates of Covid cases than Canada. Just to name a few, Japan, New Zealand, Korea, Australia, Greece, Finland, Denmark and Norway. 

All this feels like an additional way to control and exploit the students. How does the university expect these students to finance a fourteen day stay in a hotel? Most students are barely able to pay for their tuition, books and living accommodations. Keep in mind that tuition for international students is almost three times the cost faced by Canadian students. In 2020, international students at Saint Mary’s University paid roughly $19,000 per year, while Canadian students’ tuition was around $8,900 per year.

While the reimbursement for isolation costs offered by Saint Mary’s University appears to be a great help, as explained, not all will qualify for this benefit. Why does the university have to pre-approve the travel plans for international students in order to receive the benefit? Regardless of the reason for the travel, they would still be required to isolate. This suggests that by only reimbursing international students that have had their travel plans pre-approved serves to cause financial barriers and to deter the students from travelling altogether. 

It becomes apparent that universities have a lot more work to do engaging with their international students and understanding their needs, vulnerabilities and desire to be treated with the same consideration, respect and dignity as Canadian students. The university needs to stop, think and consult with international students instead of imposing rules and regulations upon them. 

As the Saint Mary’s student commented, “this pandemic once again demonstrates how international students are only viewed as a source of revenue in the eyes of the university.”

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