Image by K. Ho

Who is Subsidizing Whom? Rethinking the “Domestic”/”International” Divide

A few days ago, The Talon UBC released information about UBC’s bold move to increase international undergraduate tuition by 10% and residence fees by 20%. The university’s proposals have been met with outrage. Students are now organizing resistance efforts on a massive scale, with upcoming initiatives that include a mass-teach in on Tuesday, emergency AMS meetings, among other initiatives. A significant amount of ink has also been spilt on this issue.

In an opinion piece in another student publication, Austen Erhardt argued that the blame for the tuition increase rests squarely with the provincial government (the BC Liberals) due to their repeated cuts to post-secondary education. Erhardt’s arguments are basically correct – the root of this crisis is definitely at the de-funding of post-secondary by the provincial and federal governments. Erhardt writes “…when faced with the decision either to make cuts and lower the quality of the university, or to make some students pay more in order to maintain or improve the quality of education that the university can provide, UBC’s choice seems justifiable.”

However, this is by no means what the University is proposing, or at least, it has not proposed this in any serious way. The visuals on the UBC international tuition increase consultation page imply that increased tuition costs will augment the undergraduate experience. These images (and the logics they represent) are devoid of substance as they do not articulate how exactly increased tuition will lead to increased “excellence” or tangible benefits to students.

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It is true that UBC, like many public educational institutions the world over, is facing extreme financial hardship due to circumstances beyond its control. However, UBC’s decision to try and remain “internationally competitive” in a time of increased financial austerity is a fundamentally political choice. It is true that UBC has few options, but the university has made a pointed decision to draw on what it sees as a viable revenue source – its own students. The connection between the preservation or amelioration of UBC’s international reputation and the education that undergraduate students will receive is not clear. There is also a more fundamental question of the value of an increased reputation if it is something that is increasingly inaccessible: should an education of “excellence” only be for the elite?

Erhardt also says “….[it] all comes down to one simple fact: domestic students and their families pay taxes; that is, they pay taxes to Canada and British Columbia and will pay these taxes for the majority of their lives. Taxes that go toward funding and subsidizing post-secondary education in Canada. Conversely, international students — with few exceptions — do not. Resultantly, lest they benefit disproportionately from the money put into the system by domestic students and their families, international students pay for the whole cost of their education or more.”

This is a recurring argument that I have been hearing – international students are not the responsibility of the province and, ultimately, they do not and should not have the same rights. The university’s decision to target international students with exorbitant tuition increases is a clear logical extension of this premise. However, we need to critically examine the assumptions about borders that underly our discussions about educational accessibility.

Consider, for example, Indigenous students such as those in the Mohawk Nation (divided by the US and Canada). Those students may want to go to school in Canada, yet they are cast as “international students” by arbitrarily imposed borders that are the historical product of imperialism and genocide.

Furthermore, we need to think more critically about the supposedly “common sense” suggestion that locals should be prioritized and that ‘Canada should take care of Canadians.’ The idea that UBC (or Canada) is successful because of the hard-work of Canadian taxpayers invisibilizes several histories.

Firstly, international students come to UBC from every corner of the earth, and for countless reasons. Nevertheless, It is undeniable that many students come from the Global South, or the so-called “developing” world in search of an excellent education. This educational calculus is a direct product of global history – why are students from the South rushing to come to UBC, but British Columbians are not clamouring to go to the National University of Mexico? The relationship between educational quality and the funding of an institution is obvious here and the nations who have accumulated the most capital have the so-called ‘best schools’.

When people argue that ‘Canada should take care of Canadians,’ they forget that Canada’s wealth is not solely the product of the contributions of its taxpayers. Canada’s position as a wealthy nation is the direct result of the genocide and dispossession of Indigenous communities from their lands, and the theft of their resources. Canada maintains its “developed” status through ongoing projects of a similar nature. Through things like free trade and our global mining industry, Canada currently participates in the pillage and destruction of the natural resource wealth of countries all over Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Vancouver is home to an endless amount of mining companies accused of environmental degradation and human rights abuses; UBC has received donations from several corporations whose human rights and environmental records abroad have been questioned.

In the light of all this, can we honestly argue that the provincial government is subsidizing domestic students’ education? UBC is reflective, or part of, a larger economy that has extracted massive amounts of wealth from First Nations territories and Latin American, African, and Asian nations, leaving them impoverished. Who is really subsidizing whom?

Beyond asking why some states are wealthier than others, we also must question what it means for us to categorize people as “domestic” and “international”. The settlement of these lands known now as Canada by Europeans was a brutal colonial project, and until the 1960-70s, Canadian immigration policy was blatantly racist. Over the last few years, Canadian immigration policy has become extremely restrictive. In its current incarnation it caters mainly to temporary migrant labour with few rights and to inviting permanent settlement from the world’s professional and business classes. Options for refugees to come to Canada are increasingly limited.

For those lucky enough to get the chance to immigrate, becoming a Canadian citizen has also become more difficult. Through the controversial Bill C-24, the Conservative government has actually proposed that, under certain circumstances, dual citizens, can actually have their Canadian citizenship rescinded. Under the same law, the language requirements and citizenship wait times have been extended, putting more barriers between permanent residents and their hopes of citizenship. Given these challenges, as well as the extensive skill and educational requirements, the ability to obtain Permanent Residency and Canadian citizenship is often intricately linked with class privilege. Conversely, being born in a so-called “developing” country where there are fewer “world-class” educational institutions like UBC is often a lottery of birth.

If we truly believe in equality and no distinction between people, we must question why our fellow international students are being treated as second-class students. If we truly believe in equality, we must remember that borders, although important, are largely colonial and imperialist constructs designed to control the movement of people for certain interests, usually those of elites (to protect wealthy countries from those deemed as ‘outsiders’ and to contain people in poorer countries). We need to move beyond dividing people into “international” and “domestic” and understand that if you had the grades to get into UBC (although the meritocracy of grades is another discussion), where you were born, your immigration status, or the nationalities of your parents should not be a barrier to your education. To argue anything but is thinly-veiled racism.

  • Ivan Leonce


  • Simon-Luc Noel

    This article really helps with the framing of the issues surrounding the international tuition increase proposal. I’ve had people close to me who are international students express concerns about how the issue has been talked about. I’m rattling off an amalgam of thoughts collected from myself and others at this point.

    A lot of the conversation recently has focused solely on the 10% increase for incoming international undergraduates, and that’s not the best move IMO because it places too much emphasis on the status quo in people’s minds. $23,000 per year is just as inaccessible as $25,000, and there is but a marginal difference between them for many international students who can actually afford to come here. This is in remembering that many countries do not offer students loans for coming to Canada to study, which means students who can prove they have the capacity to pay out of pocket for their entire degree, or those who score a coveted full-ride scholarship, make up a very substantial portion of the current international student cohort. $2,000 extra per year is chump change for people who prove they can pay out of pocket for a $100,000 degree. Returning to the status quo is no good

    However, here we have a look at the wider implications of the status quo, how brilliant and driven, but poor, international students are already being marginalized and excluded by steep international tuition, how the current system is already classist, colonialist and racist as it is. Instead of making it seem like a bunch of already privileged people complaining about what amounts to a modest increase, it’s being framed as the first step in understanding how the system is fucked up in the first place. And I think more people can appreciate this.

  • Fastener

    Okay, so, a couple responses to stuff in this article:

    First, 10 social justice trivial pursuit points for knowing about the divided Mohawk Nation. Now that we’re all impressed, I’m going to ignore this statistically irrelevant example.

    As for the rest of the people affected by this increase, let’s put them in 2 categories:

    First, students who can afford it. These are international students whose (family) income means that the increase is relatively irrelevant. Think international students whose parents/ family/ savings support them, and for whom tuition+expenses are not a significant barrier. For these people, the appropriate response is “fuck’em, let them pay.” So long as the market is willing to bear it, why not support our university with more rich people’s money? Think of it as a 10% tax hike on rich Washingtonians and Hong Kongers. Don’t we all love progressive taxes?

    Second what about everybody else? If this is a tax increase, it’s a darned regressive one. The article does a pretty good job of laying out all the myriad impacts on those for whom tuition fees are a significant barrier. What the article glosses over is how incredibly trivial this issue is. Here in the real world, it turns out that the demand curves from ECON 101 aren’t always linear. What this means is that there aren’t actually that many people for whom this 10% increase is the margin that’s going to make university inaccessible. If you’ve cobbled together a financial solution that covers existing international tuition, you have the resources to figure out 10% more.

    If you’re worried about the billions of people who will never hear of UBC, let alone be able to afford to study here, yelling at a (admittedly ridiculously overpriced) fountain is an exercise in vanity. Global capitalism’s unfair, that doesn’t mean we have to defer maintenance until Buchanan Tower starts leaning. UBC Admin have the unenviable job of keeping the wheels on the thing, we should let them do it. If you’re worried about inequality, make a microloan, or just stop fucking voting BC Liberal.