Third reading of Bill C-15, An Act respecting Canada emergency student benefits (coronavirus disease 2019) – Sen. Harder

By: The Hon. Peter Harder

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Ottawa River, Gatineau and the Library of the Canadian Parliament, Ottawa

Hon. Peter Harder: Honourable colleagues, it’s an honour for me to rise to speak on Bill C-15. First of all, I want to congratulate Senator Gagné on her sponsorship for the first time, I believe, of a government bill. I wish her all the best on this bill and going forward.

Second, I want to thank Minister Qualtrough and her excellent deputy minister, Graham Flack, for their impressive testimony this afternoon, and more importantly, the diligent work that she, her officials and their department are doing in the face of this circumstance.

Before I begin my brief remarks — and they will be brief, Senator Plett — I want to be very clear that I do not view the students of Canada as being lazy cheats sitting on their butts waiting for a government handout. That image is one that doesn’t correspond to my understanding and experience with students.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

Senator Harder: Let me say at the start of my remarks that I support this bill and urge all senators to do likewise. It is important that our students, who are our collective future, remain focused on their studies and continue to pursue higher education to better equip them in the innovative economy of the future, which is their future.

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I would like to focus my remarks on what I believe is a significant and unaddressed gap in our post-secondary support measures. The absence of a comprehensive approach to foreign students is, I believe, a major shortfall, and I would like to speak about this and propose a solution for the government to consider.

I understand the political reasons the House of Commons might not think it prudent to include all foreign students, but I do not understand a public policy reason. The test that we should have before us as we look at the various measures the government is undertaking is the following: Are we investing to make Canada a stronger player in the global economy after COVID-19?

Warren Buffett had a great line. He said, “A receding tide exposes those who have been swimming naked.” Now, without taking that image too literally, I would suggest that our post-secondary funding model is unsustainable, and COVID-19 is the receding tide that is exposing major sustainability challenges to our colleges and universities across Canada. Canada has one of the most diverse international student populations, with 146 nations represented in 2017. While this diversity has declined somewhat in recent years, 65% of all students originate from the following five countries: China, India, South Korea, France and Vietnam. The majority of international students — 84% — are enrolled in Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec, and these three provinces have consistently hosted the largest number of inbound students.

In 2017, 75% of international students in Canada were pursuing post-secondary studies, of which 57% were studying university programs, 41% were studying at the college level and 2% at CEGEP. Students at the primary and secondary levels made up 15% of all international students in Canada, while 10% were pursuing other studies.

In 2017, the Government of Canada’s International Education Strategy goal of receiving 450,000 international students by 2022 was surpassed five years earlier than anticipated. This is an achievement that brings with it great opportunities but also great challenges. In 2018, more than 721,000 international students studied in Canada.

Canada is a destination of choice for international students. Strong schools and programs of study in English and French; a welcoming and diverse community to host students; an enviable quality of life; a reputation as a safe country; opportunities to work and start careers; and pursue permanent residency, which is an option for international students. In 2018, 54,000 former students became permanent residents.

International education makes a large and growing contribution to Canada’s prosperity. In 2018, the last year for which there are figures, international students in Canada contributed an estimated $21.6 billion to Canada’s GDP and, in 2016, supported almost 170,000 jobs. Educational expenditures by international students have a greater impact on Canada’s economy than exports of auto parts, lumber or aircraft.

This is a significant business sector.

Between 2014 and 2018, the number of international students in Canada increased by 68%. In 2018, as I said, a total 721,000 international students studied in Canada.

In addition to sparking new ideas and increasing Canada’s innovation capacity, international education fuels the people-to-people ties crucial to international trade in an increasingly connected global economy. As I stated earlier, international students contribute significantly to the Canadian economy.

A good chunk of that goes directly to the educational institution in terms of fees. While it is true that a truly great or even good institution in Canada cannot exist without international students, researchers or faculties, we have used this virtue almost as a narcotic in our post-secondary funding model. At my alma mater, the University of Waterloo, 21% of the undergraduates are international students. Their higher fees contribute an oversized proportion of university revenue. The same is true across the university and college landscape. At UBC, for example, international student tuition ranges from $39,000 to $50,000, depending on the program, compared to around $5,000 to $8,000 for domestic students.

My point is that without stable and significant international enrolment, our institutions will be facing huge funding gaps, with the most perilous situations in a few of our colleges and universities.

Here is a proposal: I’m informed that at the end of March, there were about 565,000 international students in Canada. Given the imposition of travel restrictions, it is believed that about 80% of this number remains in Canada. Experts tell me that about half or 50% will be experiencing some financial shortfall and not be eligible for CERB measures already announced. Let’s say that’s roughly 300,000. It is estimated that about 50% of this group are attending universities, 40% are at colleges and 10% at other post-secondary institutions. If we use the figure of $5,000 per student, which this bill provides a Canadian or landed immigrant, and multiply it by the 300,000 uncovered international student population already in Canada, that’s roughly $1.5 billion.

I would urge the government to consider taking this amount and, working with national post-secondary associations, provide funding to financial aid offices of our educational institutions, which in turn will provide support to those identified as requiring some degree of financial assistance to continue their studies in Canada. These offices are best able to determine the need. They are trained, experienced, and have the credibility and integrity to administer such assistance.

Of course, no individual international student ought to receive more than the $5,000 available to a Canadian student, and some may not need all of the $5,000. This program, if implemented, would ensure some degree of stability to our colleges and universities, but more important, it would frankly differentiate Canada from those countries with which we have competed for world-class students; namely, the United States, Australia and the U.K.

Calling young people “vermin” is not a recruitment strategy, and Prime Minister Morrison of Australia, who issued a statement to the international students to “make your way home,” will long be remembered for that short-sighted and rather xenophobic comment. In the longer term, we need to begin to reform our university and college funding, but in the short term, let’s act to save the benefits we have achieved thus far with this proposal.

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