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In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic hit, international students in some Canadian universities were faced with a choice: continue their studies in Canada or return back to home country to study remotely.

Bhaskar Malik chooses the latter. Over the summer holidays, he flew back to India to visit family and had arrangements in place to return to Vancouver in the fall.

However, as COVID-19 continued to rage and his courses at the University of British Columbia moved online, he decided to stay back in India. “As much as I would have liked to stay in Vancouver, it just didn’t make sense financially,” he said.

Malik is on the verge of getting into his fourth year of materials engineering at UBC. Before the crisis, he was very involved in campus activities, volunteering with ThunderBikes, an engineering design group that makes electric motorcycles, and working as a bartender for parties held by the Engineering Society. “I was not mentally prepared to be here for too long,” Malik says from his parents’ home in New Delhi. “I miss my friends and my girlfriend. But I’m forced to stay here for at least a couple of months.”

But the pandemic has thrown the future of international students in Canada into doubt and uncertainty. Many of them were already on low budgets, and operating in currencies weaker than the Canadian dollar, and are now stretched to their financial limit following nationwide layoffs. Travel restrictions are enforced, affecting students’ ability to enter Canada. Once here, students may not be able to go home to visit their families.

Getting to Canada

Gaining entry into Canada is the most pressing concern facing international students today, according to the International Prospective Student Study, a survey conducted by Academica. The government has imposed restrictions on who can enter Canada and why they can enter.

The most recent updates from Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) says that international students who received their study permits on or before March 18 will be allowed entry.

This date was too early for many first-year international students coming from overseas, says Britta Baron, associate vice-president, international, at Western. “Many of the fresh students will simply be unable to satisfy that basic requirement,” she says.

The financial squeeze

Many international students find themselves in need of cash, having been laid off from on-campus and part-time jobs during the hit the coronavirus crisis. While the federal government of Canada made the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) available to students who found themselves out of work because of the pandemic, many did not meet the eligibility requirements.

For instance, to be eligible, international students need to have earned at least $5,000 in 2019 or the twelve (12) months before the date of application.

Will international students keep coming to Canada?

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, incoming engineering student Trung Bui chose to defer his admission at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

“I can bear it for a semester if I have to, but a year of online learning is not what I want to experience,” says Bui, who is from Vũng Tàu, a Vietnamese port city. Studying in person, he says, demands more interaction and communication. He had hoped to place himself in a “totally different place” to grow and change as an individual. “I know a lot of colleagues who have different perspectives,” he says. “But I think I’m doing what’s best for me.”

As students like Bui weigh their options, Canadian universities are working very hard to convince them that Canada is still the best place to study. UBC’s Klaassen says school recruitment visits that normally would have been completed in person across eighty (80) countries are now being done virtually. The overarching goal remains the same: “We are still trying to welcome top students from diverse backgrounds,” she says.

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