The International Experience How well-supported are international students at McMaster?

Illustration by Sukaina Imam

This fall, more than 1,500 new international students set foot on McMaster University’s campus. In the coming years, the university plans to further increase international student enrolment. As more international students are accepted to McMaster, student and university-led groups are working to identify and address key issues that they face.

McMaster’s 2017-2020 Strategic Mandate identifies international enrolment as a strategic priority. In 2017-2018, there were 2,589 international students studying at McMaster, a 25 per cent increase from the year prior.

The Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development does not limit the number of international students that a post-secondary institution can admit. The ministry estimates that by 2020, international students will make up 20 per cent of all post-secondary enrolments in Ontario.

International students choose to study in Canada for a wide variety of reasons, including the high quality of the Canadian education, the perception of Canada as a tolerant and non-discriminatory country and Canada’s reputation as a safe country.

However, many international students face significant barriers upon arrival, which can lead to problems with mental health, housing, finances and work.


One of the most commonly cited issues for international students across the province is tuition. According to the Ontario Undergraduate Student Association’s 2015 Ontario Post Secondary Student Survey, 49 per cent of international students stated that they had difficulty meeting their annual tuition payments.

At McMaster, a first-year domestic computer science student would pay $8,886 in the 2018-2019 academic year. However, an international student registered in the same program could pay between $25, 514 and $31, 658 per year, depending on their year of enrolment.

Universities across the province rely on international students’ high tuition to offset their operating costs. According to a 2016 Global Affairs Canada study, international students account for 11 per cent of the Ontario undergraduate population but generate 28 per cent of total tuition revenue.

The 2018-2019 McMaster Consolidated budget states, “to increase undergraduate enrolment and ensure our budget remains balanced, we need to shift our efforts to recruit additional international students, up from the current 10 per cent of undergraduate enrolment.”

This is possible because international student tuition rates are unregulated, meaning that there is no limit on how much they can increase year to year. As a result, international students face the burden of sharp, and often unpredictable, increases in tuition rates.

In addition to being an issue on its own, high tuition can also cause other problems for international students. Paula Daidone, a McMaster alumna, remarked that high tuition can put international students in vulnerable housing situations, as they are more likely to be willing to sacrifice quality in exchange for low rent.

Additionally, international students may have limited English skills, and might be searching for accommodations while living outside of Canada. Overall, these factors mean that international students are more likely than domestic students to face predatory landlords or end up in unsafe living situations.

Anant Jain, a second-year computer science student from India, also noted that high tuition means that international students often face a great deal pressure to succeed in school. International students may also face increased mental health issues due to the pressure to meet high tuition payments, problems with housing and academic stress.


Campus Life

International students can find it difficult to participate in campus life, due in large part to prejudice and racism from other students, cultural differences and language barriers.

Jain noted that some international students are nervous about initiating conversations.

“When they don’t talk to people, when they don’t interact with people, they obviously have a close community feeling, they feel like people are not accepting them,” Jain stated.

However, not all international students have trouble integrating to campus life. Jain’s outgoing nature and desire to participate in campus events helped him was integrate easily into the McMaster community.

“I think, if you really want to talk to people, people will talk to you anytime,” he said. “And people are really welcoming here.”

Jain also benefitted from mentorship programs and social events offered through International Student Services. Last year, McMaster Student Affairs conducted focus groups to help identify the needs of the university’s growing international student population. Outcomes from this included a pre-orientation program for international students called Ignite, as well as investment in iCent, an app to provide new international students with information about their move to McMaster.

Other plans for this year include the recruitment of a Student Success Coach and an Immigration consultant. According to Gina Robinson, director of the Student Success Centre and assistant dean, these changes will come in addition to existing programs relating to “life on campus, building connections, getting to know our Hamilton community, and celebrating culture and educating students on life in Canada.”

Additionally, the McMaster International and Exchange Club is a student run-initiative that connects incoming and outgoing international and exchange students. For Tom Johnston, an exchange student from Australia, MIX was a good way to get involved, meet people, and become a part of student life.


Mental Health

While these programs are helpful to some, other international students experience additional barriers that can prevent them from accessing the support available. Daidone, a McMaster alum from Brazil, emphasizes that mental health issues can make it difficult to get involved and seek out support.

Daidone points out that international students lose their support systems when they come to Canada.

“People come here from another country, by themselves. […], at home, you have more support, or family support, and more actual resources,” she said.

The 2017 OUSA Policy Recommendations notes that the rise of mental health issues is of particular concern for international students due to issues with integration and adjustment.

Additionally, while international students are automatically enrolled into the University Health Insurance Plan, they cannot enroll into the Ontario Health Plan. While OHIP covers psychiatric care, UHIP does not, meaning that international students have to pay out of pocket in order to access coverage.

The OUSA Policy Recommendations emphasize the importance of providing “high-quality mental health supports that are culturally appropriate and sensitive to the needs of international students”. Currently, the Student Wellness Centre does not offer mental health support specifically catered to international students.

The experiences of international students can vary drastically. Coming to McMaster can be an exciting way to meet new people, gain new experiences and seek new opportunities. However, many international students still face problems due to immigration policy, tuition deregulation, social prejudice and language limitations.

In the years to come, it remains to be seen how provincial government policy, university administrative decisions, and support services will work together to influence the experiences of the steadily growing international student population.


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Author: Hannah Walters-Vida

Hannah is in her fifth-ish year of Environmental Science and JPPL. Her favourite place to study is the downtown Public Library. She is a big fan of politics, visual arts, long-distance biking and plants.