Revenue of Canadian universities
Despite pandemic concerns, Canadian universities hit a record-high windfall in the 2020-21 fiscal year. Source: Mark Ralston/AFP

Still think tuition fees in Canadian universities are affordable? A new publication by Statistics Canada might make you think twice about the costs of getting a degree in this popular international study destination. 

According to the report released on August 9, Canadian universities raked in a whopping 7.3 billion Canadian dollars in surplus revenue during the 2020-21 fiscal year — and part of that success can be attributed to international students. The figure is the highest number of revenue recorded to date since the government agency began collecting data in 2000.

Provincial funding accounted for the largest contributor to university revenues at CA$15.1 billion, followed by tuition and other fees at CA$13.3 billion. Of the latter amount, overseas students contributed an estimated CA$5.1 billion — roughly 12.2% of total university earnings — according to a separate report by StatCan. 

The simple fact is this: despite concerns over enrolment numbers and virtual learning, Canadian universities did not lose money during the pandemic. Where provincial budgets were slashed to tertiary education, these institutions were able to make up for the profit margin via reduced expenditures when campuses were temporarily closed down. Lucrative returns from stock and real estate investments and increased tuition fees fuelled the spiking revenue boom further. 

Revenue of Canadian universities

International students contributed roughly 12% of the total revenue made by Canadian universities, but are unable to access many services in financial aid and healthcare throughout their studies. Source: Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images/AFP

Are international students getting their money’s worth from Canadian universities?

When these tertiary institutions became more dependent on tuition fees, it was overseas students that got the shorter end of the stick. Unlike domestic fees, international fees are deregulated in Canadian universities — meaning that the school can charge any amount they like at any given year.

On average, international students pay around three times more than locals to get a Canadian degree, and the costs have been steadily increasing each year. An undergraduate engineering programme at the University of Toronto (UofT), for instance, costs more than CA$60,000 annually for foreigners, compared to just a little over CA$14,000 for domestic students. Quoting a university spokesperson, the Toronto Star reported that UofT scored CA$4 billion in revenue in 2021 — a 10% increase from the previous year. 

The large fee gap is a primary reason why the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) have pushed for more accessible education, as the “exorbitant” amount puts foreign learners at a disadvantage. International students have to fork out extra expenses for private student insurance as they don’t qualify for provincial healthcare, have limited working hours due to study permit restrictions, and are ineligible for financial aid from the government. 

International students have reported feeling drained financially, especially since living costs have skyrocketed due to a record-high inflation. Food insecurity is running rampant: local volunteers have observed an alarming surge in foreign students lining up at food banks due to inflationary price hikes. Many have to resort to a penny-pinching lifestyle even after working multiple jobs to stay afloat. 

The trade-off hardly seems fair when measured against the windfall from international students’ spending that Canadian universities reaped. “There’s a million reasons why we want to have international students here,” Camille Duhaime, treasurer of CFS-Ontario, was quoted saying to CBC News.

“And I think that for universities, all of that is almost forgotten. It’s like they’re just a number. It’s almost as if for university or post-secondary institutions, international students are a cash cow before human beings.”