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Canada: survey points psychological, academic and financial stress

International students in Canada have reported psychological, academic and financial stress during the Covid-19 pandemic, a survey by academics at Carleton University has suggested.

Other nationalities represented in the survey included: the Philippines (3.7%); the United States (3.4%); Colombia (3.3%); Nigeria (3.3%) and Iran (2.4%). Photo: pexels

CBIE will be releasing research of its own in spring 2022

Findings suggest 80% of international students were “concerned” or “very concerned” about their ability to pay for their education, 55% were at risk of depression and about 50% at risk of an anxiety disorder. A further 30% reported that they “had not adapted well to online instruction”.

The survey garnered responses from students from 84 countries, with the majority (46%) from India, followed by Chinese students (7%).

Some 1,000 international students partially answered the survey, with 600 completed the whole questionnaire. Following the survey – completed in February 2021 – researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 25 students.

“Roughly two-thirds of our survey respondents experienced financial stress, just over 70% psychological stress, and almost 40% academic stress,” assistant professor of Public Policy and Administration Anil Varughese and professor at School of Public Policy and Administration Saul Schwartz wrote for The Conversation.

“Over 25 % felt both financial and psychological stress but not academic stress; about 20 per cent felt all three kinds of stress.

“While some students experience all three forms of stress together, others experience only one or two or none at all.”

The researchers highlighted that international students spoke of loneliness, mental exhaustion, panic attacks and social isolation in interviews, pointing to over subscribed counselling centres. “At best, there were long waits to get appointments,” said Varughese and Schwartz.

Students also “overwhelmingly felt” that online courses “undermined their overall educational experience because of the lack of interaction with fellow students”, they added.

Along with the lack of interaction with peers, the inability to experience and adapt to Canadian culture, lack of social networks, and inability to use campus space and amenities were other factors that undermined their overall educational experience, the researchers said.

Regarding financial stress, the survey and interviews “showed that the loss of parental or spousal income and the loss of wages from off-campus employment created the greatest financial hardships for international students”.

Canadian Bureau for International Education noted that the research helps to “identify and understand the scope and complexity of challenges faced by international students”.

“It is very good to see international students are speaking out about their experiences in Canada through the pandemic,” Sonja Knutson, director of Internationalization Office at Memorial University of Newfoundland, concurred.

“These two years have been challenging for everyone in the education sector, but the vulnerability of international students – their youth, the precarity of their status and finances, and distance from family and friends – are a recipe for disaster in any crisis, let alone one that lasts as long as the pandemic.”

“Within the global international education arena and in Canada, we have increasingly seen both international and domestic students suffering from isolation, academic stressors, and financial hardship. The pandemic has both compounded and highlighted these challenges,” CBIE told The PIE

“The pandemic has both compounded and highlighted these challenges”

“More robust insight on these issues is an important step in helping our sector and education institutions better target initiatives, set priorities, and establish policies that ensure accessible and culturally competent mental health support is embedded within the student journey when studying at a Canadian institution.”

The organisation will be releasing research of its own in spring 2022, which has elicited responses from over 40,000 international students at 70 post-secondary institutions across the country.

It will “enable our sector to share promising practices and advocate for policy and program changes at the national, provincial, and territorial levels to help maintain Canada as the destination of choice for international students”, CBIE said

While domestic students could take a break from studying without impacting their right to live and work in Canada, international students have had to remain registered and progressing through their degrees in order to maintain immigration status, work rights, and future immigration pathways, Knutson continued.

“Universities and colleges need to listen to what international students are telling us. There are some risk factors we can do little about, but we can examine our policy and practice for gaps and outright systemic discrimination when it comes to international students.

“Canadian institutions overall have been slow to adapt policies and practices originally built to serve local students. Flexibility in tuition payment timelines, eligibility for scholarships and bursaries, access to appropriate mental health supports etc are areas to examine for how they exacerbate international student vulnerability.”

Executive director of International Student Enrolment, Education & Inclusion at Ryerson University Isaac Garcia-Sitton noted that “academic, financial and mental health stressors have compounded and been made more evident by the pandemic”

“Now more than ever, holistic and wraparound support is critical to ensure a quality and positive post-secondary experience for international students who choose to study in Canada. We need to recognise the challenges faced by international students that this pandemic has introduced and exacerbated,” he told The PIE.

Varughese and Schwartz concluded that policy gaps exist in mental health support for international students, as well as financial support. Emergency grants and loans and the extension of tuition fee payment deadlines is needed, they suggested, as highlighted by both Knutson and Garcia-Sitton.

“We know of no comprehensive analysis of mental health services tailored to international students in Canadian universities and colleges,” the Carleton University academics said.

“While Canada was comparatively generous in allowing international students who met the eligibility requirements to receive the $2,000 per month Canada Emergency Response Benefit, there was no sustained financial support offered by Canadian universities and colleges.”

“There was no sustained financial support offered by Canadian universities and colleges”

The PIE reported in 2020 that while some international students were eligible for CERB, they were left out of other support packages.

“There is an urgent need to understand [international students’] unique vulnerabilities and to develop effective policy responses,” Varughese and Schwartz concluded.

Garcia-Sitton agreed, saying that policymakers, institutional leadership, and the sector at-large “must work collectively to swiftly address stressors like study-permit delays and ever-changing immigration policies, tuition increases, ongoing challenges with online learning, constraints finding employment, and a lack of robust financial aid programs, and work towards implementing long-term systemic changes”.

“Systemic gaps, further exposed by the pandemic, must be addressed for Canada to live up to our values of inclusivity and equity. The experiences that post-secondary institutions, and Canada as a whole, provide international students will determine their academic and personal success,” he said.

CBIE added that the Canadian international education community “acknowledges our duty to create a supportive and inclusive environment that enables international students to achieve their personal, academic, and professional goals”.

The duty extends over “ensuring their physical and mental well-being from pre-arrival through to post-studies”, it added.

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