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B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix, seen here during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on May 27, 2019, said the 'updated payment method for international students continues' the commitment to provide them with provincial health coverage 'while asking them to contribute a reasonable amount to help cover those costs.'

CHAD HIPOLITO

When Mashal Butt, a graduate student from Pakistan at the University of British Columbia, heard that her monthly health-care fee was doubling to $75 next year, she was “shocked” at the increase.

“Even right now, paying $37.50 is a bit too much for me because it’s expensive,” she said, adding that if it weren’t for her family’s support, there’s “no chance” she’d be able to afford the increased fees.

“There’s already so many emotional difficulties when you move abroad for studying. And then when you pile up the financial difficulties, it just adds on to so much that an individual goes through,” said Ms. Butt, 24.

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The increased health-care fee for international students was announced by the B.C. Ministry of Health in August of this year as part of an overhaul that will see B.C. permanent residents stop paying for Medical Service Plan (MSP) premiums as of Jan. 1, 2020.

“For almost 30 years, B.C. has provided international students with provincial health coverage, while asking them to contribute a reasonable amount to help cover those costs. This updated payment method for international students continues that commitment,” Adrian Dix, Minister of Health, said at the time of the announcement.

Ministry of Health spokeswoman Meribeth Burton said in an e-mail that the increased fee still only represents a portion of the total costs associated with being covered under B.C.’s public health-care system.

The ministry has also emphasized that unlike other provinces such as Ontario or Quebec, international students in B.C. are still being included under the public health-care system instead of requiring them to purchase private coverage.

But the fee hike has nevertheless raised concerns about affordability for international students, who already pay as much as five times the tuition fees charged to domestic students and who have experienced steep increases in costs over the past three decades.

“It’s really just another fee that international students have to pay that domestic students don’t,” said Tanysha Klassen, chairperson of the B.C. Federation of Students (BCFS), which represents more than 145,000 students across the province.

“It really just seems like with this fee, and international student fees in general, that the government views international students as a revenue stream without any regard to how they contribute to the economy.”

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A BCFS report indicates that over the past two decades, the proportion of provincial government funding in postsecondary institutions’ operating budgets decreased, with budget shortfalls made up by large increases in international tuition revenue.

The organization points out that although international undergraduate students only account for about a fifth of B.C.’s university enrolment, they contribute nearly half of the undergraduate tuition revenue in the province.

UBC, the province’s largest host of international students, provides an example of this phenomenon.

Between 2014 and 2019, provincial government funding to UBC increased by 12 per cent, growing to $657-million from $586-million at an average annual pace of 1.6 per cent. But during the same period, revenue from international undergraduate tuition grew much faster, more than tripling. With an average annual increase of 23 per cent, it soared to $413-million from $120-million.

This meant that the share that provincial government funding represents within the university’s overall budget actually decreased, going to 30 per cent from 36 per cent, while the share represented by international undergraduate tuition more than doubled, rising to 19 per cent from 9 per cent.

This shift is partly accounted for by a 57-per-cent increase in the number of international undergraduate students enrolled at UBC. But it’s also been driven by significantly higher tuition fees collected from each student. In 2015, UBC’s Board of Governors approved a 46.8-per-cent increase in international tuition phased in over the following three years, and last year the board approved a further increase of 2 per cent to 4 per cent.

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In response, earlier this year UBC’s student union joined other student groups in calling for the province to limit international tuition fee increases. Under the current policy, domestic tuition fee annual increases are capped at 2 per cent, while the same isn’t true for international tuition fees.

“We need to make sure there’s consistency in what [international students] are expected to pay for their education while they’re here, so that they can appropriately budget and know what to expect when they come to study in B.C.,” said Cristina Ilnitchi, student union vice-president of external affairs at UBC.

Damara Klaassen, executive director of the department responsible for UBC’s international student enrolment efforts, said the university administration knows that education expenses can be a challenge to students, regardless of where they’re from, and that they have heard from student representatives on this issue.

“We understand their concerns and we work with elected student representatives to support all students at UBC. Likewise, we will continue to work with the provincial government as it works to balance student affordability considerations along with the overall costs of funding public postsecondary education,” Ms. Klaassen said.

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