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International students worry about pandemic as decisions loom on travel to Canada

Exterior view of George Brown College CITYNEWS/Tony Fera

Zohra Shahbuddin says she was thrilled when she received a letter of admission in April from the university of her choice in Canada.

She’s been admitted to Simon Fraser University in Vancouver for a master of publishing degree but is having sleepless nights worrying because of COVID-19.

Like other international students, Shahbuddin faces uncertainty as universities switch to online classes. She also has financial concerns, worries about a work permit and has fears about her health.

She is weighing whether to enrol this fall or put off coming to Canada from Pakistan until next year.

“It’s been almost two months now and I’ve been thinking about it everyday and still cannot make a decision,” she said in a phone interview.

International students contribute $21.6 billion to Canada’s GDP and supported nearly 170,000 jobs in 2018, said Nancy Caron, a spokeswoman for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

Caron said in a statement the government is accommodating students who complete their studies outside Canada between September and Dec. 31 by not deducting that time from the length of their post-graduation work permit.

International students will also be allowed to work more than the maximum of 20 hours per week while classes are in session, provided they are working in an essential service, such as “health care, critical infrastructure, or the supply of food or other critical goods,” she said.

Shahbuddin said she’ll make her decision by June. If she gets her visa processed, she said she is OK with online classes as long as it does not affect her work permit.

Matthew Ramsey, a spokesman at the University of British Columbia, said it will primarily be offering online classes in the fall so students can participate from around the world.

The university will not know enrolment numbers until September because most students who are offered and accept admission sometimes opt out for a variety of reasons, he said.

Ijaz Ashraf is from Pakistan and has been accepted at Concordia University to do a master’s degree in industrial engineering. He said he will likely defer enrolment because he’s not satisfied with online classes and wants to experience campus life.

“I really want to explore the diversity of students in Montreal and I really want to be present in the university and communicate with teachers,” he said.

Tuition costs are the same for online classes, which he said is “not suitable.”

International graduate students at Concordia University pay much more per year for 45 credits compared with domestic students.

Ashraf also said he’s worried about the large number of COVID-19 cases in Quebec.

“I am thinking about all the factors. I am consulting with my family.”

Mutee Ur Rehman, who’s been admitted to York University in Toronto for a PhD in electrical engineering, said he is worried about doing the laboratory component of his program over the internet.

“Also, since I am a PhD student, my interaction with my supervisor and my group members is very important,” he said. “A campus atmosphere is a stimulus and motivates you.”

Time zones will also be a potential problem online, he said.

“I cannot sleep during the day and keep awake at night to take two classes. That’s very impractical.”

He said the pandemic changed everything for him.

“It ruined my plans and I’m in an uncertain situation.”

Rajdeep Dodia, who has been admitted to a graduate certificate course at George Brown College in Toronto, is also leaning towards deferring to next year.

He said he is concerned about paying $16,000 for online classes, then finding a job in a pandemic-depressed economy.

He also has problems with internet connectivity in India.

“The internet is good right now. It’s 7:30 a.m.,” he said in an interview on FaceTime.

“After some time, the strength will go away. I won’t even be able to send a message on Facebook.”

David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said he’s heard many of the same concerns and his group has been working with the Canadian Federation of Students.

Both groups have suggested tuition waivers or cuts funded through the government.

He said there’s an added concern for students in some countries where the course material may be censored.

“It does potentially put those students at risk, logging into that course,” he said.

International students make up a significant portion of student populations, he said, and it’s in the interest of the schools to find solutions to ensure they get a quality education.

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