Marking 20 years
of bold journalism,
reader supported.

Dumpster Diving to Afford UBC

Why must some UBC international students work illegal jobs and sift garbage for food? Answer: To afford tuition many times higher than paid by their richer Canadian fellow students. Some ask: Is this an ethical way to run a global university?

Jin Yuejue 5 Jan
image atom

He may be struggling just to survive at UBC, but at least Kenny Chang knows where his next meal is coming from. Every evening after school, the UBC graduate student from Shanghai sells curry chicken and chow mein for an hour and a half at a restaurant off campus. In return, he gets $12 cash paid off the books, and a free dinner.

Kenny Chang is not his real name -- he and many fellow international students interviewed for this story requested anonymity, some because they are bending the rules to scrape up extra money, others because they are embarrassed at their low standard of living. But Chang's story is more common than you might think. Another UBC graduate student from China says he feeds himself by fishing through a school cafeteria's garbage, retrieving tossed out greens for the soup pot at home.


It's not only because the cost of living in Canada is up to five times higher than in China. International students can also pay close to six times the price of tuition charged to students who are permanent residents of Canada. As well, financial aid for international students is limited, particularly for undergraduates. The lack of financial assistance topped the list of grievances -- at 62 per cent -- in a survey of 191 of first- and second-year international students conducted by UBC last spring.

Increasing the global divide?

Some UBC international students and professors feel the high tuition and lack of financial support for the needy is unfair, and flies in the face of UBC's mission as a public university dedicated to training the world's best and brightest regardless of their bank accounts. But the university's administration has no significant plan to narrow the global class divide. In fact, the gap will likely grow. Some undergraduate programs are demanding increase tuition rates for international students, and graduate students students who have been spared recent hikes fear their time is coming.

Some UBC professors wonder: How many thousands of international students, those with lots of talent but little wealth, are kept from the UBC campus by its policies?

Back in Shanghai, Chang was hardly poor. For four years before he came to Vancouver, he was an English instructor at a community college. He feels lucky to have earned about $1,300 dollars per month, much higher than the average $400 monthly income in the city. However, he still had to save every possible dollar to study in Canada. "I can almost afford my two years' stay in Vancouver," says Chang, who arrived here in September 2002.

For each credit, UBC currently charges international undergraduate students between $516 and $529. An average student takes between 30 and 37 credits a year, and must pay between $16,500 and $19,500 dollars, while his Canadian classmate pays between $3,400 and $4,200.

Graduate students fare much better, although they still have to cope with the cost of living. A typical domestic student in a research-based graduate program now pays UBC $3,200 dollars annually. The fees for international students are generally about $7,200, but the vast majority of international students qualify for a tuition waiver of $3,600.In all, international undergraduates pay up to $76,000 tuition for a four-year degree.

The annual per-capita disposable income of China, which generally vies with the United States as the largest source of UBC's international students, is barely $700.

"We have to worry that by looking for people who can pay, we are attracting less accomplished but rich students and excluding those students who are talented and motivated but poorer," says Hans Schuetze, a UBC professor who specializes in educational organization and finance.

Nancy Flood (also a pseudonym) is a wealthy student from the Middle East. She admits she was not the brightest among her friends back home, but she is the only one now studying abroad.

She began pursuing her undergraduate arts degree at UBC last year. UBC is the most expensive among the three schools that accepted her, she says, but she believed UBC's program is best. And her parents, a doctor and nurse with their own clinic in Europe, are willing to pay. As a result of the cost, though, they have refused to pay for Flood's two sisters to study abroad.

"Is what I have paid for really worth it?" she now wonders. "I don't think so."

Tax payers in the equation

"Our undergraduate international student tuition is set at the full-cost level of tuition," says Michelle Aucoin, executive coordinator in the office of UBC's Vice President for Students. "Other Canadian universities decide to subsidize international students."

The University of Toronto charges international undergrads between $10,000 and $14,000 a year. Simon Fraser University and the University of Victoria have recently moved toward full cost recovery, with UVic typically charging $11,000 and SFU about $14,000.

Aucoin says UBC's policy is based on the principle that families of domestic students pay part of the cost of their education through taxes, while the families of international students don't pay taxes here.

In fact, at UBC, only 56 per cent of international undergraduate student fees go to the faculties to cover tuition. The rest funds general administration and services, a limited amount of student aid, and the operation of the International Student Initiative, a UBC department created to promote UBC to overseas, recruit international students and provide pre-admission advice.

"We believe that we should not subsidize education for large numbers of international students at the undergraduate level. We should reserve that for domestic students," asserts Donald Wehrung, the director of International Student Initiative. Wehrung says in 2002-'03 ISI tuition revenues were $17 million, with about 92 per cent coming from international undergraduate students.

Wehrung argues that UBC's tuition is not very high compared to universities in other countries. "By U.K. and U.S. standards, we are relatively at a lower end. We are slightly more expensive than Australia."

Foreign students offset rising costs

Before the mid-1980s, however, the university charged domestic students and international students the same fee. In 1985, the university started to charge international undergraduate students 2.5 times the fee for domestic students. In January 1996, the university launched ISI.

According to Wehrung, the objective is to increase the portion of international undergraduates from 2.5 per cent. Currently, Wehrung says, there are 1,681 international undergrads, or about 6.5 per cent of the total. Overall, there are 4,100 international students at the university, about 10 per cent of the overall student body.

However, in 1996 the UBC Board of Governors capped the number of international undergrads at 15 percent , insisited that they not displace any domestic students and required that they pay the full cost of their education.

For the 1997-'98 academic year, international undergraduate tuition rose to $461 per credit from $241, six times as much as the fee for domestic students. The graduate tuition fee for research-based graduate students rose to $7,200 from $2,880, more than triple the domestic fee.

William Bruneau, a UBC professor emeritus who specializes in Canadian education history, says the main reason for the policy of expanding undergraduate foreign enrolment at full tuition is a shortage of operating funds. "The government's commitment to post-secondary education had declined very significantly in late 1980s." The university used to get 12 to 15 per cent from tuition, but now it expects to get roughly a quarter of it, he says.

Wehrung disagrees. "The primary motivation is to bring in extra perspectives. But we have such a burden at the domestic level. We've got to reserve the subsidies for domestic students. So we can only do this if we do it on the unsubsidized basis for the international students."

Tuition steeply climbing

Last year, the international undergraduate tuition fee went up 12 per cent to $516 dollars per credit. Wehrung says this reflects the rise in the cost of living since the last fee increase, in 1997. Wehrung says international undergraduate tuition will rise to $542 in May 2004 and will continue to rise at the rate of inflation.

For Flood, the 12 per cent jump means she needs a second job.

Although the graduate student tuition has not been changed since 1997-'98, Chang is worried. "What happened to undergraduate international students last year might happen to us soon." Plus, his heavy school load does not allow him to take a second job.As an international student, Chang is restricted to positions reserved for UBC students, such as teaching assistants. As a result, his restaurant employer pays him daily in cash, under the table. He borrows internet access from fellow students who don't need theirs, and sublets a room in a townhouse at Acadia Park on campus. Rooms typically rent for around $350, and house many international students, despite a university prohibition on subletting in the development.

Debating the role of a public university

Bruneau believes many international students are having a hard time making ends meet. One consequence of the extra jobs and dealing with university and government bureaucracy is a delay in putting their high-priced education to use.

Bruneau worries that UBC risks making higher education just another product sold to those who can afford it in the global marketplace. "University education shouldn't be about buying something off the shelf the way we buy a car. The power of explanation and the kind of insight we get from our education is way more valuable than any dollar figures you could ever give to it."

Schuetze agrees, pointing out that international students contribute a great deal to the university. "International students are bringing different cultural perspectives and ideas of research process. They help our curriculum to have more international content and our Canadian students to have international experience."

Bruneau says the differential fee battle was lost long ago, but he believes UBC can find the money to better serve its international students by reexamining its budget priorities and redirecting the enormous fundraising efforts for capital projects.

Schuetze believes there should be more assistance to poorer international students. "We are living in the global world, and Canada is a rich country. The universities have the duty to accommodate students from all over the world."

'Tiny' aid for foreign undergrads

Wehrung admits that UBC's high tuition is a barrier to many international undergraduate students. However, he points out that the 1,650 international graduate students are still heavily subsidized, because their previous education and life experiences are deemed more valuable to the university than those of the 1,681 full-fee international undergrads. (Another 450 exchange students -- mostly from Korea, Mexico and Japan -- pay tuition at the rate of their home university.)

ISI does provide scholarships to academically qualified students without the money to come to UBC. The awards now range between $14,000 and $34,000 per year, but did not begin until 2000 -- with a single student. Only 29 students so far have been granted the awards. International undergraduate students are also eligible for strictly merit-based awards of $2,500.

According to Wehrung, in 1996 the Board of Governors required that only 6.7 per cent of the tuition fees paid by international undergraduate students go to fund financial aid.

Wehrung says he understands the desire for improved assistance, and acknowledges that the assistance for undergrads is "tiny." He hopes to improve the total by "matching" donations to improve international student assistance, but admits the matching funds must come from the existing 6.7 per cent allocated for student aid.

Some international students come to UBC without the money they need to support themselves. He says although study permits are issued only to people who say they can pay for their full term of education, Immigration Canada requires only that they show they have the money for their first year here. Wehrung believes some students hope that Canada's fabled generosity toward immigrants means we will take care of them after that.

'Disheartened, disoriented and lonely'

Wehrung says UBC's policies must reflect the world in which we live, where the case for subsidizing such students is not always well received. UBC, at least, is "opening up the system."

Still, many of UBC's international students are displeased with how the system is treating them. A study by the Planning and Institutional Research UBC in November 2001 found international students are not satisfied with the campus transitional services, the academic experience, English language help, student housing, multiculturalism on campus, and finding community.

The university's own survey last spring confirmed many of these findings. In addition to the 62 per cent of undergrads who found financial assistance inadequate, 31 per cent said they had difficulty raising the money needed to study at UBC and 37 per cent said they had money problems once they got here.

More of the money that UBC takes in from international students should be used to provide the services they need, Schuetze says. "They need more tutoring. They need more cultural introduction. They need more spaces for social events. UBC hasn't done much about that."

"There is a great deal of unhappiness among the international student body," adds Bruneau. "A lot of them feel disheartened, disoriented and lonely."

On campus only the 44-year-old International House holds programs and events specifically for international students. There, last year, international students founded their first advocacy organization formally registered with the university. It will work to decrease cultural barriers and improve job opportunities, but its main task is to address the high and continuously increasing tuition, says founder Regina Lyakhovetska, a masters student in education from Ukraine. Already the association has successfully pressed for an international student councillor with the Alma Mater Society, the first ever to serve on the generally faculty-based student council.

Targeted for even higher tuition

Yet many undergrads may soon face another big jump in tuition. Currently the university charges all international undergrads the same fee. Wehrung says the faculties of Applied Science, Science, and Commerce and Business Administration strongly advocate increased tuition for their programs because their costs are higher. "These faculties argue that unless they receive an adequate allocation that fully covers their cost of instruction, they are reluctant to authorize significant expansion of the international enrolment in their undergraduate programs."

Does Wehrung ever worry that UBC might price itself out of the international student market? Not yet. He points out an average annual 27 per cent growth in the intake of the undergraduate international students since 1996.

"Look at the number of the international students at UBC," Wehrung declares. "We are doing something right."

Jin Yuejue, a graduate of the UBC School of Journalism, is a reporter in the Shanghai bureau of the Hong Kong-based newspaper Wen Wei Po, and freelances for The South China Morning Post.  [Tyee]

  • Share:

Facts matter. Get The Tyee's in-depth journalism delivered to your inbox for free

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.


  • Be thoughtful about how your words may affect the communities you are addressing. Language matters
  • Challenge arguments, not commenters
  • Flag trolls and guideline violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity, learn from differences of opinion
  • Verify facts, debunk rumours, point out logical fallacies
  • Add context and background
  • Note typos and reporting blind spots
  • Stay on topic

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist, homophobic or transphobic language
  • Ridicule, misgender, bully, threaten, name call, troll or wish harm on others
  • Personally attack authors or contributors
  • Spread misinformation or perpetuate conspiracies
  • Libel, defame or publish falsehoods
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities
  • Post links without providing context


The Barometer

Are You Concerned about AI?

Take this week's poll