Navy Nguyen is a fifth-year student at Cape Breton University outside of Sydney, NS. When they moved here from Viet Nam at the end of 2018, Sydney was a lot smaller than they’d been led to believe: “I was disappointed by how bad the transit system was already back then, and it's just gotten worse with the influx of international students.” In 2018, there were roughly 1,400 international students at CBU. Now that number is roughly 7,000 and Nguyen says even with two new bus routes added to serve CBU students, these routes are unreliable and often reduced or cancelled due to driver shortages.
Nguyen says CBU’s administration has held “radio silence” since Canada announced its two-year cap on international study permits on Jan. 22, “even though CBU has such a different demographic than any other Atlantic university.” In 2018, the school started recruiting heavily overseas for its two-year business diploma, an effort that proved so successful, CBU took it upon itself last year to start limiting enrolments.
Today, CBU’s population is about 76% international students. By comparison, the University of Toronto had an international student population of just under 30% in 2022-23, and the University of British Columbia has an international student population of 28.6% at its Vancouver campus.
Announcing the cap on visas, the federal government said the rapidly increasing population of international students “puts pressure on housing, health care and other services” across the country, an assessment Nguyen disagrees with. “The heart of this issue is to help ease the housing crisis,” says Nguyen, “but the narrative is that it’s international students that are causing the crisis, even though we’re just a scapegoat for this issue that’s been ongoing.”
In Dec. 4, 2022, CBU posted that incoming January students should defer if they hadn’t secured a place to live by Dec. 15. In an open letter to the Cape Breton community on Dec. 22, 2022, CBU’s president David Dingwall wrote: “Our beautiful Island has managed decline for many years, and thanks to international students who choose to come to the CBRM, we are now managing growth. With growth comes many positives, but it also has its challenges. These challenges include affordable housing, which is a national issue, as well as unemployment, which has always challenged this region.”
In a Dec. 22, 2022 CBC article, CBU’s vice-president of finance Gordon MacInnis is quoted saying “post-secondary education is the new coal and steel of 2022 and we think the benefits for the community are immeasurable.”
“CBU has relied on international students to stay afloat for so long,” says Nguyen, “and now there’s a potential cut to that revenue.”
For the fiscal year ending Mar. 31, 2023, CBU reported $84.3 million in revenue from tuition and fees, compared with provincial funding at roughly $29 million. By comparison, in 2018 CBU received $28.1 million from student tuition and fees, and $23.4 from the provincial government. CBU’s tuition revenue has grown by 190% since 2018, whereas their government funding has increased by just 20%. Based on that, the new coal and steel MacInnis is referring to seems to be students.
That’s what Nguyen thought when they read it. “The fact that they came out in public and admitted that they have to rely on international students to be financially viable is just...you admitted it!”
Universities, which charge international students elevated tuition fees, aren’t the only actors who may view these students as a money-making opportunity. Nguyen was told by a fellow student that a local family of four was evicted so their landlord could instead bring in nine international students to increase the rent revenue. “That leads to resentment between locals and international students,” says Nguyen.
“I've seen students live in terrible conditions bundled up with five, six, seven other students so they can keep their rents low. Most of those leases are verbal agreements and a lot of them still don’t know their tenants’ rights, which is very sad.” In December 2022, a CBU student died in a house fire in a unit they shared with seven other students.
Nguyen says international students aren’t informed on the realities of the housing crisis before moving to Cape Breton. “They were lied to by recruiters that there would be jobs and housing available for them as soon as they got here, and that wasn’t the truth.”
CBU has acknowledged irresponsible agents are a factor, and updated their code of conduct with recruitment agents in December 2023 in order to regulate what overseas recruiters tell students to give prospective CBU students realistic expectations.
“Before this influx of international students there was already evidence of a housing crisis and a healthcare crisis, and CBU recruited all the international students into this community without explaining to them the current living conditions they would be in,” says Nguyen.
Nguyen says the CBU student union has advocated before now for a change in “irresponsible recruitment tactics” to address the exponential increase in international student enrolment each year.
From 2022 to 2023, the number of international students at CBU increased by 75%. “Students are landing into what is a very unsustainable community and infrastructure that wasn’t built to support this many people,” says Nguyen.
The “sad reality” is that some CBU students commute the 400 kilometers all the way from Halifax because that’s where they can afford to live, says Nguyen. It currently takes Nguyen 40 minutes to get to CBU by bus, a long time compared to the 10 minutes it would be by car, but better than the hour-and-a-half bus trip when Nguyen used to live on the north side of Sydney.
Nguyen says transit’s a tiny bit better since 2018, but every single bus is packed, so many students are left standing the whole trip. “Buses will be out of service consistently because they’re too packed to take more people,” says Nguyen, ”with drivers saying, ‘I'm so sorry I can’t take any more people unless someone gets off at the back of the bus.’
Overcrowded buses have also been a site of division between CBU students and locals, as told by one student in the public Facebook group CB International Community.
The group is where international students look for housing and jobs, says Nguyen. It’s an open group and its members are local residents as well as CBU students. Nguyen says posts receive comments from local residents that international students are “here taking our jobs, our housing and putting a strain on the transit system.” Nguyen thinks the cap on visas is “going to fuel the xenophobia here even further.”
Nguyen hasn’t experienced racism or xenophobia as aggressively as some of their friends have. “Throughout the five years I’ve lived here, I’ve had to assimilate really hard, and that comes with me trying to get rid of my accent so I can blend in a bit better. And that gives me a bit of an advantage when it comes to not facing overt racism. It’s such a ridiculous thing to say, but even the amount of sheer assimilations that international students have to do to avoid racism but also just to live in peace, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We haven’t even gotten into systematic racism, tokenism, microaggressions, all of that.”
Nguyen feels the uncertainty around how Ottawa’s new cap will impact CBU students is causing unnecessary mental and physical stress to international students who are already stressed with working and school.
“These are problems we didn’t cause. And now we’re facing the consequences of actions that weren’t ours. We’re just scapegoats. It’s easier to point fingers down to a group of international students, low-status residents that are easier for them to control, instead of pointing fingers up at multi-levels of systemic issues that are the root causes of things.”
When Nguyen started at CBU, dorms ranged from $2,100-$3,155 per semester, plus the additional cost of a mandatory meal plan. In 2024, dorms range from $2,240-3,540 per semester plus the mandatory meal plan of $2,985 per semester. Like many international students, Nguyen couldn’t afford residence in first year and has always rented off-campus.
Then there’s tuition, another rising cost. “When I started in 2018, I paid roughly $1,600 per course. Now it’s $1,800. And that’s double what domestic students are paying.”
During their entire university career, Nguyen has worked multiple jobs. All minimum wage. Mostly on campus. “I would say the majority of international students have at least one job, or most of the time multiple jobs, to put food on their table and pay their tuition. If spouses are with them, they’ll be working as well.”
Not once has Nguyen signed a lease–instead renting by verbal agreement. One of their worst housing experiences happened during the COVID-19 pandemic. They were sharing a house with their landlord’s family and a few other international students; their room was an attic with no windows. They learned their landlord was an anti-vaxxer shortly before their landlord got COVID and didn’t isolate within the house and didn’t tell Nguyen she had COVID. Nguyen got COVID shortly thereafter.
As soon as Nguyen recovered, they moved out immediately. At the time, Nguyen was working at CBU helping first-year international students with course registration. “We would see a huge backlog of students having to defer their enrolment because they couldn’t clear quarantine protocols or complete last-minute paperwork to be able to get to Nova Scotia, so they were deferring from September to January.”
Nguyen says they’ve really lucked out with their current place, which they share with a roommate who is on a lease for a rent-controlled apartment. Because Nguyen works the maximum amount of hours allowed by their study permit–30 hours per week–they can afford their low rent and food, “but even then I basically still live paycheck to paycheck.” Nguyen works as a human-rights intern and tech-support worker at CBU. They have been advocating for international students rights for years.
The majority of international students at CBU are in graduate programs. The two-year visa cap is not meant to affect graduate students. Says the announcement from Ottawa: Study permit renewals will not be impacted. Those pursuing master’s and doctoral degrees, and elementary and secondary education are not included in the cap. Current study permit holders will not be affected.” However it will affect families of students who apply for spousal work visas. The announcement further reads “In the weeks ahead, open work permits will only be available to spouses of international students in master’s and doctoral programs. The spouses of international students in other levels of study, including undergraduate and college programs, will no longer be eligible.” “I could see the potential of this breaking up a lot of families here,” says Nguyen.
If the majority of international study permits at CBU won’t be affected by Ottawa’s two-year cap, what effect will this have on the university? It’s uncertain at this stage.
As of Oct. 1, 2022, CBU’s international students made up 73% of their full-time student population. As of Oct. 3, 2023, CBU’s international students make up 81% of their full-time student population. Nguyen says if revenue from international student tuition dwindles because of Ottawa’s new cap, it “could obviously lead to an increase in international students’ tuition, but probably this will fall on the shoulders of domestic students as well. It hurts everyone.”