Cost of living, fees hitting some international students

A number of grad students from the Indian subcontinent say they are struggling with high expenses while studying at Dal.

Naznin Daisy loves Halifax, but she can't afford to study here.
Naznin Daisy loves Halifax, but she can’t afford to study here. Photo: Hanna McLean.

Naznin Daisy wants to go home.

She came to Dal in 2013 from Bangladesh to complete her PhD in civil engineering, and one year later she wishes hadn’t come at all.

But it’s not because she doesn’t like Halifax, or the people at Dal. It’s because she can’t afford to live here.

“There is no greater punishment in life than living with regret. And living with indecision, wrong decision, coming here — I am regretting,” she says.

Naznin says that living off of money from her scholarship and teaching assistant position is just not cutting it. Like most students, whether you are from Canada or not, Naznin is having difficulty making money while studying.

Naznin says that when she came to Halifax she did not understand how high the cost of living was.

“When our funding package is offered, by sitting in Bangladesh where one dollar means 87 taka, you can not understand what is the living cost, the living standard,” says Naznin.

Naznin receives $89 a month from her supervisor. That money plus her $18,000 scholarship — from which $17,500 goes to tuition — is the amount she’s given.

Naznin says her tight budget has left her devoid of the Canadian experience she hoped to have. She wanted to attend driving school to get her licence, but she now accepts that this cannot happen due to her low income.

Naznin says worrying about money is distracting her from her research. This unanticipated worry is what has left her disappointed and openly regretful. She says going back to Bangladesh and being in debt would be shameful, so she has to make due with what she is given.

She says she often thinks about the offers she rejected from other Canadian schools and will have to live with her commitment to Dal in regret.

In 2012 Nova Scotia was named by the Centre for Policy Alternatives as the least affordable province in which to receive a university education, whether you were an international student or not.

International students make up about 10.8 per cent (around 2,505 people) of Dal’s student body this year. According to the Greater Halifax Partnership there are more than 4,000 international students studying in Nova Scotia, they will contribute approximately $231 million to the province’s economy this year.

Mahbubar Rahman is completing a master’s in civil engineering. He came here from Bangladesh in September 2013. Rahman has a job as the vice-president of finance and operations at the Dalhousie Student Union (DSU).

Rahman says he was surprised by the cost of living when he came to Halifax.

“Somehow I survived. It was not a pleasant experience to be in that position,” says Rahman.

Rahman says colleagues from Bangladesh who have gone to other Canadian universities are better off than he is.

“I have friends in other universities (across Canada) they have the same tuition fees but the international differential fee is low, or it is waived. There’s a difference there,” says Rahman.

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Mahbubar Rahman at his office in the student union building. Photo: Hanna McLean.

Rahman says he struggled before he got his position, but now he is doing OK financially. He acknowledges that his job there takes time away from his research, but he is thankful for the opportunity to work for the DSU.

“But, the other students from my lab are still struggling,” says Rahman. “They’re surviving.”

Rahman says that he did not know about the international differential fee when he accepted his offer from Dal.

The tuition fee for international students at Dalhousie and the University of King’s College is the highest in Atlantic Canada, with a base fee of around $14,790 per year. On top of this fee international graduate students are required to pay a international differential fee each semester that comes to around $5,000.
Danielle Pottie is the scholarship liaison officer for the faculty of graduate studies. She says international grad students should know how much they’re being offered before they come.

Pottie says it’s the student’s responsibility to cover the extra costs and they are made aware of that. She acknowledges if international students are dissatisfied with their budgets upon arrival, it may be because they have not been clearly informed.

“However, to put that on the university as a responsibility is probably not the right thing to do either,” says Pottie.

Pottie says the idea that students may not be thoroughly reading through the financial information given to them in their package is “a very huge possibility.”

“These are grown adults. They’ve done a degree before so they know certain costs of doing a degree,” says Pottie. “We would assume that they would probably research it themselves to make sure that they are able to sustain themselves on the funding that they have available.”

The amount students are given is entirely the decision of their supervisors. The faculty of graduate studies provides a suggested amount for each level of study, but the amount is subject to change based on available funding and the number of students under a supervisor.

Dalhousie's suggested fee for graduate students. note: not all departments have the suggested amount of funding available, therefore the amounts are simply suggestions and not policy.
Dalhousie’s suggested funding for individual graduate students per year. *Note: not all departments have the suggested amount of funding above available, therefore the amounts are simply suggestions and not university policy.

 

Shalia Jamal is completing her master’s of planning studies. She came to Halifax in September from Bangladesh. She says she receives $2,500 a year to cover her living costs.

Jamal has only been in Halifax two months and she often regrets her decision to come here because of her financial state. She says it worries her and distracts her from her studies, “I don’t know what I am going to do. I don’t have enough money.”

Jamal feels like she does not have enough time for her studies and her research assistant job, yet she feels like she must find another way to gain income.

“You are feeling always stressed. Always stressed. Frustrated. You are alone here. It’s really tough,” says Jamal. “When you are in your home country, you will have at least people to support you. Here there’s no one.”

Jamal says that leaving everything to come and study away from home is stressful enough for an international student, so the unexpected financial struggle is still hard to deal with.

“Within two months it’s really horrible. The whole experience is horrible financially,” says Jamal.

Jamal enjoys being in Halifax otherwise. The people and the city are great, but her dwindling savings account may persuade her to go home before she has completed her studies here.

“I am not sure, because right now I am not sure what I will do. Still, I am confused. Will I continue or not?” says Jamal.

 

Jomel Varghese came from India to complete his master’s in internetworking engineering.

Varghese is in a course-based program, which is different that the thesis-based program. Instead of getting paid for consistent research, Varghese simply pays his tuition fees and attends his courses. He has a job with the intramurals at Dal, but the pressure to make extra cash is not something he is feeling.

Varghese says he was aware of all of the fees before he came and did not have a problem budgeting for his time in Halifax.

“All the amounts on the website were what I needed to pay,” says Varghese.

Varghese says unlike himself, his international friends in the thesis-based courses are feeling underpaid and they are struggling.

The Canadian Federation of Students says high tuition like Dal’s could cause minimal enrolment of international students in the future, limited to the wealthy or the few who receive full scholarships.

Marty Leonard, the dean of graduate studies at Dal, understands the tricky financial situation that international grad students are dealing with.

“My guess is if one or two (international grad students) are feeling it, probably others are as well,” says Leonard.

Leonard says it may be a matter of setting up international students to have realistic expectations. She says that in some cultures, a research student may expect to be welcomed by their supervisor as a member of their family, whereas here that is not always the case.

“Maybe it’s about being clear on the recruitment end of things,” says Leonard.

Leonard says the faculty of graduate studies is there to provide support, but as far as financially, the faculty does not control how much each supervisor pays their research students. A biology supervisor herself, Leonard says in her department the supervisor agrees on an amount to pay her students and a form is signed with every student.

“We (the faculty of graduate studies) don’t have rules or enforce rules on that sort of thing,” says Leonard. “It varies from department to department.”

Leonard recommends students struggling start a conversation with their supervisor about financial support. She says there is no minimum wage that a supervisor is obligated to give a student, but they give them as much financial support as they can.

“The truth is, it’s expensive. We want graduate students,” says Leonard.

Leonard holds that it is important for students to focus on their studies and look after themselves. She says she will continue to work to gain support for graduate students a Dal.

“We all went through the Kraft Dinner phase of life,” says Leonard.

 

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