The internationalization question

We need internationalization with a focus on international students’ needs

Recently, there has been much discussion on how Queen’s University should situate itself in the international arena after Principal Woolf had identified ‘internationalization’ as a principle strategy in his ‘Where Next?’ document in early 2010.

The student opposition to a rise in international student tuition fees resulting from the Board of Trustee’s November meeting is a vivid testament to the surprisingly controversial nature of diversifying universities with citizens from abroad.

While the most frequently discussed issue surrounding international students are the exorbitant and disproportionate tuition fees many of them have to face, there are many more pressing issues that often escape such conversations.

First, there must be a very clear understanding of the word “internationalization.” For the University, internationalization has two broad targets, Queen’s University students going abroad and individuals arriving here from outside of Canada.

The former, comprising approximately 3,000 students in 2009-2010, are primarily participants of Queen’s’ many exchange programs and arguably receive first-class services by the Queen’s University International Centre (QUIC).

The latter is further broken down into two categories. One category belongs to roughly 300 exchange students who come to Queen’s for one or two terms and pay domestic fees required by their home university.

The second group consists of 1,100 students who come to Queen’s to complete their degree and are required to pay tuition equivalent to two or three times their domestic counterparts.

Arguably, this category is often referred to as ‘international students’ and are subject to the highest degree of financial, academic, and cultural barriers. But they are only one part of internationalization at Queen’s.

This brings to light a fallacy in the administration’s logic when advocating for increased international tuition fees. If the resources made available for ‘internationalization’ are accessed by 4,400 people, why is the financial onus placed on only a quarter of the beneficiaries?

Furthermore, why are services for Queen’s students going abroad of a relatively higher quality than those arriving here, despite the financial burdens placed on the latter group?

Sure, the province may not cover expenses related to the education of international students, but part of international student tuitions are used to fund QUIC and other administrators in charge of international student affairs that do not necessarily get covered by government compensation for domestic students.

When the administration is pressed for details on how they calculate tuition fees based on ‘expenses incurred by international students,’ ambiguity and lack of knowledge are the most common responses.

Even when there are ’town hall meetings’ to ask such important questions, communication and decisions usually travel one way: from the administration to international students.

But my intention is not to be entirely critical of the University’s approach to international students. Balancing budgets and ensuring operational viability, especially in such tough economic times, are very challenging tasks. Even so, the University has taken many positive steps toward internationalization.

Our ‘study abroad’ programs are perhaps one of the best in Canada and must remain so to expose our students to other cultures and perspectives.

The administration offers mandatory insurance (at the expense of international students), ever since the provincial government stopped offering healthcare benefits to international students in the 1990s.

They have established the international tuition bursary for graduate students intended to ameliorate the financial burdens of international student tuition fees.

Even right now, there are dedicated and hardworking staff members that are proactively strategizing and planning internationalization at Queen’s.

This process, however, must come with a strategy focused on international student needs. Internationalization must not only be an attempt to raise Queen’s’ profile worldwide, but an attempt to listen to our international students and enhance their experience here.

This is admittedly challenging to accomplish, as cultural and language barriers tend to impede international students in voicing their concerns.

Furthermore, most international students are heavily clustered around natural and applied sciences that often breed apolitical and complacent cultures.

In a preliminary report conducted by the Society of Graduate and Professional Students (SGPS) equity office, there were five identified core issues facing international students. First, barriers imposed by tuition fees and the University Health Insurance Premium (roughly $800 a year) impose significant strains on their financial health and at times academic quality.

While it may be hard to curb tuition fees for international students, the Office of Advancement can play a crucial role in establishing bursaries and grants aimed at reducing these burdens.

Furthermore, student societies can initiate similar bursaries and grants from modest student activity fees.

Second, academic resources are heavily focused on North American and European topics. Aside from failing to attract students specializing in non-Western fields and diverse perspectives, international students may feel disconnected and overwhelmed by dominant Eurocentric courses. Investment in academic databases, books, lecturers, researchers and programs with non-Western focuses are crucial in providing a friendly academic environment for international students.

Third, there is no centralized and visible space belonging to international students. Aside from limited housing and administrative space, international students are incapable of reciprocating their backgrounds into the Queen’s community.

Investment in infrastructure and space that is central and visible on the Queen’s campus must accompany any long-term internationalization strategy.

Fourth, professors and research supervisors have been shown to systemically take advantage of international students’ cultural, legal and financial disadvantages.

Instances of derogatory remarks and threats by faculty towards students seem to be disproportionately experienced by international students.

There must be entrenched policies that shift the power balance in favour of international students in student-faculty relations.

Fifth, international students face endemic cultural and language barriers that adversely affect mental health. These can be ameliorated by the expansion of programs in QUIC and counselling services that attempt to address these issues.

So let’s take a moment and think about how Queen’s is going to internationalize.

I feel that we as international students require more intricate planning than the Predictable Tuition Framework.

Amir Nosrat is international coordinator in the Society of Graduate and Professional Students (SGPS).

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