Queen’s denying many international students employment during COVID-19

According to SGS, those who can’t travel to Canada for the fall will not receive a TA or RA position

Members of the ISWG, PSAC 901, and SGPS weigh in on the University’s decision to deny employment to those living outside of Canada.

A note on the School of Graduate Studies (SGS) site reads that those “who can not travel to Canada for the fall will not receive a Teaching Assistant (TA) or Research Assistant (RA) position.” 

The International Students Working Group (ISWG) is determined to reverse this decision, which it says is unprecedented. 

In 2018, the ISWG was founded under SGPS by PhD candidates Canan Sahin and Rohit Revi. At the time, the group’s main concern was asking for reductions in the tuition for migrant graduate students, which currently sits at more than three times the rate of domestic tuition.  

Tuition rates for international students in Ontario, since 1996, have been exempt from provincial regulations on tuition caps. This has contributed to a pattern where, over the last 12 years, international students in Ontario have paid about four times more in tuition than domestic students.

“After two years of campaigning […] we successfully expressed the overwhelming support of PhD international students for the reduction of international fees to domestic rates,” reads a letter by the ISWG addressed to Principal Patrick Deane, Provost Mark Green, and Dean of the SGS, Fahim Quadir.

“We also thought the university […] would address this pressing problem with due diligence. However, we are deeply dismayed by the lack of transparent communication, concrete efforts and actions.” 

Concerns similar to those raised by the ISWG have been growing at other Ontario universities, like Western University and the University of Toronto. 

While the SGS site points domestic students to federal financial support such as Employment Income or the Canada Emergency Student Benefit if they’re unable to afford continuing their graduate studies as a result of COVID-19, no specific supports for international students are publicized.

Currently the site reminds students they “have the option to withdraw from [their] program and apply for readmission.”

“You have to leave your field work, leave your family, and put yourself at risk to come back to Kingston”

Many of Sahin and Revi’s colleagues received emails throughout late August and early September notifying them of the new requirement, which they said is discriminatory.  

“It is commonly known that international students who do field work in the summer and are away for a couple of months will always receive employment when they return [to university],” Revi said. 

The ISWG founders described panic among students who relied on income from TA and RA positions to fund their education. Revi said the combined circumstances of the pandemic and the late notice made returning to Canada difficult.

“You have to leave your field work, leave your family, and put yourself at risk to come back to Kingston if you want employment.” 

Before being informed of the change, many students had already made arrangements to begin or continue their field work—a component required for graduation—outside of Canada.

While the SGS site provides safety guidelines for students travelling internationally, many felt uncomfortable and distressed in doing so, according to Revi and Sahin.

Sahin noted the puzzling nature of the situation, as the majority of programs are taking place remotely and most of her peers satisfy the requirements for Canadian employment.

“This barrier created, without declaration of reason, is hurtful.”

According to the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) 901, which represents unionized TAs and RAs at Queen’s, “International Graduate Students are temporary residents of Canada, with valid residential addresses in this country, Canadian bank accounts, and valid Social Insurance Numbers.”

“While we understand that there might be legal challenges to employing new or incoming International Graduate Students (who are yet to receive their SIN numbers), for ongoing students, this is not the case.”

“The COVID-19 virus has caused the world to come to a halt, but our international student workers should not be blamed for that.”

In an email to The Journal, Doug Yearwood, vice president (Community Affairs) for PSAC 901, wrote that the decision is “discriminatory.”

“International grad students are temporary residents of Canada who contribute to our local community in so many different ways. The COVID-19 virus has caused the world to come to a halt, but our international student workers should not be blamed for that.” 

“This policy, in effect, creates employment barriers for racialized students.

Revi noted that efforts by students to understand the rationale behind the decision haven’t turned up any clear answers, with departments themselves individually offering unclear or no explanations. 

“The reasons cited within departments is that SGS considers there are complications that arise within the jurisdictions international students may be residing in, but from no source has anyone been given concretely what these complications are and why they have not existed in the past.”

“Most international students are also racialized members of the Queen’s student community. This policy, in effect, creates employment barriers for racialized students.” 

Anthony Lomax, SGPS vice-president (Community) said in an email to The Journal that the SGPS believes “this decision was very poorly communicated by the University, especially given that the University’s practice has been to allow remote TA/RA work prior to this year.” 

“Many students will miss out on important employment opportunities, opportunities that were in some cases promised by departments in funding letters sent earlier this summer.”

“While this employment income is especially important for students given the current pandemic, these job opportunities are also vital for those wishing to secure future employment in academia when they complete their degrees.”

In an email to The Journal, Quadir, on behalf of SGS, mentioned fellowships as a possible funding solution for graduate students unable to fund their studies. 

“It is important to note that where international graduate students are not able to legally work in Canada, arrangements have been made to address funding shortfalls through fellowships applied to tuition […] The fellowships are for incoming international students who received a funding offer from Queen’s and are not physically present in Canada.” 

“It’s not respectful. It’s not very considerate.”

Sahin said the notion that legal complications may result from employing international students living outside of Canada lacked consensus. 

Other Ontario universities, like Carleton, have not implemented any similar restrictions on the employment of international students.

“Out of an anxiety, a fear of complications, [SGS] seems to be putting graduate students’ employment lives and academic lives at a strain […] It’s not respectful. It’s not very considerate. It shows the lack of care the University has for its international graduate student community.” 

“As accountable offices, they should be responsive. They should be open. They should be providing extensive explanations for policies that hurt people.” 

Yearwood added that international students are the most financially precarious of all student groups.

At Queen’s specifically, a 2019 School of Graduate Studies report found that international graduate students in the Humanities, after paying for university-related expenses, are on average left with a food budget of $22.60 per month. 

“After tuition fees and living expenses are spent, international graduate students barely have enough to sustain themselves in a dignified manner,” Revi said.  

“The University needs to do more for them during this time, and can start by offering them employment during COVID, regardless of their current place of residence,” Yearwood said.

When asked to comment on the decision to deny TA and RA employment to international graduate students living abroad, Quadir said the matter “sits outside the purview of the School of Graduate Studies and is currently the subject of a union grievance so it would not be appropriate to comment further.”  

On Oct. 15, a joint letter written by PSAC 901 and SGPS was sent to Quadir and Principal Deane asking they reverse the decision to deny international graduate students employment. 

The letter reads that “the abrupt decision to deny their employment in the middle of a pandemic was not only poorly communicated, but also discriminatory on the basis of immigration status and current location of residence.”

“We implore you to reverse this decision and begin to offer employment contracts to International Graduate Students regardless of their current place of residence.”


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