Pandemic, loss of air service negatively impacting international students at CBU

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Cape Breton University had a long list of challenges it was facing. These included a rapidly growing student body, housing shortage and poor public transit. The pandemic has brought some temporary relief, but created other challenges. 

“If you see what Cape Breton was last year as opposed to right now, you won’t see many international students around,” says Amrinder Singh, former president of the Cape Breton University Students’ Union. “However, in the past, if you went anywhere, you’d see a bunch of students going here, there.” 

With all classes being done via remote learning, the campus is closed to the public and student services are available by appointment only. In-person classes are set to resume in May. 

The university’s student body is heavily dependent on international students. According to the university’s website, the school has about 3,500 students from more than 40 countries. In February, the federal government announced it was extending changes put in place earlier in the pandemic to allow international students to continue online learning from abroad. 

Singh says it’s unclear how many of the university’s roughly 6,000 students aren’t living locally due to the pandemic, but the number is significant. He says housing posts on such sites as Kijiji and Facebook from students seeking accommodations have been replaced by ones about vacancies.  

“Times have changed now, rents are coming down and rooms that were full are empty,” Singh says. 

During the peak of the housing shortage, Singh says rooms that once went for $300 a month were going for $700.  

“Renters were asking for so much money because they knew students didn’t have an option,” he says. 

To deal with the housing shortage, the university hired an off-campus housing coordinator to help students. CBU also purchased a former harness racing track in late 2019 with an eye toward redeveloping it for future student housing, Singh says. 

International student growth at CBU has been so significant that in 2019 Cape Breton’s population increased for the first time in 20 years.  

“In addition to the economic benefits resulting from CBU’s enrolment success, local services such as transit have improved, labour shortage gaps across the Island have been filled, communities have been infused with expanded cultural diversity and businesses have benefited from international perspectives,” university president David C. Dingwall said in an Oct. 28 press release. 

With air travel grinding to a near halt during the pandemic, airlines have been cutting back routes worldwide. Late last year, Air Canada and WestJet announced they would soon cease flying to the J.A. Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport.  

“Not only is the Sydney Airport crucial to the local area for economic and other reasons, for international students studying at CBU it’s an absolutely essential service,” Dingwall said in a Dec. 9 press release. “International students contribute more than $165 million to our local economy each year. If they cannot get to CBU that will have a major negative effect on our entire Island.” 

The university didn’t respond to interview requests from My Halifax Experience by deadline. 

Singh, who is from India, says having access to flights is important for international students. With the Sydney airport closed, this means students are having to fly through Halifax. Singh says the university has been using a shuttle van to help students travel between Halifax and Sydney. 

In Nova Scotia, the post-secondary institutions receiving international students have “oversight responsibility for them during their 14-day quarantine,” notes a provincial government document. This includes ensuring students have transportation from the airport. 

The rules around self-isolation have also been stricter and costlier for CBU international students because they must quarantine either in a school residence or an approved hotel at a cost of $1,200 or $1,800, respectively, Singh says. However, a Canadian student coming from outside Nova Scotia or P.E.I. can isolate wherever they wish. Singh calls this “very unfair” for international students. 

The university announced on Jan. 29 a 50 per cent subsidy on accommodations to help international students pay their quarantining costs. The university is expecting to spend $235,000 on this. 

CBU also announced a $180,000 COVID-19 bursary fund for domestic and international students, which includes a contribution of $40,000 from the student union. 

Singh says there’s room for improvement in how the university has addressed the challenges it faces. For example, he says international students shouldn’t have been billed for quarantining costs.  

“I think the university should have understood that these are the students that will be staying in Cape Breton and studying at CBU for the next two, three years and will be investing directly into the university, the area,” he says. 

Richard Woodbury

Richard Woodbury

Richard writes for both local and national publications and his work has been published by Reuters, Metro and Enterprise Magazine.

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