As Maria Tomaz and her family prepared to uproot from their home in Brazil so the 40-year-old could pursue a diploma at Camosun College, the global pandemic unravelled all their plans, which had been two years in the making.
The mother of two was supposed to start her post-degree diploma in business administration at the college in May, but the family’s April flight was cancelled when COVID-19 closed borders.
Tomaz, who was working as a marketing manager for a start-up company, had already told her employer, her landlord and her children’s school that the family would be leaving Belo Horizonte, the sixth-largest city in Brazil, for a new life in Victoria.
After months of uncertainty and the added expense of paying for a second flight, Tomaz, her husband Rauber Simoes and their children, 10-year-old Tomas and five-year-old Maria Flor, flew to Victoria in July — a 48-hour journey with stops in São Paulo, Toronto and Vancouver. Now she’s ready to start her Camosun classes online.
“It’s a huge change for us,” Tomaz said. “It was a long journey, but we are so happy now.”
Tomaz is one of thousands of international students starting at post-secondary institutions across Vancouver Island this week, some studying online from their home countries and some studying here. Most B.C. universities and colleges are offering their courses remotely, with only limited in-person instruction for lab work, graduate research and experiential learning.
Island universities and colleges are expecting a decline in international students due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, which has led some institutions to lay off staff and trim costs.
Tomaz and her family were allowed into Canada — with a mandatory 14-day quarantine — because her study permit was issued before March 18. International students who did not have a study permit before that date have not been allowed into the country, which university administrators say is a large factor behind the drop in student enrolment.
The University of Victoria is expecting 3,463 international students for the fall term, compared with 3,837 registered for courses in fall 2019. However, the university said on a full-time equivalent basis — which is based on a full course load — total international student enrolment is less than one per cent lower than last year while domestic enrolment is up by about 1.5 per cent. International undergraduate students make up 12 per cent of the student population but, because they pay much higher tuition, their fees account for 35 per cent of the university’s tuition revenue.
“Overall enrolment for both domestic and international students are only modestly lower than the 2019 fall term,” Kristi Simpson, associate vice-president, financial planning and operations, said in a statement. Simpson noted that students are still making decisions about classes, so enrolment could change significantly.
At Camosun College, 1,300 international students are enrolled for the fall term, a 19 per cent decline from the 1,600 students enrolled during the same time last year.
“Overall, it’s a relatively small drop,” said Geoff Wilmshurst, Camosun’s vice-president of partnerships. “We did have a large number of students who didn’t go home [when the pandemic hit], so that’s why our numbers haven’t dropped too much.”
International students make up 15 per cent of Camosun’s student body. This year, there are 7,250 domestic students at Camosun, which is comparable to last fall.
Financial pressures led the college to temporarily shut down its Continuing Education Department, laying off eight people. About 50 people were laid off from the bookstore, food services and other services that are not used when most students are studying online.
At Royal Roads University, a 20 per cent decline in international students has been offset by an uptick in domestic enrolment, said university president Philip Steenkamp. The university, which doesn’t operate on the typical semester system but has a rolling intake of students, is expecting 1,100 international students in the fiscal year 2020-21, compared to 1,375 last year, Steenkamp said. International students make up between 20 and 25 per cent of the student body at Royal Roads.
However, overall enrolment is down by just six per cent due to the increase in enrolment from Canadian students, Steenkamp said. That translates into a $2-million revenue hit for the university, which has a budget of about $70 million.
The university has done some cost-cutting and re-deployment of staff, but has not laid anyone off.
“The commitment I made is that we would not lay anyone off and we’ve not laid anyone off,” Steenkamp said. “My view on all of this is that we need to build a bridge that gets our whole community from one side of this pandemic to the other side safely.”
Vancouver Island University has seen a 31 per cent drop in international student enrolment, with 1,199 students this academic year compared to 1,744 last year, said Carol Stuart, provost and vice-president academic. There’s also been a nine per cent decline in enrolment for domestic students, with 7,760 students this year compared to 8,339 last year.
Stuart said the decline in tuition revenue is coupled with increased expenses such as enhanced cleaning and the installation of Plexiglas for classes where there will be face-to-face contact. VIU has laid off about 50 full-time-equivalent positions in ancillary services such as the bookstore and food service, and staff at the English Language Centre.
Since August, Camosun College has been providing a weekly food hamper program to students in need, many of whom lost their jobs in the service industry and are facing limited employment opportunities. Each week, Camosun volunteers deliver about 30 hampers, which contain fresh prepared meals and hygiene products.
For Tomaz, now living with her family in an apartment in Royal Oak as her children start school at Prospect Lake Elementary, the food basket was a welcome gesture after months of stress and thousands of dollars worth of flights.
“It’s something that shows that you are not alone. You feel, oh, it was difficult to get here but I have support.”