Know Your Rights

The International Student Perspective on Prolonged Strikes

Being an international student in Quebec means you are required to be a full-time student every semester except the year you’re graduating in order to legally stay in the country—paying, by far, the highest tuition fees in the province.

As of next year, it could get even worse. If students decide to go on an indefinite general strike in 2012 over the winter semester, international students could stand to lose over $10,000 in tuition fees.

If the union holds the vote for a strike early enough and students drop out of winter classes in preparation for a strike semester, international students in support of the strike can choose to either take the hit and lose the semester, or to take the semester off and go back home.

As Nov. 10 approaches and students prepare to fill Montreal’s streets in protest of a $325 yearly increase for the next five years, international students can say they’ve done less for worse.

At Concordia, international students’ tuition has been increasing by 35 per cent a year since 2005-2006, including unannounced hikes for all international students. It increased by 50 per cent for John Molson School of Business graduate students in 2009.

Currently, tuition fees for undergraduate international students in Art & Sciences can be over $20,000.

With numbers this high, you would think international students would be the first to speak up against tuition hikes. But with more at stake than other students, they might be shy to come out and protest for fear of the consequences.

According to Nadia Hausfather, a Concordia graduate student and member of Free Education Montreal, a popular concern for international students is the loss of their study permits in the event of a prolonged strike.

“The only risk in terms of [losing their study permit] is if by chance a student had to renew their study permit during a strike,” she said, however. “If that happened they’d have to prove that it wasn’t their intent to join the strike, which they could easily do, so that’s very minimal.”

Another common misconception is that during an indefinite general strike, students wouldn’t be registered for classes.

“[Being registered] is the power that [students] have—if they lose a semester, the whole entire system would be delayed by one semester,” explained Hausfather.

“The whole point of [striking] is threatening the government with the risk of losing a semester. They will always threaten back that students will lose a semester. But of course neither students nor the government want to lose a semester.”

This means international students can keep their jobs if they have an off-campus work permit, but in terms of on-campus jobs, it would be up to each student and the general assembly voting for the strike to decide whether students want to keep working.

Another misconception about student strikes is that since students have a union, they have academic amnesty and their transcripts will not be affected.

“Other than a democratic vote and a resolution, there is nothing that legally protects students who are on strike—at all,” said Concordia Student Union President Lex Gill.
“A binding mandate from an accredited student association puts a significant amount of pressure on the university administration to accommodate that, but there’s no specific legal status to a student union that goes on strike.”

Concordia spokesperson Chris Mota said that a student strike, even if prolonged, would not change the university’s routine.

“It will be business as usual at Concordia. Professors will continue to teach and students will be expected to attend classes; all academic requirements of a course remain valid and students are expected to fulfill them.”

The same will apply for international students, even though the administration has not looked into the issue of legality of study and work permits.

Even more common is the misconception that students don’t have to pay student fees while on strike. For very pragmatic reasons, students are not asked to refrain from paying fees. “It’s hard to get everyone to not pay their fees, and then there is a huge consequence in terms of having to pay interest,” said Hausfather.

To international students afraid of losing a whole semester’s worth of fees, it can be helpful to look at Concordia’s participation in previous strike
s. Hausfather said that losing a semester is not something students should worry about.

“In the history of general unlimited strikes, students have never lost a semester,” she said. “Students who had flights booked [made] arrangements with their professors to be able to take their flight home and still finish their work. Usually the semester is prolonged for a little bit for people to catch up.”

Despite international students paying higher fees than Quebecers and Canadians, the proposed increase of $1,625 would be a much smaller proportion of international students’ tuition.

“I can understand the argument that [a general unlimited strike] would be perhaps less convincing to international students,” said Hausfather. “That being said, I know from international students that any increase—even $30—is really difficult, partly because they’re already paying so much extra.”

Concordia administration, however, isn’t buying the possibility of a prolonged strike come wintertime.

“There won’t be a prolonged strike,” said Mota. “From my experience, that has never been an issue at Concordia. When students do participate in a strike, it’s usually a one-day strike, in solidarity; I’ve been here for 18 years and I’ve never seen a prolonged student strike.”

Hausfather said she’d like to challenge students to prove Mota wrong. “Things are looking up,” she said. “It depends on Concordia students and their ability to not only think about their own education, but the role of education in the rest of society.”