Thousands of university students from Saudi Arabia remain in Canada despite being ordered out of the country by their government last August, but planning is underway to mitigate the impact on Canadian universities when those students graduate and are not replaced.
The decision was the result of a diplomatic crisis that erupted when the Canadian government publicly urged Saudi authorities to release jailed women’s rights activists. The Saudi government responded by recalling its ambassador, ejecting Canada’s ambassador, halting some trade and investment, and cancelling its scholarship program.
The King Abdullah Scholarship program covers tuition and living expenses for Saudi students at universities around the world. When they finish their studies, graduates are expected to return to Saudi Arabia to help fill gaps in the labour market.
Data from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada shows that as of December 2018, when universities publicly report their enrolment, there were still 5,100 Saudi students studying at Canadian universities, compared to 7,620 in December 2017, prior to the diplomatic dispute.
Paul Davidson, president and CEO of Universities Canada, said many of the Saudi students, primarily medical students, graduate students and those nearing the end of their studies, were allowed to stay and keep their scholarships.
“Over the ensuing weeks, through really good effective dialogue, we had the opportunity to make sure the worst did not occur,” he said.
Additionally, students can continue to study in Canada if they have the ability to fund their own education and the appropriate study visas.
Saudi students speak out
One Saudi student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the past nine months have been the most difficult of his life. He is now paying his own way.
“We’re broke, and we used everything we have, everything we saved, everything we could borrow from friends… It was insanely hard,” he said, citing high university fees for international students.
He said the Saudi scholarship program previously provided $2,700 per student per month plus tuition and all other school fees, as well as an additional $1,600 per month if the student’s partner also came to Canada and more if they had children.
He said many of his friends transferred to schools in Australia and New Zealand, but their credits weren’t always transferable and some were forced to start over in first year.
He said some who returned to Saudi Arabia were interrogated at the airport.
“If they find anything, they could put them in jail,” he said.
Another Saudi student, whose identity we are also protecting, is still in Canada but has not been able to continue studying. He has since gained refugee status, with hopes of being able to work and save enough money to eventually return to university. He said his safety would be in jeopardy if he returned to Saudi Arabia after being critical of the Kingdom.
“Those are really evil people and they are the real terrorists in the world,” he said of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and King Salman.
Impact on Canadian education and healthcare
The cancellation of the scholarship program caused chaos and concern for many Canadian universities.
Mount Saint Vincent University in Nova Scotia estimates the unplanned departure of most of its sponsored Saudi students resulted in a loss of $900,000 in anticipated revenue. Saint Mary’s University in Halifax estimates a loss of $740,000 in tuition alone.
Universities such as McGill and Dalhousie, which have medical schools, have been less affected. McGill had 310 Saudi students last year and still had 277 as of January 2019. Dalhousie had 223 Saudi students in 2018 and 115 at the start of this year.
Dr. Mark Taylor, vice-president of medicine for the Nova Scotia Health Authority, oversees the province’s program for medical residents. While the impact of the Saudi decision was not as significant as originally believed, he said it exposed the program’s vulnerability.
“We initially thought we were going to suddenly lose all of them and that would have been catastrophic because we simply would have had to scramble to find some way of providing the ongoing care that our patients require,” said Taylor.
The Saudi government is not expected to sponsor any new students in Canada when current students complete their programs.
Paul-Émile Cloutier, president and CEO of HealthcareCAN, which bills itself as the national voice of healthcare organizations and hospitals across Canada, said if the rapid withdrawal of Saudi medical trainees had occurred, there would have been a “major impact” on waits for specialized care, as serious healthcare staff shortages continue across the country.
Mitigating the impact
Taylor said Nova Scotia has added six provincially funded positions for Canadian residents and six more will be added each year. Additionally, the health authority is exploring having other providers such as nurse practitioners and clinical assistants help fill the role of residents.
Davidson called the Saudi situation a “wake-up call” and urged universities to diversify.
Even before the cancellation of the scholarship program, the number of Saudi students in Canada had been declining since its peak of 14,155 in 2011.
The 2019 federal budget pledged $148 million over five years toward a new International Education Strategy.
In a statement, Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Sylvain Leclerc said: “Canada welcomes the contribution of Saudi students to the education and healthcare sector and we hope that many will continue to choose to study at Canadian universities.”
One of the Saudi students CBC spoke with said he is unable to continue with a full course load because he can’t afford the fees.
“It’s a political issue,” he said of the Saudi government’s decision to suspend scholarships. “Don’t involve students and people who are trying to study and make a living. We have nothing to do with all of that.”