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Cape Breton U tripled its international recruitment. Students say they pay the price

Cape Breton University, nestled in the coastal community of Sydney, has witnessed a significant surge in its international student recruitment over the last five years. This surge, however, has led to a host of challenges for both the students and the local community.

From 2019 to 2020, the university's push to attract international students tripled, creating a situation where the town found itself ill-equipped to accommodate the influx. The consequences were severe: a scarcity of housing and job opportunities, overloaded public transportation, and services stretched beyond capacity. Navy Nguyen, a 24-year-old student from Vietnam, emphasized that international students ended up bearing the brunt of these challenges, all while facing double the fees paid by their Canadian counterparts.

Federal Immigration Minister Marc Miller's recent decision to reduce new visas for international students by more than one-third aims to address the housing pressure. However, students argue that capping admissions isn't the solution; rather, systemic problems exposed by the high number of admissions should be addressed.

Figures obtained through access to information legislation reveal a significant increase in recruitment agents hired by Cape Breton University – from 53 in 2018 to 179 in 2020. Despite a subsequent reduction in agents, the international student population has skyrocketed from 1,982 in 2018 to nearly 7,000, constituting three-quarters of the university's total population.

The university's revenue doubled during this period, reaching $139.5 million in 2021. International students contribute approximately $20,000 each year in tuition and fees. However, this financial success has strained the local community. Jobs have become scarce, and students are crowded into rentals, some in need of repair.

The transportation system, particularly public buses between Cape Breton towns, is overwhelmed. Students are forced to live farther away, navigating rural bus schedules and enduring long commutes. Some resort to living in their cars due to housing shortages or make the lengthy drive from Halifax to Cape Breton.

Amid challenges, international students face racism and xenophobia, but they also bring vitality to the region. Residents like Murdoch Moore, 76, and his wife Lynn, 69, see them as a blessing, shoveling snow with their international student friends during a recent storm. Moore dismisses the notion that international students are taking jobs, emphasizing their contribution to the region, particularly in healthcare.

Omon Iyoriobhe, a 28-year-old student from Nigeria, expressed concern about the federal government's two-year cap on study permits, suggesting it doesn't consider the unique circumstances of Cape Breton. He highlights the symbiotic relationship between international students and the community, as they receive Canadian education and provide an economic boost to the struggling region.

Nguyen emphasizes the need for adequate government support for post-secondary education to prevent schools from relying on international students as "cash cows." Despite the challenges, she envisions contributing to the community's development through volunteering and non-profit work after graduating in May.