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Ukrainians who fled war facing thousands in international student fees

Polina Gaga remembers how excited she was to receive her admission letter from Carleton University earlier this month.

But the 17-year-old said her excitement quickly turned to dismay when she realized how much she was being billed.

“When I opened my letter, it was saying that estimated tuition for one year for my program is around $32,000 to $47,000,” Gaga said. “I was really shocked and sad at that moment, and I was really confused what to do next.”

Just over a year ago, Gaga fled war in her home country to arrive in Ottawa with a visa under the Canada-Ukraine authorization for emergency travel (CUAET). At the time, she said she did not expect to stay in Canada for more than a few months.

“I was planning to go to one of the greatest technological universities in Ukraine,” she said. “I had planned my future very well … I was already looking forward for my future job, my future friends, my future apartment.”

As the war escalated, Gaga said it became apparent she would not be going back. She enrolled at Hillcrest High School to complete Grade 12 and set her heart on studying information technology at Carleton University.

She soon learned that pursuing her dream would come at a high cost.

‘Difficult for us’

Ukrainians like Gaga with a visa under CUAET are not considered refugees. Unlike people with refugee status, who would typically be considered domestic students, they must pay international student fees to pursue an education in Canada.

Domestic students are usually billed about $7,000 to $9,000 per year of studies. Tuition fees for international students, on the other hand, typically range from about $25,000 to $40,000 per year, depending on the program of study and the university.

Gaga said when she received her admission letter, she double-checked with Carleton and the school confirmed she would need to pay international student fees.

The only financial support Gaga is receiving from the university, she said, is a $4,000 scholarship awarded based on her grades.

Still, Gaga said she’s determined to get her degree and is currently working part-time at Starbucks, with plans to take on two more jobs in the summer to fund her education. She added her mother has a small amount of savings which will also go toward her tuition.

“It will be really difficult for us,” she said, “[But] I’m ready to try my hardest to stay here and to pay those fees.”

A phone screen showing part of an admission letter.
Gaga says she was excited to receive her letter of admission from Carleton University, pictured here. Her excitement quickly turned to shock when she realized how expensive her tuition fees were going to be. (Avanthika Anand/CBC )

‘Way too expensive’

For Marina Mokretska, 33, attending a Canadian university is simply not possible.

“It’s way too expensive and I can’t afford it right now,” she said.

Mokretska fled to Canada from her native Kyiv this winter with her infant child and husband, leaving behind her 10-year career as a lawyer.

When she arrived, Mokretska said she immediately began looking into the process of having her law degree recognized in Canada.

A woman in front of a building.
Marina Mokretska arrived in Canada just over two months ago, on a CUAET visa. She says she can’t afford international tuition fees to study in Canada. (Avanthika Anand/CBC)

Mokretska said she learned she would have to take several university courses on Canadian law, as well as pass exams administered by the National Committee on Accreditation (NCA) to receive a certificate of qualification that would allow her to apply for a law society bar admission.

Mokretska said while the fees for taking the NCA exams are expensive, she was most disappointed when she saw the price tag on university courses for international students.

“It broke my hope,” she said. “It’s just not feasible for me.”

As a result, Mokretska said she’s putting off her education and accreditation process “indefinitely” and is looking for “survival jobs” to help support her family.

“I hope I will manage to come back to my legal dreams,” she said.

Lack of support for Ukrainian students 

The lack of support for Ukrainians wanting to pursue higher education puts them in an “awful” position and can lead to a “waste” of talent, according to executive director of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress Ihor Michalchyshyn.

“We’ve invited people to come flee to Canada, but they’re essentially stuck because there’s no way that they’re able to pay that kind of money,” he said.

Michalchyshyn added provincial governments and post-secondary institutions across Canada need to do more to support Ukrainians wanting to pursue higher education.

In an email, Carleton University said it has reached out to students with Ukrainian citizenship to provide resources and is offering “support with areas such as financial assistance, living accommodations, academics, and immigration advising … on a case-by-case basis.”

A sign for Carleton University at a campus entrance.
Carleton University says it’s providing support ‘with areas such as financial assistance, living accommodations, academics, and immigration advising… on a case-by-case basis’ to Ukrainian students on a CUAET visa. (Danny Globerman/CBC)

The statement added the university is following the tuition and ancillary fees reporting operating procedure from the Ministry of Colleges and Universities.

That procedure permits post-secondary institutions to establish international student fees at levels they deem appropriate, with certain exemptions.

Carleton did not answer questions about whether it would consider changing its international student fee policy or making exceptions for Ukrainian students.

Earlier this month, Saskatchewan’s Minister of Advanced Education Gordon Wyant announced the province will spend $400,000 to accommodate Ukrainian students as domestic students.

Ontario’s Ministry of Colleges and Universities did not answer questions about what the province might do to help exempt Ukrainian students from international student fees.

In an email, a ministry spokesperson said the Ontario government provides almost $2 million annually available “to both domestic and international full-time and part-time students at publicly assisted institutions, who have been instructed to issue scholarships, prioritizing students impacted by the conflict in Ukraine.”

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