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  • Daniel Boutilier

House Hunters International

Updated: Sep 27, 2020

Sydney, N.S.

Daniel Boutilier

This September, approximately 1,000 new International Students will arrive on campus, over 700 of whom hail from India. Before classes had even begun, many of these students had their hands raised with the same question: where will we stay? With residence full and limited rental properties being advertised online, many students arrived to Canada for the first time without an idea of where they were going to be spending the night. What has been termed a ‘housing crisis’ by some has drawn a variety of responses, positive and negative, both at CBU and the within the local community.

international arrivals

In order to gain more insight on how this happened, and what steps are being taken to prevent it reoccurring in the future, I spoke with Eleanor Anderson, Director of Enrolment Services at CBU. When asked whether anyone anticipated the number of new students that would be arriving on campus, Anderson explained that “We [CBU] did some predictive modelling … we do it every year in preparation for budget. So the number that we came up with … that we were working towards, was 3,633, that’s how many students we thought would be on campus. We have now, as of today … we have beat that number by 200, 205.” She further explained that while this year the University has recruited over 700 new students from India, this is only the third year that they’ve been recruiting in that market, and as more data becomes available from year-to-year, the accuracy of the predictive modelling process will improve.

In order to study in Canada, International Students must complete a series of different steps which make predicting their number more difficult than students from Nova Scotia or elsewhere in Canada. Application, acceptance, tuition deposit, study visa, and travel arrangements – several different bureaucracies – all stand between a prospective student and their studies in Nova Scotia. This process can breakdown at any point, and while Anderson and her colleagues track the number of prospective students from week to week in order to advise Deans regarding class sizes, staffing, etc., Anderson acknowledges that this is an inexact science.

With regard to the potential for this to reoccur in the future, when international recruitment presently shows no sign of declining, Anderson states “I think that this fall has proven that we need a stronger and clearer communication plan with students.” Anderson also indicates that recent talks suggest a new off-campus housing coordinator will be hired under Doug Connors, the current Residence Manager, in order to act as a liaison between students and the community. While praising the local community for their responsiveness to the needs of new students, Anderson hopes their interest continues long past September. “What we’d really love is for the community to realize this as an opportunity … for those that do want to be landlords, and who are good are it … there’s a big opportunity here for the community to take hold of that.”

Student Council President Parteek Brar, himself an International Student from India, has been working long hours over the past few weeks to help students find suitable accommodations. Speaking to the Caper Times in his office, he had one such student waiting down the hall during our interview, and no doubt many more to speak with that evening. On what the Student Union is doing to help, Brar says”We have a student hired, part-time, they work 4-8 every day. We have our front desk open for extended hours, and they’re going to be working until September 14th on a temporary contract – just to man the phone, they’re making up the list of housing, posting it out to students … We’re trying to get them in touch with landlords.” September 14th is also the deadline to register for classes, meaning that any student arriving after that date, regardless of whether or not they have a place to stay, will not be able to attend CBU in the fall semester.

More than just employees are helping out with the housing crunch, however; I spoke with one Resident Assistant at CBU who, despite working and entering into his final year of study in Nursing, was volunteering what spare time he had to help find accommodation for students. Unfortunately what the Caper Times discovered, with his assistance, was that not everyone in the community has the student’s best interests at heart. He informed the Caper Times that he had spoken with an individual who claimed that “the international student coordinator” at CBU told him $700-750/month per bedroom as an acceptable rate to charge incoming students. Have a look at their conversation below:

While there is no position termed ‘international student coordinator’ at CBU, ICEAP, the International Centre for English Academic Preparation, an affiliate organization with offices and classrooms at CBU, does indeed charge $750/month per room for their home-stay program. This price, however, includes 3 meals a day. Additionally, ICEAP administration conducts home visits of those participating in the program, facilitates the arrangement between students and their new household, and structure fees in such a way that few participants view the program as a way to make money.

Caper Times spoke with the International Student and Study Abroad Centre at CBU, and the two international student advisors employed there, neither of whom had heard of the individual claiming to have received this $700-750 figure from CBU. They also indicated that they would never discuss what a landlord should charge or what a student should pay. Finally we spoke to the individual themselves, screenshots of which we’ve included below.

If basic economics hold, when demand increases without a concurrent increase in supply, the price goes up. At this point, as depressing as it is to say, $700/month for a room is not as outrageous a price as it would have been prior to August of this year. But it appears that even in our small community, some landlords are misrepresenting themselves and their properties in order to take advantage of students, students who are experiencing Canada for the first time.

With such exorbitant prices at play, there have even been rumours of students sleeping in the streets, and one instance where students claim to have seen a new arrival spending their night in Scotiabank, That being said, Caper Times was not able to track down anyone who could provide the name of a student who slept on the streets, or a student claiming to have done so themselves. There is also the question of why individuals who claim to have seen these students, obviously sympathetic to their difficulties, would not have reached out to them or put them in contact with the school administration for help. “If they’re not reaching out for help, there’s only so much the school, or students, can do.” says Brar. Nonetheless, these rumours are at the very least a strong expression of frustration with the lack of accommodation in the area, and perhaps a lack of communication on the realities of Cape Breton’s infrastructure.

As part of their recruitment strategy, CBU makes use of educational agents in countries such as India, whose job it is to connect students in-country with institutions abroad, as well as to facilitate the application process and help with other such arrangements. When asked whether or not these agents may have misrepresented CBU or life in the area, Anderson responded that “If we can find agents that are giving improper information, if we know it’s just a mistake we’ll correct it with the agent through training, but if they are misleading students we will cut them immediately. There is a zero tolerance policy for that. We do have a list of six agents, for example, that we heard were misleading students, so four of them will be gone [terminated], the other two we think are salvageable – that [their’s] is a mistake by new staff.” Anderson also encourages any student with information indicating an agent mislead them to contact CBU.

Going forward, Brar informed us that the Student Union has had conversations with the school about more on-campus residence options, but that for the largest growing demographic of students – residence may not be suitable: “Indian students are not comfortable with the North American diet, and many residence rooms come with a mandatory meal plan.” To his point, a room in an apartment-style dorm with the minimum meal plan works out to $831.25/month, but these are some of the more popular residence rooms and fill up quickly. The next-most affordable option, a double-room with a 5-day meal plan, is a significant jump to 1,118/month – quite a hefty price for someone who might still have to supplement their diet outside of the meal hall.

For Anderson’s part, she has not been privy to any conversations regarding the possibility of an additional residence, but cites the University’s current Strategic Planning Process as an important part of how the University will adapt to these new challenges. “[One thing] is we need an Enrolment Plan for the Institution. How big do we want to be? … Once we determine what that number is, we’ll have a better handle on how to prepare students and the community … As we grow, [we hope] that the community will adjust with us … The word I have right now is that we want to be around 4,000 students. By next year, we’ll be at four thousand students here.” While these challenges put a strain on personnel, resources, and students during an already stressful month, Anderson remains upbeat: ” There are more good stories than bad … having this many students – this quick – is a disruptor, it forces everything to work well together and expand, and I think that’s happening.”

President Brar, who himself began his studies in Canada just a few years ago, continues to be impressed by the local community. When asked if there is anything he would like people to know, he responded that “I get calls from people who are not even renting their houses, and there’s an international student … moving next door, and they want to go meet them, they want to welcome them, they want to buy stuff for the student just to make them feel like [they’re] home. And I’ve seen landlords who are renting out their place waiting at the airport for students to pick them up. That’s something really unique, and I know that’s something that would never happen in a bigger city like Toronto or Vancouver, that’s something really unique to Cape Breton, and I’d like to thank the community for that.”

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