In the wake of a diplomatic dispute that broke out between Canada and Saudi Arabia last month, the Saudi government cut funding from students at Canadian post-secondary institutions, including McMaster University. While the university has offered to support affected students, it is unclear what this assistance entails and how much it is actually alleviating the situation.
McMaster has just under 200 Saudi students, with roughly 150 enrolled in the faculty of health sciences and 40 in other programs. The students who have been particularly affected are those studying in Canada via the King Abdullah Scholarship, a government program that funds students’ tuition, medical insurance, living costs and airfare.
Medical residents are in a safer spot, temporarily being allowed to remain in Canada until they find arrangements outside of the country. However, many students are still being forced to leave by Sept. 22.
“McMaster University is working to provide assistance to students following the sudden announcement made by Saudi Arabia over the weekend,” read part of a statement released by McMaster Daily News on Aug. 7. “Students who may be impacted by this change may reach out to the office of international student services or the faculty of health sciences.”
Despite the university’s call for students to seek out support from the institution, Sean Van Koughnett, the associate vice president (Students and Learning) and dean of students, did not offer specific information when asked what forms of assistance McMaster can provide.
“I tell students that the best thing to do is to come up with some sort of plan if possible with their faculty to see what can be done to help students in this situation,” said Ana Pereira, the ISS international students program administrator.
However, Pereira was unable to share details regarding the specific forms of support ISS can offer, citing the sensitive nature of the subject and the distinctions in individual cases.
The university’s lack of clarity about its capacity, according to Andrea Farquhar, the assistant vice president of communications and public affairs at McMaster, stems from its limited scope. For instance, while a Saudi student may obtain a leave of absence from the university, they could only do so if the Saudi government greenlights it.
In essence, the Saudi government has more control over students’ futures than the university does. However, the McMaster Daily News article does not highlight the university’s lack of control over the situation.
Khizar Siddiqui, a second-year engineering student at McMaster, came to Canada after studying in Saudi Arabia his whole life. It was only a day before he was supposed to fly to campus when the Saudi government suspended flights between the countries.
Although Siddiqui came to McMaster as a private student, not tied to funding from the government, he remains concerned that if diplomatic relations continue to sour, he will not be able to stay much longer.
“The university has encouraged students to ask for help if they need it. However, I’d be convenient if students were told what kind of assistance the university is actually able to provide so we could be aware of all our options on how to act,” said Siddiqui. “If Mac is offering help to Saudi Arabian students, I think they should do a better job of advertising their services.”
Siddiqui also believes that the university should be creating scholarships for international students, particularly those who’s funding could be stripped as a result of diplomatic strains.
Currently, international students at McMaster are not eligible for government loan services such as the Ontario Student Assistance Program and only qualify for the McMaster general bursary and merit-based scholarships.
“If diplomatic matters were to escalate between the two countries and Saudi Arabia were to call its citizens back from Canada, there's not much that could help me stay in Canada,” said Siddiqui.
Amid the diplomatic fallout and the university’s lack of clarity and control, many Saudi students remain less hopeful about a future in Canada.