STORY CONTINUES BELOW THESE SALTWIRE VIDEOS
SYDNEY, N.S. — Sushant isn’t sure where he will live when he arrives in Sydney on Dec. 11.
Like many people from India and other international countries coming to study at Cape Breton University starting the winter term, Sushant hasn’t found a place to rent.
And he knows how bad the housing situation is in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality.
“There are no private rooms for us. It’s all sharing, two people or more to a room,” said Sushant, 24, or Northern India.
“I have some leads and I think within a week I will finalize details with the owner. I hope.”
Highest enrolment ever for CBU
Overall enrolment down at CBU
Sushant was accepted into a CBU post-baccalaureate diploma program in February and paid for one-year tuition by end of March. This is required to get the documentation needed to apply for a study visa, which Sushant did in July.
At the end of September, Sushant received his study visa approval and booked his flight — non-refundable — which cost 1.8 lakh rupees (about $3,000 CAD).
In October, he started looking for accommodations but has had no luck. He has “some leads” right now and is hopeful they’ll work out. But he’s still in limbo.
This month, the university sent all students an email advising them to defer the term if they don’t have accommodations by Dec. 15.
“That email, it was quite harsh,” he said.
Sushant isn’t planning to defer his studies if he doesn’t have a place in the CBRM by that date. His backup plan is to stay with a cousin in Moncton and find accommodations before classes start Jan. 9.
The uncertainty isn’t easy and Sushant is worried speaking publicly about the challenges he’s facing might cause repercussions from CBU. Because of this, the Cape Breton Post is not providing Sushant’s full name.
“I think there should be some sort of limit to the number of offer letters they give out (to international students),” he said. “So it’s not 500, 600 in one intake.”
Earl O’Neil has been a landlord for decades, taking over the family’s rental properties from his father.
For at least the past month, O’Neil has been getting as many cold calls for rental vacancies daily as he used to get in a year.
“I am getting, on average, five or six unsolicited calls every day now, when I don’t have anything posted available. It used to be I’d get that in a year,” he said.
“I had a girl who called me, a former tenant actually, who called me from India. Her and her three friends have tickets for Dec. 23 and no place to live when they arrive. She started crying and saying ‘we’ll take anything you got.'”
Not only does O’Neil not have any vacancies, he is no longer taking a waiting list because for each unit that becomes available he gets dozens of applications and multiple that meet approval.
“I was one of the landlords at a breakfast meeting at CBU in September, there were about 20 landlords, and we were told to expect 1,100 new students in winter and if we could help with housing,” he said.
“We all looked at each other and said I don’t know where they are going to live. There’s nothing here. There is one per cent vacancy rate … I think it’s very irresponsible to recruit people, bring these kids in by the plane load and not have the resources to support them.”
CBU Students’ Union president Damanpreet Singh has heard from many students regarding the lack of housing and difficulty finding work. Even before winning the presidential slate last election, Singh was helping other students find accommodations.
He posted a note on the CB International Community Facebook page urging new students to research CBU and the area before coming.
“I wanted to (make it) aware to all the students, please think twice, thrice before coming to Sydney because it’s a very small town,” he said, noting both housing and jobs can be hard to find.
Along with speaking with MPs, MLAs and municipal councillors about the lack of housing for students, Singh has spoken with university administration and the president.
“There are projects they are working on to (address) the housing problem but these will take some time. But what will happen to those students who are in Sydney now and those who are trying to come?” he said.
“It is very bad here. This is why I just want to (make) aware that please do not come (without taking) your time to research on that. And again, I want to say to CBU, please put a cap on enrolment until they have the proper infrastructure.”
Gordon MacInnis, CBU vice-president, finance and operations, said one of the objectives of the university’s strategic enrolment management plan is to address enrolment numbers — both programs where targets aren’t being met and areas where numbers are higher than anticipated.
The masters of business program and the health sciences diploma are two areas where enrolment has dropped. However, the demand for the post-baccalaureate programs from international students continues to grow.
“The post-baccalaureate program isn’t an international one but about 99.9 per cent of all applicants come from international students,” he said.
“We are trying our best to accommodate these students … physical space is one problem which is why we have an agreement with Cineplex to have classes there for the next few years. We are working very hard to get the space at CBU to bring these students back to campus.
Enrolment numbers are a bit higher than pre-pandemic times for the 2022-2023 academic year. The fall 2019 session had 5,578 while this September intake saw 5,883 (a number that could change if students dropped out this term).
MacInnis said for the winter session they are expecting a minimum of 300 new students for January intake and a maximum of 700. People deferring their program start due to no accommodations is one variable that could affect enrolment numbers over registration.
MacInnis called the high enrolment numbers for 2022-2023 an “anomaly” caused by the number of students who needed to defer during the COVID-19 pandemic due to things like travel restrictions. They anticipate this could last for two years.
While CBU offers tuition refunds to international students whose study visas aren’t approved, there is no refund for students who can’t find accommodations in time for the start of class.
“We don’t want to be seen as an easy way to get into the country,” he said. “We are very committed to being a strong educational institution to the students and want them to be committed to us.”
International students make up the bulk of the university’s population this year: 3,976 students which is 72 per cent. MacInnis said it’s helped them through the challenging times of the pandemic even though there are some risks.
However, CBU is dedicated to continuing to work hard to accommodate the demand and make the university experience as good as it can be for both domestic and international students.
For Sushant, he is keeping a positive outlook and focusing on working hard once he arrives in Cape Breton to build a life in Canada.
“I have prepared my mind,” he said “I have extra skills and am very confident that I can find a job and I can survive in Sydney.”
Nicole Sullivan is a diversity and education reporter, who sometimes covers the health beat, with the Cape Breton Post.
Ensure local journalism stays in your community by purchasing a membership today.
Black Friday Sale! News your way for only $10/ a year
Black Friday Sale
News your way
UNLIMITED DIGITAL ACCESS