Lise de Montbrun was a teenager in Trinidad when Canadian university recruiters descended on her high school. Armed with pamphlets and descriptions of Canadian campus life, they wooed de Montbrun and others to come study up north. “I didn’t need much convincing,” said de Montbrun, now a 22-year-old architecture student at Toronto’s Ryerson University. It seems more young people around the world are thinking the same way.
Lucrative international students are flocking to Canada in record numbers–almost doubling in the last decade–as universities woo them to bolster their shrinking budgets. The number of international students in Canada has ballooned from 97,300 in 1999 to just over 178,000 in 2008. One-quarter of those students are in Ontario while the majority settle in large cities like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
Canada drew de Montbrun from the very beginning. Since Trinidad didn’t offer architecture programs, de Montbrun knew she would have to study abroad. Now, she said she’s earning a degree which is internationally valued, all the while being exposed to a different country and culture. But, she’s paying for it. Since most provinces deregulated tuition fees, post-secondary institutions can charge international students more than three times the fees Canadian students pay. In de Montbrun’s first year, she was paying $14,000 in tuition. Now, her annual bill is closer to $17,000.
“Every year, it increases,” she said. “The university can increase it at any rate they want.”
As belts tighten on campus, post-secondary institutions are increasingly keen to tap into the international students revenue stream. Robert White, senior policy analyst for international affairs with the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, said there are more international students looking for education away from home. He said universities are increasingly competing for the best and the brightest, recognizing that those students don’t always have a Canadian passport.
“(With) the ease of travel and, greater prosperity across the world, the potential for going and studying outside of their home country has just grown,” he said. “We’ve benefited from that.” But the increasing reliance on students like de Montbrun has many concerned. While some say international students are just a Band-Aid solution to chronic underfunding, others worry the growing population could cause universities to lower their academic standards.
David Robinson, associate executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said relying on such “cash cows” brings its own set of challenges. Some have difficulty with English or basic academic skills like essay writing. And given the desperately needed cash the students provide, Robinson said there have been cases where the administration is reluctant to uphold academic standards by expelling or failing such lucrative students.
“To expel those students means you are essentially cutting off a potential supply of revenue,” said Robinson, pointing to Australia where about one-quarter of students come from outside the country. “If we end up in a situation where we’re going to become more dependent upon the revenue streams international students provide, it does create potentials for conflict of interest where academic values may conflict with commercial values.”
Others worry Canada is limiting education to all but the wealthiest of international students while relying on them as a stop-gap measure. Katherine Giroux-Bougard, chair of the Canadian Federation of Students, said international students can bring much-needed diversity to Canadian campuses but the increasingly steep tuition is putting that experience out of reach for all but a few. Universities are also quick to bring international students here but don’t provide them with much financial assistance once they arrive, she said.
“The fundamental problem is . . . a lack of funding for institutions in Canada since the 1990s,” she said. “Trying to attract international students and charging higher fees, is really a Band-Aid solution to a much greater problem.”
The Canadian Press