Cashing in on foreign students -

Cashing in on foreign students

Public schools that recruit high-paying international students create, some say, a two-tier system

Cashing in on foreign students

Simon Hayter

Last year, Patricia Gartland, who works for a suburban Vancouver school district, brought in $16 million selling 1,700 B.C. classroom spots to foreign students, largely from China and South Korea. Gartland, who started her job as director of international education with the Coquitlam School District in suburban Vancouver over 10 years ago, has made the program in Vancouver one of the most extensive in Canada and the envy of the scores of districts across the country looking to cash in on the growing market for international students.

With international students paying $10,000 to $14,000 to attend Canadian schools, public school administrators across the country are setting up for-profit international student programs to compete for their dollars. One 2009 study estimated some 35,000 foreign students in the K-12 system contribute almost $700 million annually to the Canadian economy—a win-win for students, who get an invaluable leg-up when applying to North American post-secondary schools, as well as district administrators, who make up to 50 per cent profit on the tuition.

International student programs aren’t new to Canada, but at the K-12 level they’re rarely talked about, although most provinces have had programs for at least a decade. No province has been more successful at bringing in international students than B.C., with some 9,000. Capitalizing on the demand for a Western diploma and an English-language education, B.C. schools compete with Britain, the U.S. and Australia to recruit students overseas. School districts send staff abroad to meet foreign school officials and to attend trade shows. Domestically, the districts liaise with the Lower Mainland’s tight-knit Chinese and Korean communities, looking for overseas relatives. Once in Canada, the students live with extended family or billets. The students are offered supplementary language classes in tandem with regular studies, though eventually most opt for the standard curriculum.

B.C. has offered an international student program since the ’80s, but recruitment intensified after 2001, according to the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, when the government made cuts to the education system. “School boards were short $275 million,” says BCTF president Susan Lambert. New legislation, she says, “encouraged them to find alternative sources of funding.” In 2002, Gordon Campbell’s Liberal government passed the School Amendment Act; the bill, seen by some academic experts as a move to embrace a marketized version of public education, cast school districts as business corporations, they say, and parents and students as consumers. By 2007-08, international student enrolment in B.C. peaked at 9,500 students, with an associated revenue of $129 million. But critics say that what’s emerging is a two-tier public education system that punishes the districts that need the most help.

Larry Kuehn, research director at BCTF, reports international student programs exacerbate existing inequalities in the public system by making the richest districts—those that can afford to invest in overseas recruitment—richer, and leaving poorer districts in the dust. Ultimately, says Kuehn, the programs are outside equalization factors in the provincial funding system built to circumvent such wealth disparity. Take Coquitlam, Gartland’s school board, where international student money has kept enrolment high and schools open, and afforded new development opportunities for staff and “very robust” student services, including a Confucius classroom and the first bilingual Mandarin kindergarten class in the province. “I’m wondering at the irony of an education system that says if you’re a for-profit school we’re not going to give you any funding at all but as a public school we’re going to allow you to sell to foreigners,” says Peter Cowley, education policy researcher at the Fraser Institute. “We have seen school districts in B.C. establishing for-profit companies.”

The B.C. Ministry of Education, however, rejects the notion that district inequality is an issue. “Each district has the choice of whether to offer such programs,” wrote B.C. Education Minister George Abbott in an email to Maclean’s. “Our school districts have both the autonomy and the responsibility for international student programs.”

So the districts that can recruit international students hope to emulate Coquitlam or West Vancouver, where foreign students bring in the equivalent of 16.4 per cent of its operating budget. It may not be the traditional portrait of public education, but it could be the future. In Ontario, for example, the number of international secondary students increased by six per cent between 2007-08 and 2009-10.

Back in Coquitlam, Gartland is developing student markets outside of Asia. But for now, she’s sanguine. “Suddenly everyone understands all the great benefits of this,” says Gartland. “Our mayor of Coquitlam says our program is bigger than the casino.”


Cashing in on foreign students

  1. High tuition fees charged foreign students do not generate “profits”, nor take seats away from Canadian students.
    The K-12 system has apparently lifted a page from BC colleges. Since the 1980’s, BC community colleges have hired additional instructors and open extra classrooms using the fees charged to foreign students, and made extra seats in the additional classes available to Canadian students – seats they would not otherwise be able to fund.
    In fact, properly managed, the foreign student revenue opens more seats for Canadian students. 
    I’ts still the case that Canadian college and university tuition fees cover only about a quarter to a third of the actual cost of providing their education – the remainder comes from “government” – you and me.
    Not only the teachers and profs get paid.  So do the support staff in registration, library, campus maintenance and security, administration, and people who assist disabled students, First Nations students and sexual harassment offices, fund-raising and other special functions. Schools and colleges also pay ever higher technology hardware, software and maintenance, utitility and library acquisition costs.
    Parents are forever demanding that more money go into the K-12 system, as enrolments decrease each year. There’s an alarming disconnect between rising costs and falling enrolments.

    • I think you are absolutely right about there being nothing to fear about bringing foreign students into Canada to attend K-12.  Given that the law requires the provincial governments to provide an education for Canadian youngsters, there is no threat that these students will take spots away from Canadian children.   Further, it might make school boards more cognizant of where they are spending their money….on teachers instead of fancy new office buildings because no foreign students are going to line up for over-crowded classrooms.
      One trend that I find alarming however, is the practice of providing residency experiences for foreign-educated doctors in Canadian universities/hospitals and then sending them back to their own countries.  While it is true that these individuals and their countries are paying high fees, this practice limits the amount of spaces available for Canadian residents to train.  Knowing that Canada has a shortage of family doctors, I think this is very problematic.

  2. At my high school the foreign students were supposed to speak English on campus but they didn’t. They’d clump up in the middle of hallways talking their own language. Several times I went up to them and said Hi but they’d laugh and talk back in their language. Pretty obvious no one was trying to assimilate but the foreign students were there to pay the school board’s bills for salaries and paper and electricity.  And I also got the sense coming to Canada was just a vacation with minimal learning more than anything for these groups of students from elsewhere. The ones I saw over a few years made no attempt to fit in.

  3. I had a couple of foreign students in my class in grade 12.  The one fellow was brilliant in math, he was always pointing out errors the teacher made in calculus.  His English however was very limited.
    Naturally, he stayed close to his classmate who was from his country and spoke his language.  This mathematics genius did not pass the basic English exam that is required of all students who want to attend the University of Alberta.  He went to work in a relative’s restaurant.  I think we have to try to put ourselves in the shoes of these young students.  If you had gone to China as a teenager, what do you think the culture shock would have been like?  Do you think you would have easily assimilated?  I think I might have stayed close to other Canadians. 

  4. The problem is proper school funding. The International School programs are there to make up for a lack of funds. No doubt, they help create more classes to which Canadian students will have a place but they also can significantly alter classroom chemistry, especially during oral presentations which, are painful to both them and our students, but important in humanities. 

    Anglophone Canadian students, as well as their teachers, are excluded from their conversations, which are for obvious reasons, in Chinese or Korean. From the teacher’s perspective, their papers are hard to read due to pigeon English and they frequently look for extra help largely due to language issues. Grades are very important to them and some frequently cheat or plagiarize their papers more so than Canadian students, but that can also be true of new immigrant students.

    A number of them are in these programs because they didn’t get into the schools of their parent’s choices at home. Their experience can be lonely and isolating and of course they seek cultural comfort from their peers by creating distinct groupings within the school. Canadian students have become accepting of them in their classes and supportive of their struggles. The International students often bring out their cultural traditions to celebrate their presence, such as Korean students performing drumming exhibitions, Asian New Year’s celebrations, food tastings, etc. As a culturally diversified society, their experience can help other new Canadian students to be more open as to their origins. They are also supported by an extensive both in and out of school programs for tutoring and home stay to help them succeed. 

    Are they being exploited? To some degree, yes, they are. They have been led to believe that our schools are easily capable of achieving their, or parent’s goals, of quick language acquisition and high school credits for college or university entrance. Not so. Many fail core b.c. core curriculum areas such as social studies or English arts where language is key, unlike perhaps math or physics. As a result, they have tutors doing their homework and writing their papers.

    No doubt, there is a benefit on both sides. We garner more funds for our programs and they become, to some degree, acculturated to our society and way of life and their lives will have been affected by their experience in our schools, which are quite incredible in their achievements. As an aside, many are in disbelief at the attitudes of our students, the obnoxious behaviours of some, the poor work ethic of many and the frequent open display that education is more of a bother than a need. In that area, these students are impressive by their work ethic and determination to succeed. Many truly shame our students in that regard. 

    However, schools should not be cash strapped and depend of foreign students or the vending machines to fund their programs. Governments need to rethink funding sources.